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Archive for May, 2016

Some questions about the lost German Revolution-Ian Birchall

Posted by admin On May - 26 - 2016 Comments Off on Some questions about the lost German Revolution-Ian Birchall


It is not surprising that Tony Phillips has made a vigorous defence of the ­“classic” Socialist Workers Party position on the 1918-1923 situation in Germany.1 The argument is central to the SWP’s historical analysis. In order to argue that Leninism did not inevitably lead to Stalinism, it is necessary to show that there was an alternative. As Lenin and Trotsky were well aware, socialism could not be built within a single country, so it was necessary to spread the revolution. And Germany was the place where it seemed this could be achieved. So the possibility of revolution in Germany is a central component of the SWP theory of state capitalism, and has been asserted by SWP speakers and writers over the last half century. (I am not scoring points against anyone by saying this; I myself have put forward this analysis at many dozens of SWP meetings.)

Phillips is responding to the argument presented by John Rose at a Marxism meeting that in effect the revolution had been defeated by 1919.2 I have my own disagreements with Rose, but I welcome his efforts to look afresh at the historical experience and thus to enrich our understanding of the process.

It has to be said that there seems to be plenty of evidence to back up Phillips’s claim that a German revolution was possible right up to the autumn of 1923. For example, Victor Serge’s eyewitness reports from Germany in 1923 describe the impact of inflation and the French invasion of the Ruhr, strikes and hunger riots, the rise of the far-right and heated political debates among workers on the streets.3 If we had even a quarter of these factors to deal with we should undoubtedly consider we were living in a revolutionary situation.

Nonetheless I do not find Phillips’s account wholly convincing. Firstly, his argument is somewhat circular. He aims to defend the narrative presented by Pierre Broué and Chris Harman,4 yet virtually all his references are to…Broué and Harman. Now these two books are undoubtedly an important contribution and should be read by anyone hoping to understand the German Revolution. But Broué’s book was first published in 1971, Harman’s in 1982. There are a number of more recent publications which do not fundamentally challenge their case, but do at least invite us to reconsider aspects of it. Broué himself included new material on Germany in his history of the Comintern, not yet translated into English.5 David Fernbach’s collection of writings by Paul Levi and Frédéric Cyr’s biography of Levi add some new insights.6 Levi had all too obvious deficiencies as a leader, but he had a sharp political intelligence; he believed that by 1922 the revolutionary opportunity had been missed. And John Riddell’s scrupulous edition of the proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International casts a lot of light on the situation in the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Comintern.7

Secondly, Phillips’s account makes only passing reference to the March Action, although this disastrous venture caused enormous harm to the KPD. He also claims that by 1923 the KPD “had begun to recover” from the March Action.8 On Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten’s figures the KPD lost over half or perhaps two thirds of its members in 1921.9 On Harman’s figures (and in such a hectic period any membership figures must be approximations), the KPD grew by 38,000 in 1922 and 70,000 in 1923; about half of the 1921 losses.10 And even more important, its credibility with members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had been destroyed.11 It takes a long time to rebuild trust, and in 1923 when the KPD attempted to win unity in action with the left of the SPD, SPD members must undoubtedly have remembered 1921 and wondered how far they could trust the KPD.

Phillips concludes with a quotation from Leon Trotsky.12 Now Trotsky was one of the great Marxist thinkers of his generation, and it is always rewarding to read his work. But his work should not be used like a religious text to conclude an argument. Trotsky had not been in Germany. He had attended and taken part in the Third Comintern Congress where the situation of the KPD was debated heatedly; doubtless he talked to German comrades visiting Russia and to Karl Radek, who was deeply immersed in the activities of the KPD. But he was a busy man, dealing with many other problems. In no way can his comments be seen as a definitive judgment on the German situation.

In particular Trotsky juxtaposes “tactics” and “objective conditions”, claiming that only the former mattered in Germany. This does not seem to me to correspond to what we know about the situation in Germany, which had been shaped by “objective conditions” going back a couple of generations. Likewise Phillips makes a rather abstract separation of party and class, suggesting their development was independent from each other.13

It is well worth looking back at what Tony Cliff wrote about Rosa Luxemburg. It is well known that in 1968 Cliff made certain brief changes to his study of Luxemburg.14 But it is time to forget the trivia connected with the inept way in which the changes were made, and to look at the substance of what Cliff wrote in both versions. In the earlier edition Cliff wrote: “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity”.15 Now Cliff, who always linked theory to practice, was doubtless justifying the Socialist Review Group’s strategy of working within the Labour Party. But he was also making an important point about revolutionary organisation. Revolutionary organisation is not autonomous of its context, but is directly conditioned and formed by the working class movement it develops within. Luxemburg’s organisational perspectives must be understood in the context of the German working class movement inside which she worked.

If this is forgotten, then “building the party” becomes a purely ­voluntaristic enterprise.16 Revolutionaries work ever harder to recruit, distribute propaganda, etc, spurred on by moralising appeals. The working class develops separately, and eventually, it is hoped, the two come together in a moment of orgasmic congress with the “revolutionary situation” (there are many examples of such a view, and the SWP is far from the worst).

Historical study is of great importance for revolutionaries. Indeed, ultimately history is the only basis for our knowledge of what is historically possible, of why certain courses of action are advisable or inadvisable. But the use of history has its dangers, especially if parallels are oversimplified. Tony Cliff pointed out the confusions that Trotsky caused by drawing comparisons with the French Revolution of 1789 and his use of the terms “Thermidor” and “Bonapartism”.17

Learning from history can then easily lapse into what might be called “if only” narratives.18 “If only” X had made a different choice, then things would have turned out quite differently. There is a particularly gross example of this in Tony Cliff’s biography of Trotsky, where he suggests that if Trotsky had gone to Germany in 1923, the revolution might have been successful: “If Trotsky, the organiser of the Russian October ­insurrection, had taken hold of the German party, who knows whether the German October would not have ended in victory instead of defeat?”19 It is doubtful whether Cliff would have seriously defended this lapse into a non-Marxist version of the “great man” theory of history. The problems of the German revolutionary movement were far too deep rooted for anyone, even one with Trotsky’s genius, to sort out in a few weeks. Yet I have heard experienced SWP members echo Cliff on this point.

Harman, following Cliff, gives a nuanced account of Luxemburg. He notes her failure to break with the SPD, but shows that she had good grounds for staying in the mass party.20 And while he recognises that one of the weaknesses of the KPD was the absence of “a party capable of harnessing and coordinating their [workers’] energy”,21 he doesn’t put the blame on Luxemburg for not being Lenin.22 Indeed, he recognises that “even the most powerful revolutionary movements never ­completely free themselves from the taint of the society that they fight”.23

Contrast this to a recent article in International Socialism by Chris Fuller, who writes: “Some would argue Luxemburg was opposed to organisation. This is not the case. She was after all a member of the SPD, a vast organisation built over decades. But it was the wrong organisation.” In other words, she should have been building the Bolshevik Party. He claims that from 1910 onwards it would have been possible to form “a distinct revolutionary party able to challenge both the reformists and the German state”.24 I remain to be convinced that if Luxemburg had walked out of the SPD in or before 1914 she would have achieved anything other than total isolation. Clara Zetkin, one of Luxemburg’s closest comrades, actually thought the Spartacists were premature in leaving the USPD and forming the KPD at the end of 1918.25

It seems to me that the evidence now available to us suggests (and such things can only ever be matters of speculation) that a successful German revolution was extremely unlikely at any time between 1918 and 1923. The deeply divided and incoherent leadership of the KPD had its roots, not in the mistakes of a few individuals, but in the whole previous history of the German working class.

Of course, this is a disconcerting thought. For if a German revolution was unlikely, was it not irresponsible of the Bolsheviks to take power?26 Yet such questions must be asked. The great strength of Tony Cliff and his co-thinkers was their rejection of the defensive approach to revolutionary ideas.27 In the current difficult period the last thing we need is defensiveness about historical narratives.

In the coming two years we will see two historical anniversaries that should offer an opportunity for reflection and stock-taking. Next year will be a hundred years since the October Revolution—as Phillips notes, “the only successful workers’ revolution in history so far!”28 We still await a repeat. And 2018 will be the 50th anniversary of the decision by the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) to adopt a strategy of building a revolutionary party. The decision was amply justified by the major class confrontations of the following few years. And since then the SWP has done much that was good—those of us who lived through the Anti Nazi League, Stop the War and the progress of Marxism from the insanitary cellars of North London Polytechnic to a major political event can feel reasonably pleased with ourselves. But in terms of its central strategic aim—building the revolutionary party—the SWP is now further from its goal than it was in the early 1970s.

That revolutionary socialists need organisation is scarcely in doubt. But what form that organisation should take is a much more open question. Of course those who enjoy parliamentary-style debating will point out that I don’t have an alternative. But sometimes it is necessary to ask questions before answers can become available. And oversimplified accounts of complex historical processes are not helpful.


1 Phillips, 2016.

2 Rose, 2014.

3 Serge, 2000.

4 Broué, 2005; Harman, 1982.

5 Broué, 1997. For a review see Birchall, 1999.

6 Fernbach, 2011; Cyr, 2013. For a review see Birchall, 2015b.

7 Riddell, 2015. For a review see Birchall, 2015a.

8 Phillips, 2016, p193.

9 Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, p323.

10 Harman, 1982, pp239, 248.

11 Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, pp319-321.

12 Phillips, 2016, p195.

13 Phillips, 2016, pp194-195.

14 See Birchall, 2011, pp303-305.

15 Cliff, 1959, p54.

16 I recall a meeting with Alex Callinicos to discuss the book that became Revolutionary Rehearsals (Barker, 1987). Callinicos was suspicious of the whole project, feeling it devoted too much detailed attention to specific national events, rather than drawing out the general conclusion of the need for a revolutionary party.

17 Cliff, 1993, pp49-50, 64-67. This point is developed in Thomas Twiss’s excellent study of Trotsky’s evolving views on bureaucracy—Twiss, 2015.

18 John Rose’s review of Paul Le Blanc’s book on Trotsky tends to turn into a similar “if only” argument. If only Trotsky had adopted a “state capitalist” analysis then the history of Trotskyism might have been very different—Rose, 2016.

19 Cliff, 1990, p274.

20 Harman, 1982, pp19-21.

21 Harman, 1982, p302.

22 As Sebastian Budgen notes in his introduction to the French edition of The Lost Revolution, Harman was sceptical about some of the more mechanical formulations about “building the party”. As he said to a comrade: “You can’t think of revolutionary leadership as a deus ex machina if you’ve ever been part of a revolutionary leadership”—Harman, 2015, p18.

23 Harman, 1982, p203.

24 Fuller, 2015, p166.

25 Luban, 2015, pp39-41.

26 But see Haynes, 1997, for a discussion of the possible alternatives to a Bolshevik revolution.

27 On Cliff and defensiveness, see Birchall, 2011, pp89, 400-401, 541.

28 Phillips, 2016, p186.


Barker, Colin (ed), 1987, Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks).

Birchall, Ian, 1999, “History of the Communist International”, Revolutionary History, volume 7, number 2, www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1999/xx/broue.html

Birchall, Ian, 2011, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time (Bookmarks).

Birchall, Ian, 2015a, “An Essential Resource on Communism’s Early Years”, Revolutionary History, new series, volume 1, https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/review-an-essential-resource-on-communisms-early-years/

Birchall, Ian, 2015b, “Paul Levi in Perspective”, Historical Materialism volume 23, issue 3, http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2015-paul-levi-in-perspective/

Broué, Pierre, 1997, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste: 1919-1943 (Fayard).

Broué, Pierre, 2005, The German Revolution: 1917-1923 (Brill).

Cliff, Tony, 1959, Rosa Luxemburg (International Socialism).

Cliff, Tony, 1990, Trotsky, volume 2: The Sword of the Revolution (Bookmarks).

Cliff, Tony, 1993, Trotsky, volume 4: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, 1927-1940 (Bookmarks).

Cyr, Frédéric, 2013, Paul Levi, rebelle devant les extrêmes (Presses de l’Université Laval).

Fernbach, David (ed), 2011, In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi(Brill).

Fuller, Chris, 2015, “The Mass Strike in the First World War”, International Socialism 145 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/the-mass-strike-in-the-first-world-war/

Harman, Chris, 1982, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918-1923 (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 2015, La Révolution allemande: 1918-1923 (La Fabrique).

Haynes, Mike, 1997, “Was there a Parliamentary Alternative in Russia in 1917?”, International Socialism 76 (autumn), www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/haynes/1997/xx/parlalt.htm

Koch-Baumgarten, Sigrid, 1986, Aufstand der Avantgarde: Die Märzaktion der KPD 1921 (Campus Verlag).

Luban, Ottokar, 2015, “Clara Zetkin’s Influence on the Spartacus Group 1918-1919”, Revolutionary History, new series, volume 1.

Phillips, Tony, 2016, “Was the German Revolution Defeated by January 1919?”, International Socialism 149 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/was-the-german-revolution-defeated-by-january-1919/

Riddell, John (ed), 2015, To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1923 (Brill).

Rose, John, 2014, “Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Germany, 1918-19”, talk at Marxism 2014, http://swpradiocast.bandcamp.com/track/workers-and-soldiers-councils-in-germany-1918-19-marxism-2014

Rose, John, 2016, “Half Socialist? Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Union”, International Socialism 149 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/half-socialist/

Serge, Victor, 2000, Witness to the German Revolution (Bookmarks).

Twiss, Thomas, 2015, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Haymarket).

Party, class, and Marxism: Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’?-Eric Blanc

Posted by admin On May - 26 - 2016 Comments Off on Party, class, and Marxism: Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’?-Eric Blanc

The question of broad parties has been heatedly debated by socialists in recent years. Many have argued that “Leninism” should be discarded in favor of wider formations such as Syriza, Podemos, the British Labour Party, the Greens, etc. Others have rejected participating in such structures, on the “Leninist” grounds that building independent revolutionary Marxist parties remains the strategic organizational task for socialists.

Intertwined with this debate has been a serious reassessment of “Leninism” itself. Particularly following the publication of Lars Lih’s monumental Lenin Rediscovered, big questions are being asked: Did Lenin break in theory and/or practice with the “orthodox” strategy articulated by Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky? Were the Bolsheviks, in other words, a “party of a new type”?

Unfortunately, the debate up until now has overlooked one of Kautsky’s most revealing works on revolutionary party-building, his 1909 “Sects or class parties”. The article deserves a wide audience, as it clarifies the strategy of the early revolutionary Kautsky (i.e. before his post-1909 capitulation to the German party bureaucracy) and because it insightfully challenges problematic political orientations that have become hegemonic among socialists today.

Kautsky polemicizes against what he considers to be two false strategies manifest in the debate concerning the 1908 affiliation of the British Labour Party to the Second International. On the one hand, various reformists painted the broadly amorphous Labour Party as a positive alternative to explicitly Marxist parties. No less mistaken, in Kautsky’s view, was the sectarian attempt by the British Social Democratic Party (SDP) to directly build a Marxist party in Britain outside of the Labour Party. Kautsky’s piece set out to show why there was no need to counterpose the project of building independent mass workers’ parties and strictly Marxist parties. The first, he argued, should be seen as step towards the latter.

One of the most significant aspects of “Sects or Class Parties?” is that it shatters the often-repeated myth that Kautsky sought to build (as a recent article by Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins in International Socialism asserts) a “party of the whole class” founded upon “unity in the sense of breadth rather than unity in the sense of ideological cohesiveness.” If ever there was an example of such a party it was British Labour – yet Kautsky emphatically argues that attempts to export this model to countries with mass Marxist parties would be “merely an attempt to crush out an already existing higher form, by a more reactionary party.” Kautsky clearly advocates a party based on “definite Marxian Socialism, the theory of the proletarian class struggle as deduced from the study of capitalist society.” According to Kautsky’s conception, workers needed an independent party; this party should be committed in theory and practice to revolutionary Marxism; and if it wasn’t yet a firmly Marxist party then the role of revolutionaries was to push to transform it into one.

(Lenin, it should be noted, shared this “orthodox” orientation both in regards to Russia and Britain. Agreeing with the 1908 decision to admit British Labour into the Second International, the Bolshevik leader argued that the Labour Party “represents the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of Britain towards a conscious class policy and towards a socialist workers’ party.”)

Given that British Labour was headed by parliamentary and union leaders tied to the Liberals and bourgeois ideology, Kautsky made the very “Leninist” case that a distinct revolutionary organization was needed:

The peculiarity of England consists in the fact that the conditions there render it necessary for the Marxists to form a separate, solid organisation, which in countries where mass parties, with a Social-Democratic – i.e., Marxist – programme exist, would be superfluous. … Only by means of the most energetic Marxist propaganda amongst the masses, and the most determined criticism of the errors and entanglements of the leaders, can the [Labour] party be made into a powerful and trustworthy organ, in the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.

Kautsky criticized British revolutionaries not because they sought to build a strictly Marxist party, but rather because their abstentionist refusal to participate in the British Labour Party precluded them from achieving this goal in practice. Self-proclaiming a Marxist party was insufficient, as the distinct conditions in different countries obliged flexible tactics towards effectively building mass revolutionary parties.

In hindsight, the problem with Kautsky’s approach was not that he advocated a mistaken party model (“the party of the whole class”), but that he, like Lenin, underestimated the extent to which the bureaucratization of programmatically Marxist parties such as the German SPD made them in practice analogous to British Labour. One could argue that the tragedy of the Second International’s revolutionary left was that the “Leninist” strategy Kautsky advocated for Britain – i.e. the organization of a distinct revolutionary Marxist current aiming to overcome reformism within the mass socialist parties – was not replicated on the Continent as well. Only after the labor bureaucracies’ historic betrayals in 1914 did Lenin and (eventually) Rosa Luxemburg accordingly adjust their organizational strategies for the West.

Notwithstanding this and other weaknesses in Kautsky’s text – not least of which was a serious underestimation of mass action – it seems to me that the general strategic orientation put forward remains if anything more relevant today than it was in 1909. While the absence of a mass Marxist party in Britain was exceptional at the time, today it has become the norm.

Unfortunately, the two orientations criticized by Kautsky – both of which counterposed the building of broad parties and Marxist parties – have become hegemonic. In fact, the positions against which Kautsky polemicized in 1909 in some ways were more advanced than their current articulations. Reformist advocates of the broad party model in the Second International at least pushed for a working-class organization, whereas it has become common today for socialists to promote cross-class populist formations (or even to participate in capitalist structures such as the U.S. Democratic Party). In turn, the sectarian British S.D.P. – against which Kautsky polemicized for believing it could transform itself directly into a mass party – had roughly 13,000 members, whereas today’s advocates of its same approach often number in the dozens or hundreds.

Experience over the past decades would seem to demonstrate that while non-Marxist broad parties cannot effectively transcend capitalism, projects of building Marxist parties will likely flounder if they are divorced from wider efforts to promote a mass political representation of and for the working-class majority. Socialists today might do well to rediscover Kautsky’s forgotten 1909 contribution and to reconsider its strategic conclusion:

It is not a question as to whether we prefer a small resolute Social-Democratic Party to a big class party with no definite programme … A Socialist organisation of the S.D.P. type is as insufficient by itself as the Labour Party. We must encourage both.

Eric Blanc is an activist and historian based in Oakland, California.

The Communist Order of Samurai: Leon Trotsky and the Red Army-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On May - 17 - 2016 Comments Off on The Communist Order of Samurai: Leon Trotsky and the Red Army-Doug Enaa Greene

ammanullah khan

Leon Trotsky addresses soldiers of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War
Dedicated to my friend, Sam Miller.

Marxist historian Victor Serge described Trotsky’s task in organizing the Red Army as its enemies threatened the embattled Soviet Republic as follows:

The principal organizer of the October Revolution now has the task of organizing the defence of the Soviet Republic. He goes to war, forges the blade, carries the responsibility on all fronts. He incarnates, in its keenest expression, the revolution’s will to survive.[1]

In 1918, Trotsky was given the job of creating a Red Army to fight off its enemies from within and without. Organizing an effective army in a society shattered and exhausted by war would have been a monumental task for even the most experienced general. Yet Trotsky, who possessed no military training, forged a well-organized, centralized, disciplined and effective fighting army of 5.5 million people by 1920 that was fired by revolutionary zeal and triumphed in the Civil War.

Although Trotsky was undoubtedly the organizer of the Soviet Republic’s victory on the battlefield, he was very much a transitional figure in the development of communist military practice. Nearly all subsequent revolutions, such as those in China, Cuba and Vietnam, would come to power via some form of guerrilla warfare (a possibility which Trotsky did not seriously consider). Trotsky’s conception of a revolutionary army was a traditional fighting force with a centralized command, staffed with officers from the old regime (the so-called military specialists) who would in turn be supervised by commissars appointed by the party to ensure that they remained loyal and to provide political education to the rank and file soldiers. Trotsky was also willing to justify terror against enemies of the Soviet Republic as necessary result of revolutionary warfare. Trotsky’s vision of revolutionary warfare was very eclectic with a mixture of aspects of old and the new. However, Trotsky never denied that the Red Army was fired by revolutionary zeal and the firm faith that its soldiers were fighting for a new social order. No doubt, it was this moral factor, which ensured the Red Army’s victory against the internal and external counterrevolution.

I. Counterrevolution at the gates

By the Spring of 1918, the Soviet Republic had concluded a draconian peace with Imperial Germany, giving up the Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states in the process. The loss of these territories to Germany deprived the young Soviet state of 60 million inhabitants, two million square kilometers and a third of its available farmland. According to W. Bruce Lincoln, in March 1918, the Soviets possessed “only a seventh of the former Russian Empire’s sugar beet fields, a quarter of its coal mines, iron foundries, and steel mills, and less than three-fifths of its population.”[2] On top of this, the Soviet economy was faced with a breakdown in production caused by sabotage from the capitalist owners of industry, seizures of factories by the working class, and the need to feed starving cities from a peasantry reluctant to give up their grain for little in return. By mid-1919, Soviet control in Russia would be reduced to an area roughly the size of sixteenth century Muscovy.

In the Summer of 1918, civil war, which had previously been sporadic across Russia, broke out in full force. So-called White Armies under Tsarist generals such as Denikin, Kolchack, Wrangel and Yudenich raised formidable forces from the east, northeast and the south with the avowed aim of restoring the old regime. In areas that the White Armies occupied, no quarter was given to Bolsheviks or their supporters, land was restored to the old gentry and anti-Semitic pogroms were unleashed. Anarchist guerrillas led by Makhno also threatened Bolshevik power in the Ukraine. Lastly, the Allied imperialist powers such as the United States, Britain, France, and Japan not only supported the White Armies with arms, money and recognition, but landed their own troops on Russian soil.

In the face of counterrevolution and the urgent need for defense, the Soviets had to raise their own army. However, the old Russian army had collapsed in the wake of the war and revolution. The Bolshevik Party had played no small role in undermining the repressive apparatus of their enemies. However, the breakdown of the army continued unabated after the Bolshevik seizure of power. As Trotsky admitted: “Our party deliberately set out to break up the old Tsarist Army. But the whole course of the war itself led to the complete disintegration of the ranks of the old army. Even without the work of our party, the army would have broken up into its component parts all the same.”[3] While some units of the Tsarist army did make common cause with the proletariat, this still meant that the Bolsheviks had to construct an army from scratch as the civil war began in earnest.

Initially, the only forces at the disposal of the Bolsheviks were the Red Guards – an armed militia of workers who had played a pivotal role in the revolution. The Red Guards were committed to the defense of revolutionary gains and the disarmament of the capitalists. Any attempt by the Provisional Government to disarm the Red Guard was fiercely resisted and only served to further radicalize them. Shortly after the Kornilov coup in August 1917, the Red Guard in Petrograd (shortly to pass under Bolshevik leadership) consisted of 25,000 workers with a formal military structure, although its officers were elected. Yet the Red Guard had serious deficiencies, according to military historian Erich Wollenberg:

The fighting value of the various Red Guard formations was by no means uniform, as it depended on the strength of their Bolshevist cadres, the extent to which they were permeated with experienced soldiers from the front, and the personal and military qualities of the men they elected as leaders.[4]

Wollenberg adds that its democratic structure inhibited the capacity of the Red Guard as a military force since they elected officers “based on the soundness of their political views…this often led to currying favor and to demagogic tricks and intrigues.”[5] Even though Red Guards were more than adequate to bring down the old regime, they were found lacking in the face of regular White Army troops. Yet the future Red Army would be built up around Red Guard divisions.

Alongside the Red Guard, there were also revolutionary guerrilla bands across the vast expanse of Russia. According to Wollenberg, the character of guerrilla war was dictated by Russia’s

immense size…scanty population, the defective system of transport and communication…the lack of reliable contact with the capital; the extraordinary diversity of social structure, culture, density of the population and national composition in the peasantry, and finally the diverse [topographical] nature of the country…[6]

The guerrillas were composed largely of armed peasants. Some of these guerrilla units such as Makhno’s forces in the Ukraine assumed a truly mass character. Guerrilla movements also emerged in Siberia, who worked closely with workers in the towns, harassed Kolchak’s troops and the Japanese. However, guerrilla troops such as those of Makhno also practiced banditry, provided a refuge for deserters and engaged in “plundering operations in order to procure the supplies they needed, thus contributing largely to the general disorganization and prejudice against the political guerrilla movement.”[7] For Trotsky, it was imperative for guerrilla organizations to be integrated and subordinated to the overall command of the Red Army. The integration of guerrilla units into the Red Army was plagued with resistance from the guerrillas and political conflict within the Party’s ‘Military Opposition’ (discussed below).

II. Defending the Republic

When Trotsky was assigned the post of Commissar of War on February 23 1918, he had before him an immense task of organizing a new Red Army. Trotsky did not make light of the situation confronting the embattled Soviet Republic:

The difficulties confronting us can be divided into two categories — those which are objective in character and those which are subjective. The difficulties which are objective in character are founded in external conditions. They consist in the mere fact of universal ruin, of our system of communication having broken down. Our railway carriages have been stripped and smashed up. A very large percentage of our locomotives are out of action, while those that are in good shape are not moving along the rails as they should (the war has thrown everything into disorder). Our factories and works are disorganized, owing, first, to the mobilization and then to the partial, extremely incomplete demobilization. We suffer from very great difficulties in the sphere of food supplies – partly because we have been impoverished generally, and partly because all means of transport, accounting and control have broken down. These are the difficulties, colossal in their depth, which lie before us, and which we have to overcome at any cost. If we do not overcome them, the country will be wrecked in the very near future, for there is no-one to take our place.[8]

In surveying the desperate situation, Trotsky believed that it was necessary for the Soviet Republic to devote everything to the needs of defense and transform the country into an

armed camp, and all our resources, all our forces, everything the country possesses, and the personal possessions of each individual citizen and citizeness, must be devoted directly to the defense of the Soviet Republic. We have to mobilize people, soldiers, to mobilize the spirit and the ideological forces of the country, and this mobilization must assume an intense, heroic character, so that…while we live, we will surrender to no-one, that we shall fight to the last drop of blood.[9]

Trotsky believed that the Soviets could not rely upon a guerrilla or irregular force (although he believed that such units could play a subsidiary role in military operations), but needed a centralized army with a clear chain of command, discipline, and properly organized. However, Trotsky argued that the Russian working class was hampered by the fact that it was an oppressed and undereducated class, who did not possess the appropriate military knowledge needed for the desperate situation at hand. As he put it:

It is the misfortune of the working class that it has always occupied the position of an oppressed class. This misfortune is expressed in the level of its education and in the fact that it has never acquired those habits of rule which are possessed by a ruling class, and which such a class passes on from generation to generation, through its schools, universities and soon. None of that is possessed by the working class, it has it all to acquire. Having come to power, the working class had to examine critically the old state apparatus of class oppression. But it must, at the same time, extract from this apparatus all the valuable skilled elements which are technically needed by it, must set them in their appropriate places, and must bring these elements under pressure from its proletarian class might. This, comrades, is the task which now confronts us in all its magnitude.[10]

Here we see Trotsky the idealist revolutionary giving way to the needs of realism. Trotsky didn’t believe that an effective and disciplined Red Army could be built quickly by raw recruits, but that military specialists (i.e. the old Tsarist officers) were needed to train the new army. He was willing to use parts of the old state apparatus since the republic was facing an emergency situation. Although many in the party had a preference for militia style units such as the Red Guard (reflected in the Military Opposition), Trotsky with the support of Lenin, brought 50,000 Tsarist officers into the Red Army by the end of the Civil War.[11]

Trotsky was second to none in his advocacy of the need for military specialists in the Red Army. He extolled the military apparatus and said that the task of the War Commissariat “consists in taking over the huge military apparatus of the past, disorganized and disordered, but powerful by virtue of the values which it contains, examining it, organizing it, and adapting it to the army which we now wish to form.”[12] The problem with taking over the old apparatus in such a way was that the old Tsarist army had rules, methods of discipline and other practices which were bourgeois and even feudal (which many soldiers had rebelled against before the Revolution). Yet many of these same practices returned to the Red Army. For instance, saluting was restored in the army and officers were granted various privileges.

The support for a more traditional military structure came out in Trotsky’s opposition to the election of officers which had characterized the Red Guards. Trotsky argued against the election of officers as follows:

The whole significance of this consists in combating the old make-up of the officer corps and bringing the commanders under control. So long as power was in the hands of the enemy class and the commanders were an instrument in the hands of that class, we had to endeavor, by means of the principle of election, to break the class resistance of the commanding personnel. But now political power is in the hands of that same working class from whose ranks the Army is recruited. Given the present regime in the Army — I say this here quite openly — the principle of election is politically purposeless and technically inexpedient, and it has been, in practice, abolished by decree.[13]

While the election principle served a definite purpose in undermining the old army and bringing about the revolution, now that power had passed into the hands of the proletariat, it became an impediment to the development of a regular Red Army. This position provoked ire in many party members and former Red Guards.

A major argument against the enlistment of Tsarist officers was that they were not loyal to the revolution and would betray it on the battlefield at the first opportunity (which did often occur).[14] The party needed an effective instrument of control over a potentially disloyal officer corps. This instrument of control was found in the placement of communist commissars in Red Army units. Commissars served as the direct representative of the Soviet state in the army, working to “dissipate the natural mistrust felt by the Red soldiers towards the employment of former military specialists by enacting that every Tsarist officer should be accompanied by a commissar, who had to countersign every order given by the commanding officer before it became effective.”[15] However, the addition of commissars to the army created a problem in the army’s structure since a clear chain of command often couldn’t be drawn between the specialists and the commissars.

Trotsky dealt with this difficulty by laying out the commissar’s role as follows: “If he does not interfere in military operations, it is only because he stands above the military leader, watches everything he does, checks on every step he takes.”[16] Yet the commissar could not interfere in the work of the military leadership and had to approve all orders, even those which they did not approve of (although they could appeal to higher authorities).

However, Trotsky said that the commissar had another task in the Red Army, perhaps even more important than overseeing the specialists. He saw the commissars as playing the role of heroic fighters, who would be the first to volunteer and the last to retreat, inspiring soldiers with their revolutionary zeal. Trotsky went so far as to compare the commissars to the samurai:

We once heard with interest of the Japanese caste of Samurai, who never hesitate to die for the sake of collective, national interests, the interests of the community as a whole. I must say that in our commissars, our leading Communist fighters, we have obtained a new, Communist order of Samurai who – without benefit of caste privileges – are able to die and to teach others to die, for the cause of the working class.[17]

Although samurai conjured up images of an elite caste with special privileges, cut off from the masses, Trotsky saw the commissar as a different kind of an elite. The commissars not only inspired soldiers, but also educated them on the aims of the party, in order to make sure they understood exactly what they were fighting for: a new social order free of exploitation and oppression. And in order to effectively convey that message, the commissar was granted no special privileges and that communist party units in the army must be free of bad elements. As Trotsky said, “Respect for the Communist cells will be the higher and more unshakable the more clearly that every soldier understands, and is convinced by experience, that membership of a Communist cell gives a soldier no special rights, but only imposes upon him the duty to be the most self-sacrificing and courageous of fighters.”[18]

Despite the initial opposition in the party to a centralized military command and the use of Tsarist officers, ultimately the Red Army did prove itself victorious on the battlefield. No small part of this success was due to Trotsky’s extraordinary organizational and military abilities in leading the Red Army through the inferno of war. Most of the specialists remained loyal to the republic, as did the soldiers they commanded. Some of the specialists, such as the military genius Mikhail Tukhachevsky, were even won to the communist cause during the course of the war. In Trotsky’s eyes, a centralized Red Army, employing a traditional structure fired by revolutionary zeal was the only way to fight the battles on the far flung front lines of the Russian Civil War.

III. Guerrilla War

As mentioned above, at the beginning of the Civil War some of the only units available to the Red Army were partisan detachments. However, guerrilla warfare went against Trotsky’s demand for a centralized army with a regular chain of command. According to Trotsky,

the chaos of irregular warfare expressed the peasant element that lay beneath the revolution, whereas the struggle against it was also a struggle in favor of the proletarian state organization’s opposed to the elemental, petty-bourgeois anarchy that was undermining it. But the methods and ways of the irregular fighting found an echo in the ranks of the party, as well.[19]

Although the guerrilla fighters fought heroically, there was a definite limitation to their effectiveness in the conditions of the Russian Civil War. As historian John Ellis argued, although the peasant “was willing to defend tenaciously that plot of land, he saw little point in remaining under arms once the immediate danger had passed. He thus inclined to a mode of warfare that did not demand that he serve except for short periods of time and which did not take him far from his home.”[20] Although Trotsky initially supported the incorporation of partisan detachments in the army, this “proved unsatisfactory because it infected regular detachments with the ‘guerrilla spirit’.”[21] Eventually, Trotsky moved to disband the partisan units and replace them with regular units.

Although one of Trotsky’s arguments against guerrilla tactics was that they were ineffective, their actual record is mixed. Makhno’s units during the civil war were quite effective in resisting the Germans in the Ukraine and later, both the Whites and the Reds. However, Makhno was an anarchist was opposed to Bolshevik centralization (even as he instituted his own such terror and a secret police force) and his dream of an independent anarchist Ukraine put him at odds with the Red Army. Makhno built a solid base of support among the peasantry and an armed force carrying between 20,000 to 50,000 people. He largely abandoned the cities, preferring to fight in the countryside where he had a solid base of support. The chief weakness of Makhno’s guerrilla force, according to Arno Mayer was in “lacking an overall strategic military and political vision, he remained, above all, fatally isolated.”[22] By contrast, the Bolsheviks were in firm control of the urban industrial centers, possessed a clear political vision and an effective military.

Other guerrilla units in the Caucasus, Siberia and the Urals had more mixed results. In the case of guerrillas in the Caucasus, Trotsky believing that they demoralized Red Army troops and brought defeat in their wake.[23] In general, the Red Army operated with regular operations throughout the course of the Civil War.

Although Trotsky was an advocate for a centralized army, his overall view of guerrilla warfare in military operations was more nuanced. For example, Trotsky argued that in the first period of the civil war that guerrilla combat “was a necessary and adequate weapon…This kind of warfare demanded self-sacrifice, initiative and independence. But as the war grew in scope, it gradually came to need proper organization and discipline.”[24] Just as Trotsky recognized the positive role of guerrilla operations in the initial phase of an armed insurrection, he believed that guerrillas ultimately needed to be supplanted with a more centralized structure.

Trotsky’s opposition to guerrillas (based on experience with Makhno and other units) came in part because they did not submit themselves to military discipline which caused

a lack of co-ordination in operations. Commanders exist who do not realize that an order is an order and must be obeyed unconditionally. There have been cases when a commander who does not want to carry out an operational order has put it to a meeting for discussion, and hidden behind that meeting. This evil must be burnt out with a red-hot iron. As citizens, soldiers may in their free time hold meetings on any subject. As soldiers, on service and at the front, they will carry out unquestioningly the military orders of the authority established by the workers’ and peasants’ government.[25]

As far as Trotsky was concerned, guerrilla units had a tendency to undermine a proper chain of command.

While Trotsky said that the Red Army was to be primarily based on traditional structures, he argued that well-organized guerrilla detachments could supplement it. Trotsky was categorical on the type of guerrillas he envisioned for this role:

To the question about whether we need guerrillas we must answer: yes, we do need guerrillas, they are necessary for our purpose – but only real guerrillas, really brave men, warriors without fear and without reproach, for whom nothing is impossible. In the last period of the civil war, detachments of such daredevils can, if backed by the weighty masses of the Red Army, play a very great role, paving the way for the army, speeding up its attack, covering its flanks, threatening the enemy’s rear, raising revolts in that rear, appearing here, there and everywhere as the embodiment of the spirit of the revolution.[26]

IV. Military Opposition

Opposition to Trotsky’s stance on guerrilla warfare came out in the open at the 8th Party Congress in March 1919. At this point, Trotsky had ordered the end of guerrilla units and their incorporation into the Red Army – threatening sanctions against those who refused. Left Communists refused on principle to support a standing centralized army, believing it to be a violation of Party promises for a democratically-elected militia. A number of Bolsheviks formed a Military Opposition – notably Voroshilov and Stalin who were defending Tsaritsyn from the Whites – since they refused to serve under Tsarist officers and rejected military centralization.[27] These Bolsheviks only paid lip service to the need for centralization and military specialists, preferring to rely on decentralized methods which had proven military successful. Trotsky was determined to bring them to heel.[28] There remained constant friction between the Tsaritsyn front and Red Army Headquarters in Moscow. Despite subordinating Stalin to a new commander, Shlyapnikov, the forces on the ground refused to accept his authority. The conflict grew so heated that in November 1918, Trotsky traveled to Tsaristyn, where according to his biographer Isaac Deutscher, “he threatened to court martial Voroshilov. In a public order of the day, he castigated his command for putting its own ambitions above the interests of the entire front.”[29] For the moment, Trotsky was able to secure victory and a promise of obedience from Tsaritsyn.

Yet the attacks on Trotsky by both the Left Communists and the Military Opposition continued. The former group hoped to revise military policy and “demanded that the commissars should hold all commanding posts and that the officers should serve under them as mere consultants.”[30] The Party had not given Trotsky’s military policy its blessing, so abuse continued to be heaped on the War Commissar. Tensions continued to simmer between the two sides. At the 8th Party Congress, a resolution to the conflict was finally reached.

The Military Opposition was determined to force a change of policy at the 8th Party Congress. To make their case, the Opposition not only objected to strict military centralization as contrary to communist principles, but also highlighted instances of treason from former Tsarist officers. Although Lenin agreed with Trotsky on the need for centralization and discipline, he was not as convinced on the need for military specialists. In fact, during the Congress Lenin even suggested that Trotsky dismiss the specialists. However, when Trotsky confronted Lenin with the sheer number of Tsarist officers in the Red Army, he agreed it was impossible to dismiss them:

When Comrade Trotsky recently informed me that in our military department the officers are numbered in tens of thousands, I gained a concrete conception of what constitutes the secret of making proper use of our enemy.., of how to build communism out of the bricks that the capitalists had gathered to use against us.[31]

Shortly before the Congress opened, the White General Kolchak launched an offensive, leading Trotsky to be recalled to the front. The main debate at the Congress took place in secret. Although the Left Communists and the Military Opposition remained opposed to the military specialists, their defeat was a foregone conclusion since Lenin was against them. The Party wound up overwhelmingly endorsing Trotsky’s position. Although resentment between Trotsky and the Military Opposition remained, the matter was now closed and the need for a centralized, disciplined and professional army was now accepted by the Communist Party.

V. Military doctrine

Whereas later communist theoreticians of warfare such as Mao Zedong and Vo Nguyen Giap pioneered explicitly Marxist military doctrines, Trotsky did not. According to Deutscher, Trotsky “claimed no originality in this field, but he brought to the discussion of the issues a broad view of history and a freshness of approach which, if they were not enough to make a new philosophy of war, did much to guard the Red Army from pitfalls of one-sided doctrines.”[32] Yet many new Red Army commanders such as Tukhachevsky, Frunze, Voroshilov and Budienny were proponents of a proletarian military doctrine which they argued would meet the needs of the working class by favoring offensives and mobility as opposed to defensive and positional warfare.

Trotsky objected to “proletarian military doctrine” stating that “war is based on many sciences, but war itself is not a science, it is a practical art, a skill.” Theories of war are procedures and methods of adaptation used against the enemy in battle. Trotsky said that the Marxist method of science, “of the cognition of objective phenomena in their objective connections” was inadequate when applied to warfare, which he said made as much sense as developing a Marxist theory of architecture and medicine. While Marxist science can analyze the world situation and societal contradictions, war “is not a science, it is a practical art, a skill.”[33] It was therefore a mistake to reconstruct the “practical military procedures and the rules and precepts set out in the regulations – and wanting to reconstruct all this from scratch, so to speak, by means of the Marxist method.”[34]

Trotsky’s opposition to an explicitly proletarian military doctrine also flowed from a doctrinaire approach to Marxism that he saw in many Red Army commanders. According to him, “Marxism does not supply ready recipes. Least of all could it provide them in the sphere of military construction.”[35] Rather, the construction of the Red Army flowed from an overall Marxist analysis of the practical requirements needed to defend the revolution.

What Trotsky argued was necessary in military affairs was not to “take any dogmatic ‘doctrine’ as our point of departure.”[36] Those who insist on a fixed military doctrine and science are doctrinaires who take the “procedures of a particular epoch, are transformed by them into eternal truths.”[37] Trotsky said this method (ex. proletarian military doctrine) would leave an army shackled by formula, unprepared to develop new techniques of fighting, unable to innovative or to teach creative thinking in its soldiers and commanders.

Instead of upholding a proletarian doctrine of offensives, which he saw as fixed and dogmatic, Trotsky “argued the need for a certain eclecticism in military theory.”[38] For him, “no question of principle is involved for us where revolutionary offensive warfare is concerned….only a traitor can renounce the offensive, but only a simpleton can reduce our entire strategy to the offensive.”[39] Marxism wasn’t a master-key that solved all military problems, rather the art of war possessed its own methods that required study and application, but they had to be verified by practice. Such an approach to military affairs avoided reliance upon “eternal laws” and viewed the laws of war, instead, as “practical procedures.”[40] While Trotsky’s approach avoided the pitfalls of dogma in studying warfare, he saw no need to develop a distinctly Marxist approach to warfare. As Deutscher said, Trotsky “demanded respect for a certain continuity of experience and cultural tradition. He saw in the ‘proletarian’ innovations a cover for intellectual crudity and conceit.”[41]

VI. Criticism

Despite the immense achievements of the Red Army in winning the Russian Civil War, its revolutionary character has been criticized by many later Marxists. For example, the French Maoist Charles Bettlelheim, in his multi-volume history of the USSR, says that the Red Army “did not succeed in building an army that was definitely proletarian in character, characterized by new ideological and political relations which could have been an instrument in the struggle for socialist transformation of social relations and against the subsequent rise of bourgeois forces.”[42] Bettelheim criticizes the Red Army for relying on military Tsarist officers (which necessitated the use of commissars to maintain ideological and political control of the army), promoting a neutral military technique and not seeing tactics pursued as determined by the class in power conducting military operations, not by the level of productive forces. Bettelheim goes on and claims that the Red Army’s whole military approach favored “hierarchical relations of the feudal-bourgeois type” which distrusted the masses, guerrilla units and militias.[43]

Bettelheim states that while the Red Army enabled the Bolsheviks to defend Soviet power, it was unsuitable for the next stage of the revolution because it “was not a proletarian army but a people’s army subordinated to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[44] Bettelheim contrasts the “bourgeois character” of the Red Army to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which he affirms was a true proletarian army under both the political and ideological leadership of the Communist Party.

While Bettelheim does note that the creation of the Red Army arose from a concrete historical situation, he faults the Bolsheviks for not adopting the methods of Mao. And whatever the merits or detriments of Mao and the PLA, Russia in 1918 was not China in 1934. Different methods of warfare were developed based on different historical situations. Aside from the limited duration of the National Guard during the Paris Commune, when the Red Army was created there was little experience of revolutionary military affairs to draw upon. The Bolsheviks had to work with the resources and people at hand and, contrary to Bettelheim, not the future experiences of Mao Zedong. And we should note that the Red Army did triumph against the Whites and that victory counts for a lot more than wishing they had been a “pure” revolutionary army.

VII. Conclusion

Even though Russia endured the cataclysm of World War One and two revolutions, which devastated the country and brought it to the brink of ruin, the Soviet Republic was able to endure and triumph. The victory of the fledgling Republic was no doubt aided by the political and ideological divisions amongst its counter-revolutionary enemies and their imperialist backers. The White Armies did not fight as a single unit nor did they struggle to achieve a common ideal and aim. By contrast, the Soviet Republic not only possessed the industrial and urban centers of Russia, with their clear lines of communication, but they also fielded a disciplined army with a single leadership and chain of command. And that army, whatever limitations it may have possessed, was a Red Army, fighting for a new social order and a revolutionary ideal in the interests of the workers and peasants of Russia.

And no small amount of credit to Soviet victory in the civil war belongs to Leon Trotsky, the organizer and creator of the Red Army. Trotsky executed the unlikely fusion of Tsarist military officers and specialists into a regular army fired by communist zeal. Despite objections from the Military Opposition, Trotsky’s system of military organization, Deutscher declares:

worked, though not without friction; and no alternative to it could be devised. Under the uncontrolled leadership of the former officers the Red Army would have collapsed politically. Under the command of Bolshevik dilettantes it would have been doomed on the battlefields.[45]

Despite the example and achievements of the Red Army, in many respects it was still a traditional army fighting large battles of movement. Trotsky himself, despite his undoubted gifts for organization and theory, was still a traditional figure in terms of communist military doctrine. Future revolutions would not come to power via urban insurrection and deploy regular armies, but through partisans in the hills and jungles. These partisans, fired by the same élan as the Red Army, would pioneer both new methods and doctrines of revolutionary warfare.


[1] Victor Serge, “Year One of the Russian Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one/ch08.htm

[2] W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War 1918-1921 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), 89-90.

[3] Leon Trotsky, “We Need an Army,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch03.htm

[4] Eric Wollenberg, The Red Army (Prism Key Press, 2010), 21.

[5] Ibid. 22.

[6] Ibid. 22.

[7] Ibid. 27.

[8] Leon Trotsky, “Work, Discipline and Order,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch05.htm

[9] Leon Trotsky, “The Civil War in the RSFSR in 1918: The Red Army and the Civil War,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch35.htm

[10] “Work, Discipline and Order,” (note 8).

[11] According to Trotsky memoirs, in 1919 during the controversy with the Party’s military opposition, when Lenin considered removing the military specialists from the army, Trotsky had to explain to him the extent of their involvement in Red Army operations (which brought Lenin around to his position):
“You ask me,” I said, “if it would not be better to kick out all the old officers? But do you know how many of them we have in the army now?”
“Not even approximately?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not less than thirty thousand.”
“Not less than thirty thousand. For every traitor, there are a hundred who are dependable; for every one who deserts, there are two or three who get killed. How are we to replace them all ?”
Leon Trotsky, “My Life – Chapter 36: The Military Opposition,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/ch36.htm

[12] Leon Trotsky, “Organizing the Red Army,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch10.htm

[13] “Work, Discipline and Order,” (note 8).

[14] See Wollenberg 2010, 45-6. Trotsky was no fool and was willing to punish the officers. According to Isaac Deutscher, “Trotsky’s orders of the day bristled with dire threats to the agents of the White Guards. But even the threat of capital punishment was no deterrent to officers in the fighting lines. Trotsky then ordered a register of their families be kept so that the would-be traitor should know that if he went over to the enemy, his wife and children would stay behind as hostages.” Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (New York: Verso, 2003), 344.

[15] Wollenberg 2010, 46.

[16] Leon Trotsky, “Organizing the Red Army,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch14.htm

[17] Leon Trotsky, “Our Work at Building the Army and Our Fronts,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/military/ch01.htm

[18] Leon Trotsky, “Communist Party and the Red Army,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch30.htm
Victor Serge describes the role of Communists in the Red Army as follows: “The Communist backbone of the Red Army goes off to organize a vast service of political agitation, propaganda, education and action, such as no army has known before. In place of passive obedience the proletarian revolution substitutes the obedience of a discipline that is based on political consciousness.” “Year One of the Russian Revolution” (note 1).

[19] “My Life,” (note 11). We shall discuss the conflicts within the party below.

[20] John Ellis, Armies in Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 180.

[21] Deutscher 2003, 345.

[22] Arno Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 389.

[23] Ellis 1974, 184.

[24] Quoted in Wollenberg 2010, 27.

[25] Leon Trotsky, “The Civil War in the RSFSR in 1918: En Route,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch36.htm

[26] Leon Trotsky, “Do We Need Guerrillas?” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1919/military/ch95.htm

[27] “My Life,” (note 11).

[28] Ibid. See also Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 199-210.

[29] Deutscher 2003, 424 and “My Life,” (note 11).

[30] Deutscher 2003, 425.

[31] “My Life,” (note 11).

[32] Deutscher 2003, 481.

[33] Leon Trotsky, “Questions of Military Theory: Report and Concluding Remarks – At the Conference of Military Delegates to the Eleventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party, April 1, 1922,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1922/military/ch39.htm

[34] Ibid.

[35] Leon Trotsky, “Questions of Military Theory: Military Doctrine or Pseudo-Military Doctrinairism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1922/military/ch37.htm

[36] Ibid.

[37] Leon Trotsky, “Questions of Military Theory: Military Knowledge and Marxism – Speech at the meeting of the Military Science Society attached to the Military Academy of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, May 8, 1922,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1922/military/ch40.htm

[38] Deutscher 2003, 402.

[39] “Military Doctrine or Pseudo-Military Doctrinairism,” (note 34).

[40] “Report and Concluding Remarks,” (note 33)

[41] Deutscher 2003, 401.

[42] Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR, First Period: 1917-1923 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976), 275.

[43] Ibid. 277.

[44] Ibid. 281.

[45] Deutscher 2003, 345.

A million workers form new trade union federation in South Africa-

Posted by admin On May - 17 - 2016 Comments Off on A million workers form new trade union federation in South Africa-

ammanullah khan

A new workers federation is being formed in South Africa that is intended to totally change the face of popular organising. Based on the principles of independence, concerted mass action and worker control, the new federation starts with a membership of 1.1 million workers drawn from 51 affiliates.

The declaration of the Workers Summit at May Day Rally 2016

History was made in South Africa on 30 April 2016 when 1406 representatives of 29 separate  trade unions and one existing federation, Nactu, with 22 affiliates,  supported by a range of civil society and community organisations, came together to  commit themselves to building a new, worker-controlled, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, independent, financially self-sufficient, internationalist, socialist-orientated and militant union federation.

The formation of this new body is vital and especially urgent because of the economic crisis gripping South Africa. 22 years after the democratic breakthrough on 27 April 1994, mass unemployment, poverty, extreme inequality, racism and rampant corruption are the daily experiences of the majority of the working class.

Workers face attacks on their living standards and job security. Jobs are becoming more and more precarious, with outsourcing, labour broking, casualisation and sub-contracting growing exponentially. Workers in informal employment are unsupported and unprotected.  In the manufacturing and mining sectors whole workplaces and even entire industries like mining and steel are in danger of disappearing and throwing thousands more on to the streets. As well as retrenchments, workers are suffering short-time working and unions are being forced to negotiate training layoff schemes.

And the chances of retrenched workers finding another job are next to zero given the shocking rate of unemployment – 33.8% in the fourth quarter of 2015, by the more realistic expanded rate which includes those who have stopped even looking for work. The economy is growing very slowly – just 1.3% last year. That means that there are not enough jobs for all those coming from school and tertiary institutions, still less for older retrenched workers.

The living standards of those who can hang on to a job are plummeting.  In 3 months, from November 2015 to January 2016, the price of their basic food basket increased by 9%. The year-on-year increase for Jan 2015 to Jan 2016 was 14.6%. Some of the biggest increases have come in some of the most basic foods:

• Mealie meal 21.2%

• Samp 36.2%

• Cooking oil 38.8%

• Potatoes 120%

Nearly all the biggest price increases are on items on which workers and the poor spend a higher percentage of their incomes than the wealthy. It means that in real terms all those on fixed incomes are substantially poorer than a year ago. 13 million people go to bed hungry every day, including many of the working poor.

Yet the super-rich bosses, in this, the world’s most unequal society, tell us that the wage rises we demand will drive up unemployment and worsen poverty. They call for belt-tightening and below-inflation increases so as not to scare away investors and lead to ratings agencies downgrading the country to junk status. But tightening our belts does not make the economy grow! On the contrary, paying workers more makes the economy grow, because they spend more on goods and services which stimulates more production and more jobs. They only want us to give them even more profits.

Now a new battle front is being opened up by the bosses, the Free Market Foundation and their political allies, especially in the DA and other openly capitalist parties. They want to destroy rights which workers have won through struggle, especially to collective bargaining, despite the fact that only 23% of workers’ wages are determined by collective bargaining; and only 9% determined through centralized bargaining, while 54% of all wages received by workers are already determined by the employers without any negotiations. These people want that figure to rise to 100%! Meanwhile more and more jobs are being casualised or outsourced to labour brokers.

Never have workers had a greater need for the protection of strong trade unions and a powerful, united federation to defend jobs and living standards and repulse the attacks, yet never since the days of apartheid has the union movement been weaker and more fragmented. Cosatu has become a shadow of its former self and is little more than a labour desk for the ANC government, whose neoliberal policies are the source of the very attacks we are facing.

The Department of Labour records 184 registered trade union entities and many more are unregistered or are in the process of being registered. Even worse is that a staggering 76% of formal workers remain unorganised. Many of these workers are in the most vulnerable sectors in greatest need of a strong trade union, those employed by labour brokers, part-time and casual workers who have no permanent employer of workplace. In addition millions of informal workers are unprotected and are subject to harassment, evictions and confiscations. It is therefore essential that the new federation recognises the changing nature of the labour force, and moves beyond traditional areas of scope and targets recruitment of these vulnerable, often unorganised workers.

The Summit agreed that the new federation must also be based on the following founding principles:

1 Independence: Unions must be independent from employers (in the private and public sector) and from political parties. This does not mean that unions are apolitical.

2 Worker control and democracy: Unions must be worker-controlled and practise democracy, accountability, transparency and be tolerant. Within the federation affiliates must have autonomy but not independence, but differences of opinion must be tolerated.

3 Non-racialism and non-sexism: Unions must fight for the maximum unity of all workers and reject all divisive and negative sentiment such as xenophobia etc. It must ensure that women comrades play a full role, including in leadership.

4 Financial self-sufficiency, accountability and opposition, in word and deed, to business unionism, corruption, fraud and maladministration within its own ranks and in society as a whole.

5 Anti-imperialist and internationalist: Unions must place a high priority on international solidarity.

6 Socialist orientation: Unions must be ready to engage in the transformation of our societies to counter capitalist exploitation, inequalities and poverty.

7 Militancy in fighting for the working class and the poor: Unions must be ready to actively campaign for change, and make links with all of the oppressed of South Africa.

8 Effective Organisation and Representation: Unions must organise in the most effective manner to represent workers and serve their interests.

9 Solidarity with all workers in struggle for better wages and conditions or to save jobs

10 Support for workers exposing corruption, e.g. Prasa and Midrand municipality

The Summit agreed that the new federation must embrace a renewed commitment to internal democracy and worker control, with an insistence on mandates and reporting back. There was not time to debate fully all the other four discussion papers which will now be thoroughly discussed in depth at all levels in all the unions, in line with the principles of bottom-up democracy, and then placed on the agenda of the founding congress of the new federation.

The Summit condemned moves by state employers to refuse to process debit orders for union members and to campaign to force them to stop denying workers their constitutional right to join a union and depriving unions of much-needed funds.

The Summit expanded the interim steering committee to include the presidents of all unions in attendance. All members of this committee will be properly mandated by their members so that they have the authority to take bold decisions, and more importantly to see that these decisions are then fully implemented. It is hoped that the founding congress can be convened by the latest in 2017, possibly earlier.

There will be a campaign to say no to job losses, and yes to restructuring the economy. Active state support must be given to industrialisation and the creation of jobs, and government must increase tariffs, cut interest rates, reject inflation targeting, bring back capital controls and end privatisation. We shall support the campaign against the new laws on provident fund annuitisation.

An important page in labour history has been turned

The Workers Summit has agreed that measures must be taken to ensure that we have a new Workers Federation up and running before the end of the year. This will be a federation that leads by example. It will be a model of union democracy, and will show in practice how to unite workers by democratic means and not by dictatorship from the top. The new Federation will not be a ‘Board Room Federation’, but will actively link with workers’ struggles on the ground, so that all workers and their unions are supported and given the solidarity they need to win. This will be a federation that supports and encourages its affiliates to grow, and evolve to be able to respond to changes in the economy. This will be a federation that builds the capacity of its affiliates, through targeted recruitment campaigns, research, and workers’ education. Most importantly, it will link with informal workers, unemployed workers and poor communities that are experiencing very harsh conditions, so that workers everywhere will know that they are not alone, and that a solid new home is being built that will protect workers against the ravages of an economy that is based on exploitation and inequality. Our message today is very clear, forward to the New Federation.


Pakistan: failing state or neoliberalism in crisis?-Geoff Brown

Posted by admin On May - 8 - 2016 Comments Off on Pakistan: failing state or neoliberalism in crisis?-Geoff Brown

ammanullah khan

The popular image of Pakistan is of a failing state with nuclear weapons. Neither the government nor the army can prevent the Taliban’s terrorist outrages, not least because they cannot do without the proxy forces they use against Afghanistan and India, forces often indistinguishable from the Taliban in their methods. What follows seeks to show the falsity of this pathologising, Islamophobic mythology that pays little attention to Pakistan’s place in the global division of labour. It applies an understanding of imperialism as the combination of the unequal competition between capitals and the geopolitical conflicts between states aiming to show that the core elements of Pakistan’s crisis are not unique to Pakistan but result from dynamics which always produce uneven results.

Our starting point is the world economy. With global economic growth slow and without a full recovery from the 2008 crash, despite record stock market highs, Pakistan’s annual growth, at just over 4 percent, barely keeps GDP per head rising. Growth of 7 percent is needed to absorb the annual 2 million increase in the labour force. The resultant poverty for most of its 180 million people, half of them under 25, is not specific to Pakistan. Rather, as Karl Marx put it, “an accumulation of misery [is] a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth”.1 But why is Pakistan’s performance so weak when compared to most of South and East Asia? The argument that imperialism has underdeveloped Pakistan as some form of neo-colony is mistaken.2 The reasons for Pakistan’s failure to join the Asian tigers do not lie in unmediated North on South pressures from the heart of the beast, depriving Pakistan of access to productive resources.3 Rather the explanation lies in the failure of the Pakistan bourgeoisie to establish its territory as a location for successful accumulation in a world dominated by competing global capitals. Unlike India and South Korea, it has failed to establish its own multinationals. This is despite the geopolitical advantages it possesses with major powers competing to strengthen their influence.

Pakistan and surrounding countries

Pakistan’s colonial legacy

It is true that the early stages of capitalism as a global system, the primitive accumulation of capital, saw the Indian subcontinent robbed of greater wealth than anywhere else.4 The destruction of much of its textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries created a huge, captive market for British exports. Yet under imperial domination of the world’s most valuable colony there was a willingness to develop selected productive capacity in the Indian subcontinent.5 Arguably the most important example was the expansion of the Indus irrigation system in Punjab. Today it is the world’s largest, valued at $300 billion.6 Securing the north western border with Afghanistan against the expanding empire of the Russian tsars, the so-called “Great Game”, was an important element of British imperial strategy.

The British used a peculiarly sharp form of divide and rule in creating “Muslim” Pakistan in 1947. Partition, the division of the subcontinent, came at the cost of over a million lives. Pakistan was based on the large landowners of Punjab and, on the opposite side of the subcontinent, the privileged few of East Bengal in what would later become independent Bangladesh.7 Together with the mohajirs, educated migrants from northern India, they saw the opportunities to be gained from creating their own state. The result was a truncated state dominated by mohajir and Punjabi elites who oppressed all other nationalities including Sindhis, Pashtuns, Balochis and Bengalis economically, politically and culturally. The need to have India as a threat that justified Pakistan’s existence guaranteed that throughout the Cold War the subcontinent would never unite against the US and its allies. In two halves on opposite sides of the subcontinent separated by a thousand miles of hostile territory, starting with just 9 percent of the industry and virtually none of the banks that had existed in previously united India, Pakistan would always struggle to compete.

The first Asian tiger?

Despite this, Pakistan boosted its annual growth from 3.5 percent in the 1950s to
6.5 percent in the 1960s, overall a higher rate than India. Unlike India, as a loyal servant of Western imperialism Pakistan received substantial US military and civilian aid. It was, however, not its political loyalties that qualified it as the first Asian “tiger”: “Many countries sought to emulate Pakistan’s economic planning strategy and one of them, South Korea, copied its second Five Year Plan, 1960-65. In the early 1960s the per capita income of South Korea was less than double that of Pakistan”.8

The post-war boom provided a global market in which, with strong support from the state, capital intensive industry expanded rapidly. Starting as joint public-private ventures they were handed to private owners when they became viable. In effect, a new manufacturing bourgeoisie was created by the state.9 Such state-driven hothousing of economic growth was not unique to Pakistan. What distinguished it was the government’s pro-market attitude, particularly under its first military dictator, Ayub Khan. Pakistan welcomed advice from Gustav Papanek and other Harvard academics advocating “the social utility of greed”.10 While manufacturing output grew at an annual rate of 10 percent,11 real wages were kept down, both by squeezing agriculture to lower food prices and by repressing labour organisation. The share of wages in value added in manufacturing fell from 45 percent in 1954 to 25 percent in 1967.12 A number of private business groups, often called “the
22 families”, came to dominate manufacturing, insurance and finance.13

The uneven geographical distribution of growth was politically unsustainable. Trying to deal with this, in particular to forestall any electoral victory for Bengalis, who constituted 55 percent of the total population, the “One Unit” policy in 1955 combined the four provinces of West Pakistan into one with its capital in Lahore, Punjab’s largest city. East Bengal became “East Pakistan”. Land ownership was skewed in favour of rich farmers whose power grew as land reform failed. Often called “feudals”, the persistence of the term conveys their brutal control at the local level.

Regions of Pakistan
*AJK= Azad Jammu Kashmir, under control of Pakistan. Dashed lines denote disputed territories.
Not only were the benefits of growth unequally divided between classes14 but East Pakistan was treated almost as a colony of West Pakistan. The lion’s share of growth went to Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and the other big cities of Punjab and Sindh. As industry in these cities grew, so did slums which housed half of Pakistan’s urban population. Education, health services, public transport and welfare provision all failed to keep pace. Sustained repression of workers included shooting striking workers during the Karachi mass strike of March 1963.

By 1968 the masses had had enough of “managed democracy”. Students and workers rose against the regime and within four months Ayub Khan had gone, opening the way to the country’s first proper general election in 1970 with an overwhelming victory for Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan. The army under Ayub Khan’s successor, Yahya Khan, responded with genocidal repression which cost more lives than partition but was unable to avoid humiliating defeat at the hands of India. In December 1971 East Pakistan became Bangladesh. What was left, West Pakistan, found itself bankrupt.

The state capitalist alternative

As with all developing countries, the global recession of 1973-74 found Pakistan in a weak position to overcome the end of the post-war boom. Promoting a “third world” model of development which inspired radical nationalists in former colonies across the globe, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then a reformist politician, built a populist mass base, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He campaigned for working class and poor peasant votes using the slogan “Bread, clothing and shelter” and won the 1970 general election in West Pakistan. Taking office as president in December 1971, he vigorously pursued a Nasserite state capitalist strategy,15 immediately nationalising 31 major industrial enterprises, including steel, chemicals and cement and fertiliser plant. Three years later he followed this with nationalisation of banking, insurance and shipping. Bhutto’s more radical attempt at land reform failed as badly as its predecessors. While workers used new tactics such as gherao, occupying the workplace with the boss held captive in his office, Bhutto, much weakened by the loss of East Pakistan and unable to sustain the new social contract with the poor, the oppressed nationalities and women, turned on the radicals. A key turning point came in the Karachi textile mills, June-October 1972, where a mass strike and three month long occupation of working class communities with workers killed by police both in June and October ended with defeat for the workers.16

A large Sindhi landlord himself, Bhutto made alliances with the rich to bolster his position. Faced with quadrupled oil prices, he sought backing from Saudi Arabia by playing the “Islam card”. In 1974 he declared the million strong Ahmadi sect to be “un-Islamic” and three years later banned alcohol, made Friday an official holiday and shut down much of the cultural life in cities. General Zia-ul-Haq, a staunch Islamist, was appointed army chief of staff. Having attacked the radical base that had worked to bring him to power and strengthened the repressive apparatus, with an army chief who, unlike himself, was committed to an Islamist worldview, Bhutto had paved the way for Zia to depose him in a right wing coup. While there was no Chile-style involvement by the US, there was unofficial approval of Zia’s takeover in July 1977.17 Zia introduced elements of sharia law, sharpening sectarianism, but made no immediate changes in economic policy. Political parties together with labour unions and student unions were suppressed, journalists were flogged for criticising the dictatorship and party-less elections held, initially for local bodies, later in 1985 for national and provincial assemblies. A new layer of subservient “non-party” politicians were brought in.


Despite the growth achieved by Bhutto under difficult circumstances—the ­average rate in the 1970s, 4.8 percent, was higher than that in the 1950s—Zia came to accept the “Washington Consensus” over privatisation and deregulation, deficit reduction and trade liberalisation. The neoliberal “reforms” under Zia started slowly with roll-back measures to restore the private sector. By 1988, when Zia was killed in an air crash, the public sector share of total industrial investment had fallen from 73 to 18 percent. Though growth averaged over 6 percent, exports per capita stagnated (see figure 1). The interim government appointed by the military and headed by former IMF employees signed the structural adjustment agreements focused on reducing budget deficits and boosting currency reserves.

Figure 1: Exports of goods and services per capita 1980-2014 (in constant 2005 US dollars)
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators

These agreements set the course for the next decade. While the Asian tigers used state control to accumulate capital to bring “the end of the Third World”,18 Pakistan failed to keep pace. This was not because of external pressures, real as these were, but from a failure to use resources to accumulate and compete for a larger share of the world market. Instead the resources gained from its geopolitical situation, an (unpredictable) rentier benefit, paid for the coercion needed to sustain control. The resulting position of the army with its hegemonic political role has reduced parties to little more than organised patronage. While investment in education, research, health and welfare remains minimal, the political class focuses on dividing the spoils.

The depth of ethnic division and lack of any Pakistani national ideology beyond seeing India as the eternal enemy have made a strong military necessary if Pakistan is to survive as a single entity. The success of Bengali nationalists in breaking away in 1971 inspires Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi nationalists. It makes the myth of India as a permanent threat indispensable.

The International Monetary Fund

Pakistan’s relation to neoliberal imperialism has not been one of subservience. Foreign multinationals play a limited role. Rather IMF loans have been used to postpone and ultimately avoid the reforms that they were designed for. Since 1988 Pakistan has had 12 IMF programmes, more than all other South Asian countries combined. None have succeeded in reducing the budget deficit or increasing the tax base. Pakistan still has a tax to GDP ratio of less than 9 percent, half that of India and a quarter of the OECD average. The rich evade paying tax; and the military takes 35 percent of the budget. Throughout the 1990s exports hardly grew and development expenditure fell with a growing layer of aid-funded NGOs in a quasi welfare state role. Support for foreign reserves came not from increased exports but from loans that continued thanks to US fears of civil breakdown in Pakistan (as happened in Sudan after the IMF withdrew).

Thus IMF programmes not only failed to bring reform but acted as a shield protecting Pakistan’s ruling class from the need to reform. Today a combination of unilateral US, European Union and Saudi aid plus IMF and World Bank programmes provide what can be called “geopolitical rent”. The current IMF programme provides $6.7 billion, paid in quarterly tranches. Through the 1990s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muslim League governments, relying on IMF loans, presided over growth averaging little more than 4 percent. There was little difference between the PPP, led by Bhutto’s daughter Benazir with a popular base in the cities plus backing from Sindhi feudals, and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (PML-N), party of the big bourgeoisie and landlords.

From General Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 military coup to the collapse of the global boom in 2008, growth averaged 7 percent per year—without, however, Pakistan catching up on its competitors. The government debt burden fell; the IMF programmes stopped. As elsewhere, this was credit-fuelled expansion. The middle class grew along with consumer debt. The banks were given the largest interest rate spread in the world, much of their lending contributing to a property bubble. Speculators hoarded sugar, flour and rice whose prices jumped. Mobile phone use grew exponentially and private TV channels flourished, neither having much impact on labour productivity. This was a joyless boom with little improvement in most people’s living standards and none in Pakistan’s competitiveness.

As the officer class enriched itself, Musharraf, both military chief and president, found himself increasingly challenged by the judiciary. In suspending the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, in March 2007, he triggered a wave of protests led by lawyers against the growing corruption and incompetence of his dictatorship. Baton charging the protests only radicalised the movement, which climaxed with the elections in early 2008 replacing Musharraf with PPP boss Asif Zardari, husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Under Zardari, government borrowings rose by 10.3 trillion Pakistani rupees ($100 billion), pushing debt up to 68 percent of GDP. His successor from 2013, Nawaz Sharif, has taken $32 billion in loans from China, $11 billion from the World Bank, $6.64 billion from the IMF and $2 billion in eurobonds.

Efforts to boost tax revenues to overcome the low income tax to GDP ratio have done nothing to reduce tax evasion, only increasing the burden on the poor with indirect tax revenue nearly twice that from direct taxation.19 Meanwhile, despite extensive borrowing, load-shedding—power cuts of six hours daily in big cities and up to 22 hours in rural areas—continues as electricity production lags 25 percent behind demand, up to 60 percent in summer. Unregulated development leading to pollution and the destruction of the environment is the norm. Dams and the manipulation of irrigation systems were important contributors to catastrophic flood damage that has destroyed the livelihoods of several million people since 2010.

Labour rights are weaker than under the British. Some 95 percent of Sindh’s 14 million workers are unregistered with no entitlement to social security benefits. There is no enforcement mechanism for the minimum wage. Labour inspectors in Punjab and Sindh have not set foot in a factory for more than 10 years. The owners of the Ali Enterprise clothing factory in Karachi, where locked fire doors led to the death of over 250 workers in September 2012, had no record of the names of most of the thousand workers in the plant when the fire started. They were hired on casual contracts by a senior manager acting as an employment agency. Inflation, averaging 8 percent, robs the poor. The official figure for August 2015, 1.7 percent, is a 12-year low. The effective rate for those spending over half their income on food is higher.20 The worsening figures for stunted growth in children under five indicate that increases in the rate of exploitation undermine the capacity of labour power to reproduce.21

Accumulate, accumulate!

Support for export-led growth had to focus on textiles, Pakistan’s most important industry, today employing 15 million workers, 30 percent of the industrial workforce, and producing just under 10 percent of GDP. With global exports of textiles and clothing around $600 billion, Pakistan is a relatively minor player with exports of $13 billion in 2014 (table 1). Its textile industry, untrammelled by regulation, paying male workers less than Rs12,000 a month (£80) for a 53-hour week and female workers Rs6,900,22 competes with that of Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia in the race to the bottom (see table 1). Given Pakistan’s position as the world’s fourth largest producer of raw cotton there is a clear failure to make the downstream investment needed fully to exploit the value added potential of this crop, much of which is exported as yarn or semi-finished cloth, often of poor quality. This is despite the capital needed to expand the clothing industry being far less than the current investment in large-scale spinning and weaving plant, much of it concentrated in large integrated plants, with up to 20,000, mainly male, workers. The clothing industry is relatively labour intensive, generally in much smaller units with vast and growing numbers of subcontractors, often home based women paid lower wages. Expanding it would require investment in a more skilled workforce in the increasingly sophisticated supply chain for clothing exports across the globe.

Table 1: Clothing exports of selected economies (million dollars)
Source: World Trade Organisation, 2014.





















































Sri Lanka












Viet Nam





Industry’s failure to invest in fixed capital can, in the first instance, be explained by a gross national saving rate of 13 percent compared to India’s 34 percent, Bangladesh’s 30 percent and China’s 50 percent.23 Pakistan’s annual foreign direct investment (FDI) is only $1.5 billion ($8 per capita) and its total FDI is $24.33 billion—India’s is 12 times as much, $310 billion. The problem is not too much foreign control of Pakistan but too little investment. One important reason is the energy crisis. Another is the law and order situation in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest industrial centre. There are reports of textile plant relocating to Bangladesh.24 The resulting weak growth creates vicious circles. With few jobs being created, labour migrates abroad, particularly to the Gulf. Betweem 2008 and 2013 some 2.5 million workers left, many skilled, a brain drain weakening Pakistan as an investment location and reinforcing dependence on foreign aid and remittances from expatriates. Running at $15 billion a year, these remittances are indispensable in paying for much of Pakistan’s imports.

The stick of “open door” imperialism continues with the occasional carrot such as the European Union’s 2013 decision to grant Pakistan trade concessions conditional on progress with human rights and ILO conventions. The 20 percent increase in textile exports to the economically stagnant EU, Pakistan’s largest export market, in the first eight months of 201525 shows the EU’s softer strategy compared to that of the US. It illustrates how states and their representative institutions such as the EU, however much they are influenced by multinational corporations, dominate economic development.

An Islamic state?

Hamza Alavi’s concept of the relatively autonomous “overdeveloped state” in “such peripheral capitalist societies as Pakistan”26 implies a ­self-perpetuating burden condemning Pakistan to permanent domination—sometimes open, sometimes hidden—by the military. But Pakistan did not inherit an overweight state apparatus from the British, quite the opposite. Rather, the various forms of “strong” state in Pakistan are rooted in partition and the consequent need for a vast military to deal with India.

It was this weakness of the Muslim landowners that led to Muhammad Jinnah’s adoption of a “two nations, Muslims and Hindus” theory to justify dividing the subcontinent. Jinnah’s use of religion was, however, very soft. Pakistan was not an Islamic state:

Islam and Hinduism are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but in fact different and distinct social orders, and it is only a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality… To yoke together two such nations under a single state…must lead to a growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state.27

It was, however, impossible to show that life for Muslims in Pakistan was better than in India. In 1953 there was rioting in Punjab with Ahmadi sect members targeted as “non-Muslims”. Bangladesh’s secession left Pakistan with only a third of the subcontinent’s Muslims. Consequently the ongoing efforts by governments to reinforce the “Muslim identity”, school syllabuses shaping the common sense of the young, can only be understood as “playing the Muslim card”.28 While Jinnah insisted that Pakistan “should be a modern democratic state with sovereignty resting in the people and the members of the new nation having equal rights of citizenship regardless of their religion, caste or creed”,29 others argued the state should be based on sharia law. Pakistan’s successive constitutions contained compromises reflecting politicians’ alliances with religious forces, forces that have rarely been electorally successful. The judgement of the Supreme Court’s sharia bench that land reform contradicts Islam continues to reinforce the power of landlords. Despite assurances given over the years to minorities, Bhutto declared in 1974 that Ahmadis were not Muslim, boosting sectarianism, not just against Ahmadis but also against Shia, Hindu and Christian minorities. The 1977 ban on un-Islamic practices such as drinking alcohol laid the ground for Zia to introduce the Hudood ordinances, which enshrined sharia-based discrimination against women into law.

The growing strength of Islamist organisation has reached the point where any move towards secularism risks a violent response. Despite the links between terrorist activity and thousands of madrassas with several million students, funded both locally and by rich Sunni interests in the Gulf, commitments to regulate madrassas remain verbal. The key Islamist organisations are used by the deep state, ie the military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which gives the Islamists the freedom to spread their networks. In return they can be employed to provide proxy forces in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Asad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and elsewhere.

The national question

Underlying the contradictions of the Islamic Republic is the national question. Conflicts between the four provinces have grown. Punjab, with over half of Pakistan’s population, benefits at the expense of the others. The majority of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK)30 was opposed to the partition of India in 1947 only to be forced to join Pakistan. Balochistan, the largest and poorest province, was only incorporated into Pakistan after invasion in 1948. Since then the state responds brutally to nationalist resistance with daily “disappearances” of activists whose bodies are often later found mutilated.31 Almost none of Balochistan’s gas and other natural resources have been used to develop the province. Sindh, the only province in West Pakistan with majority support for the Muslim League before 1947, quickly experienced discrimination in the distribution of resources. The recent 18th constitutional amendment, devolving education, labour, etc to provincial governments, is undermined by “apex committees”, ostensibly established to speed implementation of the counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP), and unable to correct the imbalances.

The army’s control of the deep state has combined with the corrupt practices of big business to hollow out the state’s formal structures. A coterie comprising army chief Raheel Sharif, his five corps commanders, prime minister Nawaz, his brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab and Ishak Dar, minister of finance, make all the important decisions. The current priority is the domestic “war on terror”. But this has to be balanced with defence against the traditional enemy, so as the perceived threat level from India rises and falls, policy zigzags back and forth. The massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 brought renewed commitment to the “war on terror”, to be followed a month later by concern that the defence posture towards India needed strengthening with Barack Obama’s India visit. It is not only that the resources to do both at once are not available but that they contradict each other. Defence against India involves strengthening precisely those Islamist organisations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Haqqani network that are the enemy in the “war on terror”. Unable directly to confront the vastly superior Indian forces, Pakistan has, since the 1990s, used these organisations as proxies. This sustains the myth of an ongoing challenge to India’s 68-year occupation of Kashmir and provides some control of the Afghan border needed to make “strategic depth” possible. At the same time the proxies’ jihadist ideology leads them to challenge the Pakistani state, often violently, whenever it looks for an accommodation with Indian or Afghan governments.

The army is caught in this contradiction. Since both religion and nation have to be used to justify their position, India must remain the enemy. Inevitably, India’s reaction is to expand its own military capacities, especially nuclear, creating an arms race draining the resources available for productive investment. This squeezes health, education and welfare spending. Pakistan spends 2.5 percent of GDP on education, India 3.9 percent, South Korea 4.6 percent.32

Despite having lost all the wars it has fought with India, the army describes itself as “the guardians of the geographical and ideological frontiers of the nation”. The confrontation with India over Kashmir, cause of three wars, remains unresolved. The “strategic depth” policy, the control of the Afghan border area, the army’s rear in any future conflict with India, necessitates good relations with the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, the proxy forces used in Afghanistan and Indian-occupied Kashmir, irregular Islamist militants, anti-Hindu and often anti-Shia, have spread across the country, often based in madrassas. Some carry out sectarian killings against “non-Muslims” such as the large Shia minority, and others have joined the Pakistani Taliban, though often only on a temporary basis, dependent on shifting tribal alliances and who is providing funding. Despite increasingly violent blowback, the military argues the only alternative is to admit defeat and accept a junior partnership position with India.

The US versus China

Pakistan depends on competition between rival imperialisms. After 1947, countering India’s good relations with Russia, the US-Pakistan alliance was underpinned with aid.33 This vital component of the economic boom of the 1960s was withdrawn after Pakistan’s attack on India in 1965. Relations with the US further worsened in the 1970s with Bhutto’s state capitalism, his anti-imperialist rhetoric and the decision to develop nuclear weapons. Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, Pakistan was a key US ally funnelling US aid to the mujahideen fighting the Russians. However, the collapse of the USSR and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme caused US aid to fall to an all-time low in the 1990s, relations cooling further when General Musharraf’s coup in 1999 established Pakistan’s third military dictatorship. Immediately after 9/11 US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage invited Musharraf to be an ally in the “war on terror”, threatening to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if the invitation was refused.

Since then assistance, mainly military, has fluctuated along with US perceptions of the terrorist threat. Anti-US sentiment in Pakistan has increased with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, deaths of civilians caused by US drones and a CIA agent shooting two men dead on the streets of Lahore. Aid nevertheless continues at around $1.5 billion a year as the US seeks to maintain its credibility in the region after defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic State. For Pakistan the price of US aid is high. The decision in June 2014 to attack North Waziristan, stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban and also a refuge for many foreign Islamist militants, has cost $1.9 billion creating 80,000 casualties and a million refugees. Far from defeating the enemy, Taliban activity has increased across Pakistan.

The often tense relations with the US contrast strongly with Pakistan’s joint ventures with China including airports and two nuclear power stations near Karachi and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, new investments estimated at $46 billion. A new port at Gwadar, built and managed by China, will give China access to the Arabian Sea and all points west, cutting out the need for the long, vulnerable route round South East Asia through the Malacca Straits. These projects draw on around $40 billion in soft loans from the world’s largest creditor. China has earned the title of Pakistan’s “all-weather friend”, avoiding the rancour so often found in US-Pakistan relations.

Taliban, resistance of the rural poor and the “war on terror”

The British Raj had established a system of control by the maliks, the propertied class, in the settled areas of today’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This was reinforced with regulations allowing government agents to use force including collective punishment. Starting in the 1960s, the maliks’ authority was undermined by mass emigration to Karachi and later to the Gulf. In Karachi, Pashtun businesses came to dominate transport and construction. Together with the advantage of some modern education, the power of émigré remittances produced a challenge to traditional authority.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was the key event in the decay of the power of the maliks. Some 35,000 young Muslims from across the world came to fight. They revived the tradition of a challenge from below, movements led by low status mullahs, often charismatic figures. They drew strength from the growing reputation of Islamism, the successful mujahideen challenge to the “socialist” regime in Kabul and its Russian “communist” backers and the Iranian Revolution’s overthrow of the Shah’s pro-US regime.

After 9/11, under pressure from the US, Pakistan, now “a key non-NATO ally”, sent 80,000 troops to fight fleeing Taliban. The question was whether to sustain the policy of strategic depth and relations with the Taliban or support the “war on terror”. The answer was to allow Taliban forces such as the Haqqani network to escape capture while continuing to publicise unverified “successes” in anti-terrorist operations. Good relations with the Afghan Taliban, however, also required some kind of relationship with the emerging Pakistani Taliban after the army’s invasion of Waziristan in the tribal areas in 2004 started the “Talibanisation” of Pashtun communities. These communities had strongly reacted against the breach of the agreement dating back to the Raj whereby the military stayed outside tribal areas. Resistance grew, strengthened in response to the US’s use of drones. From 2006 the Taliban marginalised tribal leaders, killing hundreds and forcing others to flee. The main Pakistani Taliban organisation, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), was established in December 2007. As malik rule weakened, the army tried to build alliances with warlords, distinguishing between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban”.

Efforts to restore support for central and provincial government among Pashtuns such as renaming the province were not backed by any serious increase in material resources. Growing inequality in the supply of electricity, water, jobs, health facilities and quality education meant the Taliban was able to present itself as a credible alternative to the dysfunctional Pakistani state. For example, in contrast to the official system of justice, the Taliban offer was quick and cheap. As the “war on terror” stoked anger, the military continued to fudge. The KPK government made a power-sharing agreement with the local Taliban in Swat in central Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that, as Malala Yousafzai described in her BBC blog, the Taliban used to attack local girls’ schools.34 Under pressure from the US, the army invaded Swat in 2009, at a cost of thousands of lives and over 2 million refugees. Despite growing anger towards the US, Obama’s aid package of $7.5 billion over five years was accepted a few months later. This committed the military to support Obama’s so called “Af-Pak” strategy which used Pakistani troops to do the fighting against the Taliban and Al Qaeda with NGOs running development projects. Unable to create a sustainable opposition force to counter the Taliban, the package has failed miserably.

Pakistan today

Five years on, nothing of importance has changed. Military occupation has expanded, most recently in June 2014 with Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. The massacre of 143 children and staff in the Peshawar army public school in December 2014 was immediately followed by indiscriminate aerial bombing of tribal areas killing hundreds, all “terrorists” according to the military’s communiqués. The Pakistan media has dutifully repeated this despite being banned from the areas under attack. With 7,000 prisoners on death row, a six year old moratorium on implementing the death penalty was lifted. An emergency amendment to the constitution enabled military courts to handle terrorism cases, breaching the constitutional principle separating judiciary and executive.

“Modernisers” such as Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Movement for Justice Party (PTI), argue for integrating Pakistan further into the global economy. Representing the interests of the growing professional classes, they aim to create the growth that can ease national tensions and reduce the need for a strong state. However, the desire to demonstrate national unity at the top resulted in Khan calling off the four-month mass sit-in in the autumn of 2014 against vote-rigging and corruption, in order to unite with Muslim League, People’s Party and other parties to back the new counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP). After countless meetings of NAP committees, many chaired by the prime minister, actions such as shutting down the dozens of outfits on the official list of terrorist organisations have not been carried out. The Supreme Court found it necessary to order the government to publish the list. Having invested so much in its proxies, the deep state refuses to abandon them. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, political-welfare wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist organisation focused primarily on Kashmir, was able to bring over 10,000 supporters onto the streets of Karachi in protest against Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.

Imran Khan’s calls for reform continue. Launched at a giant rally in Lahore on Independence Day, August 2014, his populist strategy gave hope to many. His supporters, together with those of the moderate cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, marched on Islamabad to sit down in front of parliament. The protest expressed the anger of all but the very rich at Nawaz’s failure to deal with the Taliban or to tackle any of the basic problems such as load-shedding and corruption. In June 2014 the fruitless efforts to find a “good Taliban” through talks with elements of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan ended after the humiliating attack on Karachi airport and the start of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

The May 2013 election had been heralded as a step forward for Pakistan, as the Muslim League took over from the People’s Party, the first time a civilian government completed a full five-year term to be replaced by another. The new government put the former dictator Musharraf on trial. Such moves strengthened the US narrative of “fighting the Taliban in the name of democracy”, important given their plans to withdraw from Afghanistan having failed to defeat the Taliban. In reality, the pro “war on terror” governing parties in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) and People’s Party were massively voted down. The Islamic reformists Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) having equivocated on the “war on terror” also did badly. These defeats came as no surprise. At a cost of $100 billion since 9/11,35 the “war on terror” has broken tribal self-governing traditions and created widespread despair.

The election itself triggered unprecedented protests against vote-rigging. Despite the heavy military presence, Balochistan saw the independence movement’s mass support ensure a near complete boycott. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, pledging to end drone attacks, Imran Khan’s PTI topped the polls. In Punjab, Pakistan’s most powerful province, it was a “No” vote against the ruling People’s Party which gave victory to the PML-N, largely because the PTI could rally opposition to electricity shortages. Karachi and other cities in Sindh saw a huge vote against the gangster tactics of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Karachi’s ruling party for the last 25 years. The MQM is the party of the mohajirs, the relatively well educated and more affluent migrants from India who dominated Pakistan’s capital until it was moved from Karachi to Islamabad in 1959. The nationalisations of the 1970s saw young mohajirs marginalised as jobs went increasingly to new waves of migrants, mostly from rural areas. Initially a mohajir student leader, Altaf Hussain established the MQM as a reactionary force challenging this marginalisation and seeking concessions at the expense of others by trying to define the new migrants as privileged.

The ruling parties

The Muslim League had promised to revive the economy through deregulation and by cutting bureaucracy. It also pledged to increase spending on health, education, young people and women. Its industrialist backers, hampered by load-shedding and high interest rates, were to get privatisation, cheaper credit and international partnerships. On each point the government has failed. As its predecessor had done, the so-called circular debt owed to the electric power companies totalling Rs500 billion ($5 billion) was cleared by government. Nothing, though, was done to prevent big business dodging its electricity bills. Nor did the government have the confidence to end subsidies and raise prices to cover costs. After just 18 months the circular debt was back, the power companies were again unable to pay for their fuel and the load-shedding returned. The new government claimed that higher indirect taxes on mobile phone calls and petrol would pay the private power producers. This was simply to make workers pay while protecting capital. Other neoliberal policies such as lower interest rates, higher prices for basic goods, devaluation and an IMF bailout followed a pattern that has polarised Turkey, Egypt and Brazil. While the recent fall in oil prices will ease matters, the government’s failures, especially load-shedding, have undermined support in all but the best-connected business circles.

There is no shortage of ambitious objectives. Overall the plan is to increase growth to 5 percent a year and cut the deficit. In 2012 half of government spending went to the gas and electricity companies, vastly increasing the deficit. The current plan involves public sector spending cuts and privatising steel, airline and rail companies at a cost of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The funds released will further enrich the energy companies that already dominate the stock market. The other major beneficiaries are the textile, rice and leather exporters who get preferential treatment in tax reductions and rebates on exports. So the stock market rises not because the economy is booming but because of the super-profits of the energy and export sectors based on government support and subsidy. There is no reason to suppose that government commitments to the IMF to levy new taxes to lower the deficit will be any more successful than in the past.36

The government aims to restore investor confidence. What public investment takes place is built without any serious planning, only projects guaranteeing massive profits to the few. For example, the heavily subsidised Lahore Bus Rapid Transport, a single 16-mile route with 86 buses, has cost Rs30 billion (£200 million). Meanwhile Karachi, twice the size of Lahore, remains the largest city in the world without a publicly funded transport system, dependent on 10,000 privately owned buses and 50,000 six seater motor tricycles.

The middle class reformist challenge

Notwithstanding the apparent return of stable parliamentary government, hatred of the ruling elite continues. While rising inequality is global, Pakistan’s appallingly low spending on health, education and welfare as shown in its UN Human Development Index rating, remains much weaker than its GDP per capita would indicate. Public health spending is 1.0 percent of GDP in Pakistan, 7.8 percent in Britain and 8.3 percent in the US.37 Perhaps the harshest indicators are the statistics for the condition of women: In 2012 there were approximately 500 “honour” killings and out of a total of 9 million pregnancies, 4.2 million were unintended with 54 percent resulting in induced abortions, almost all clandestine. Some 623,000 women were treated for complications arising from induced abortions.38

In May 2013 the megacities Karachi and Lahore saw a massive uprising of young people protesting against the fixing of the general election. They were led by members of the professional middle class, challenging the ballot-rigging and demanding re-elections in almost 100 of the 290 seats contested. The success of the Balochistan independence movement’s election boycott ensured that its provincial government would be a puppet of Islamabad.

Almost all the political heavyweights from prominent KPK families suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of little known, middle class candidates, mostly from the PTI. Massive spending on roads and education in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, including scores of schools, 70 colleges and eight universities, failed to win votes as most people saw government sponsored developments as corrupt failures.

Imran Khan built his support thanks to his reform programme. People in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa voted for him hoping for an end to the war and a negotiated settlement with the Pakistani Taliban. The PTI is primarily a party representing professionals: doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, managers in larger businesses. Together with educated youth keen to become professionals, they have emerged as a challenge to all middle class parties in the urban centres across Pakistan, asserting themselves ever more independently of big capital and its various political formations. Large numbers of lawyers and educated young people have been active against the war, corruption at highest levels and the interference of the military in civilian matters. The high points of this activity were the two “long marches” of the 2007 lawyers’ movement that twice resulted in the restoration of the senior judges sacked by General Musharraf. The urban youth now active in the PTI are led by students from middle class professional colleges particularly in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, desperate to rescue Pakistan from the disasters brought about by its Western-backed ruling elite.

Small and medium capital faced ruin during the years of People’s Party rule with its load-shedding, expanding war and the falling purchasing power of the mass of the population. Professionals, earning up to Rs7.5 million (£50,000) a year have not been weakened to the same extent. Traditional parties like the Muslim League and Jamaat-e-Islami who used to represent the small business class have failed to adapt. The PTI has emerged as representative of professionals, appealing to the masses by pointing to the poverty, rising inflation, corruption and lack of healthcare and education. Expressing the growing confidence of professional layers, it has benefitted from the weakening of the traditional petty bourgeoisie and its parties because of the impact of neoliberalism. The assertion of this layer against the super-rich, those associated with international capital and the domination of the military, comes from the realisation that they and those poorer than themselves pay most of the taxes while the rich and powerful are the main beneficiaries. Hence, despite the weakness of its policies—more private investment, less state involvement and a bigger role for NGOs—the PTI programme has a strong appeal when it says it will jail the corrupt, bring their money back to Pakistan and end their privileges and manipulation of the state machinery.

Pakistan needs approximately $40 billion to pay for its imports. Exports bring in $25 billion; remittances from Pakistanis working abroad, mainly the Middle East, Europe and USA contribute $14 billion, a six-fold increase in the past 12 years. Imran Khan and the cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have appealed to Pakistani professionals living abroad, promising to give them a role in the country’s politics. This appeal to expats has provided almost 80 percent of PTI funding enabling it to spend billions on media campaigns. It is noticeable, though, that unlike the traditional parties that build local organisation, the PTI cadres find themselves mere cheerleaders as private event managers run the PTI rallies.

Western media have regularly used Imran Khan’s opposition to war and calls to negotiate peace with the Pakistani Taliban as evidence that he is right wing. In reality, the PTI is socially liberal and uses a mix of Islam and nationalism similar to that used by the People’s Party when it was founded in the late 1960s and earlier by the Muslim League itself. When it comes to negotiating with imperialism, the PTI has proved no less willing to compromise than the established parties. In late 2012, as the Muslim League’s attempt to create a movement against People’s Party rule was failing, it was the PTI that emerged as a challenger both to the Muslim League and the People’s Party. As a result, a number of Muslim League stalwarts joined the PTI. However, the floodgates did not open, largely because the PTI was too weakly organised, particularly in rural areas. In class terms, the PTI challenge to the Muslim League is a challenge by the professional layer to big and medium sized capital.

The 2013 elections in Pakistan showed the mix of revolts that have hit this so-called frontline state in the war against terror. Like any rebellion, it brought to the fore new political forces that challenge the system in apparently reformist ways. However, up till now those involved have very high expectations. In KPK, despite the wave of support for the government after the Peshawar massacre, there is a huge desire for an end to the war. In Punjab, it is the energy crisis that motivates mass opposition. In Karachi and Sindh’s other cities people want an end to the politics of the gun.

The election generated hopes that the indifference of the ruling elite would disappear and that poverty, unemployment and hunger would be addressed. The Karachi youth who came out in their thousands demanding the right to vote after the MQM had stopped them were among the 30 million on the electoral register targeted by billions of rupees of state and NGO money exhorting them to vote. Professional middle class leaders like Imran Khan promised a “tsunami” that would not only wipe out their opponents but the entire structure of state repression. Business class leaders like Nawaz Sharif roused hundreds of thousands at rallies claiming voting Muslim League would save Pakistan from those destroying it. It is the promise of such “revolutions” of the professional middle class and the business class leaders that instilled hopes of reform into millions everywhere except Balochistan. Now these parties have to put the genie back into the bottle.

The millions who voted PTI in May 2013 included many young people but also 80 percent of women voters in Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh. In Lahore hundreds of thousands of under-25s voted PTI in the hope it would wipe out the old, corrupt ruling system. However, the PTI leadership failed to take up this huge challenge. It limited the movement to social media and sit-ins under military protection rather than spreading the movement to workplaces, colleges and universities. Nor was it ready to give a strike call to demand fresh elections in the many seats its supporters consider lost due to vote-rigging. It wanted to reinstate faith in the failed Election Commission, persuading people to believe it is not the system but its mismanagement that is the problem. It was also eager to accept the results in KPK and form a government. Hence Imran Khan nominating billionaire Pervaiz Khattak as KPK chief minister.

These attempts to put a lid on the movement and impose leadership on the various assemblies that claim to represent the will of the people show a fearful ruling class. This widening gap between hopes and reality grew dramatically at the beginning of 2013 when Qadri mobilised people to march on Islamabad demanding electoral reform. The 20,000-strong Islamabad dharnas (sit-ins) that started in August 2014 led by Khan and Qadri, and with some support behind the scenes from the military, allowed a further demonstration of popular anger.

Why do such movements fail to break a system imposed from above and seen by all to be weak? The answer lies in the contending forces. In Karachi the PTI emerged as a force challenging the mafia-style rule of the MQM. Here a huge majority of the population voted against the MQM who, as usual, rigged the elections winning 18 out of 20 seats. The protests by young people, at first independently organised, were quickly taken under control by the PTI leadership wanting to pressure the Election Commission to permit some repolling. When the MQM terror struck one day before the repolling of only a part of one of the 19 disputed seats, a majority of would-be PTI voters were terrorised into staying at home. All parties opposing the MQM had demanded elections under military supervision. The state ensured that its military presence appeared as a neutral force stopping the MQM killers from attacking those voters who appeared on the repolling day. In the event, the turnout was down by three quarters. Those wishing to rid Karachi of the MQM stranglehold were reminded by the military that it is they who decide if the masses will be allowed to participate in the parliamentary process. It was the same when, in early 2014, tens of thousands, having taken part in a “long march” to the capital Islamabad, braved the cold and rain to sit-in for five days in front of the national assembly until Qadri, fearful of a police attack, retreated with a sham set of promises.

The “tsunami” mobilised by the PTI, the march and the sit-ins organised by Khan and Qadri all presented a Pakistani nationalist view based on fear of a collapse of the state, reflecting the growing chaos experienced by the professional and middle classes. They have attracted the support of a huge mass of the underprivileged by claiming they will rid the system of its corrupt rulers. They use the words “revolution” and “tsunami” but their attempt to halt the decline is an entirely reformist scheme. At its core is the desire to continue with this systematic indifference towards the working masses. When pressured by the military, Imran Khan will abandon his supporters, for example, calling off the 2013-14 blockade of NATO supplies to Afghanistan staged in protest against the US use of drones. The professional and middle classes have neither the strength nor the will really to challenge the system. They raise the hopes of the masses only to limit any movement that arises. They call for free and fair elections but only for a parliament full of billionaires and the already powerful. They challenge the mafia-style rule of the MQM but they wish only to take the place of the MQM. They call for an end to state terror in Balochistan but only in so far as such lip-service is needed to cover their Pakistani nationalism, a nationalism that has always denied any demand for freedom for the Baloch.

Since the 1970s industrialists in Sindh and Punjab have robbed Balochistan of its gas reserves. More recently this pillage has been joined by Australian and European multinationals. The new Gwadar port in Balochistan and the highways connecting it help Pakistani and Chinese capital but marginalise the local population. Such developments have changed Baloch resistance from its roots in partition and Balochistan’s subsequent occupation by the Pakistani military. What used to be fought and led by tribes and tribal leaders in the mountains is now taking place in the populated areas along the coast under middle class leadership, a vicious conflict characterised by “disappearances” and cold-blooded murders of political activists. Meanwhile the Pakistani state claims that minor interventions by Iran and Afghanistan are a threat to Baloch interests. However, it is with precisely these same “interventionists” that the Pakistani state is working on mega-projects including the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and Afghan-Pakistan hydropower projects.

“Laissez-faire” urbanisation and ethnic division

The toughest of all the “ethnic” political parties remains the MQM. However, as the IMF-led privatisations of the 1990s brought professional education and jobs back to Karachi, the MQM turned itself into a Karachi nationalist formation. It broadened its base, substituting “Muttahida” (United) for “Mohajir” in its name and championing the development of Karachi. Based among the lower middle classes, its leadership used gangster muscle power to silence its opponents, thousands of whom have been killed since the late 1980s.

Despite this, challenges to the MQM’s rule have grown as Karachi has become divided into areas held by competing mafias. Mass migrations from rural areas, especially from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, have brought major changes in the city’s political landscape. Today Karachi stands divided into three distinct parts each ruled by a mafia with its own political cover. The resulting weakening of MQM control has led big capital to call for power sharing between the MQM, the People’s Party and Pashtun nationalists. The recent elections saw the PTI emerge as the second largest party in Karachi. Had the MQM not rigged the vote, the PTI would have taken at least half Karachi’s seats.

In Karachi the huge, if often passive, support for the PTI has put MQM leaders under tremendous pressure. Its weakness is also a problem for the Pakistani state; demanding rights for mohajirs, the MQM’s core support, has allowed big business and state institutions to use divide and rule to crush resistance. However, the havoc of privatisation and deregulation has unleashed a new generation of tens of thousands of the unemployed and semi-employed that the MQM alone cannot manage. Threatened by Karachi’s instability, big business has been suggesting multi-party rule for some years. The PTI leadership sees the protests as an opportunity to show it has a serious popular base. However, it also has to show it has the power to coerce the masses it has mobilised, to suppress workers and students from organising where they work and study. This combination of consent and coercion, which the MQM has sustained for 25 years, no longer works, creating the possibility for alternatives. The military’s choice has been to give the Pashtun middle classes in Karachi proper representation. In 2015 the paramilitary Sindh Rangers carried out a massive campaign against the street power of the MQM and, to a lesser extent, the PPP. With around 500 extra-judicial killings—many “shot while trying to escape”—they have forced the remaining MQM militants underground. For the first time in decades an MQM call in September for a city shutdown, in protest at extra-judicial killings, failed.

Where now?

If reformist leaders succeed in restricting the movement to changes through parliament, its aims will remain limited to power struggles between members of the elite. Against this possibility the resistance from below constantly asserts itself. There are daily protests against water shortages and ­load-shedding. Larger-scale protest movements have successfully blocked the building of new dams. The post-election budget triggered strikes in state enterprises and government offices, winning 10 percent pay rises. The 20,000 members of the Faisalabad-based power loom workers’ union, the Labour Qaumi Movement, have achieved the distinction of being accused of bullying by local employers forced to pay wage increases. The fisherfolk organisation, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, mounted mass protests successfully challenging the theft of inland fishing rights by the paramilitary Rangers. The Young Doctors Association in Lahore struck successfully, forcing chief minister Shahbaz Sharif to negotiate with them over both their pay and conditions and the provision of free healthcare. In Gilgit-Baltistan, Shia and Sunni united in a week long mass “shutter down” and “wheel lock” strike in April 2014 to force the federal government to restore the bread subsidy. In Punjab the brick kiln workers’ movement against debt bondage has mobilised thousands against the kiln owners.

While none of these movements is national in scope, the demand for democracy that has drawn people into activity since the 2013 election means greater opposition to neoliberalism. The elite are ever more divided on the “war on terror”. They are also split on whether to promote a bigger role for international capital, so further limiting democracy and weakening trust in state institutions while requiring more military operations. The alternative is to rebuild trust in the state and check the role of global capital. As a result, the ruling elite has been forced to deliver reforms and restore the independence of the judiciary, resulting, if only temporarily, in huge numbers of ­anti-corruption cases. However, none of these movements has spread far enough to include the national question, the Baloch and the Pashtun insurgencies, nor has the working class managed to put itself at the centre of these struggles.

Large numbers of young people, especially students in Punjab and in other urban centres are now engaged in PTI politics. The PTI leadership wishes to keep all struggles confined to winning seats in elections. Time and again it has lagged behind its supporters. Despite this the prospect of new, larger protests will not disappear. An important example is the all-out strike against the privatisation of Pakistan International Airlines which saw hundreds of thousands take solidarity action across Pakistan after the military killed two PIA workers on a demonstration at Karachi airport.39 It is up to those wishing to overthrow this rotten system to organise where they work, where they study and on the streets to unite the movements of resistance against war and neoliberalism.


1 Marx, 1976, p799.

2 Ahmed, 1983.

3 Callinicos, 2009, p12.

4 Alavi, 1981, Ashman, 1997, Luxemburg, 1963, p371, Marx, 1853.

5 “From 1802 to 1814, the East India Company built 31 ships in London and 38 in India”—Prothero, 1979, p49.

6 Belokrenitsky, 1991.

7 Alavi, 2002.

8 Abbas and Foreman-Peck, 2007.

9 Ahmed and Amjad, 1984.

10 For example Papanek, 1967.

11 Zaidi, 2015, p6.

12 Shaheed, 1983.

13 Shahid-ur-Rahman, no date.

14 Weiss, 1991, pp34-35.

15 Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, p43.

16 Asdar Ali, 2005, p88.

17 Harman, 1994.

18 Harris, 1986.

19 Dawn, 2014.

20 Subohi, 2015.

21 World Food Programme, 2012.

22 Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2013, figures for manufacturing as a whole.

23 Jamal, 2014.

24 Hasan and Raza, 2015.

25 Dawn, 2015.

26 Alavi, 1983.

27 Jinnah, 1940.

28 For one example of the elite’s hypocrisy, see Armytage, 2015: “Blurred lines: Business and Partying among Pakistan’s Elite”.

29 Fell McDermott and others, 2014.

30 North West Frontier Province till 2010.

31 See Brown, 2015.

32 Go to http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.XPD.TOTL.GD.ZS

33 Guardian Global Development Data, 2011.

34 Yousafzai, 2009.

35 Dawn, 2013.

36 Iqbal and Kiani, 2015.

37 World bank figures: data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.PUBL.ZS

38 World Economic Forum, 2014; Junaidi, 2015.

39 Ahmed, 2016.


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Prothero, Iorwerth, 1979, Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century London (W M Dawson).

Shaheed, Zafar A, 1983, “The Role of the Government in the Development of the Labour Movement in Pakistan”, in Hassan Gardezi and Jamil Rashid (eds), Pakistan: The Roots of Dictatorship (Zed).

Shahid-ur-Rahman, n.d, “Who owns Pakistan”, arz-e-pak.com/documents/ebooks/WhoOwnPakistan.pdf

Subohi, Afshan, 2015, “Is Inflation Underreported?” Dawn (2 February), www.dawn.com/news/1160857

Weiss, Anita, 1991, Culture, Class and Development in Pakistan: The Emergence of an Industrial Bourgeoisie in Punjab (Vanguard Press).

World Food Programme, 2012, “Food Insecurity in Pakistan rises to 58%, National Nutritional Survey” (12 January), www.wfp.org/content/food-insecurity-pakistan-rises-58-national-nutritional-survey

World Economic Forum, 2014, “The Global Gender Gap Report 2014”, reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2014/

World Trade Organisation, 2014, “International Trade Statistics 2014”, www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/its2014_e/its14_merch_trade_product_e.htm

Yousafzai, Malala, 2009, “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl”, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7834402.stm

Zaidi, S Akbar, 2015, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy: A Political Economy Perspective (Oxford).

Revolutionary workers’ movements and parliaments in Germany 1918-23: A reply to Tony Phillips-John Rose

Posted by admin On May - 8 - 2016 Comments Off on Revolutionary workers’ movements and parliaments in Germany 1918-23: A reply to Tony Phillips-John Rose

ammanullah khan
Tony Phillips provided a rather misleading account of my Marxism 2014 talk on Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in the German Revolution1 in the last issue of International Socialism.2 Nevertheless Tony does point to an unresolved argument about workers’ councils and factory councils at different stages of the German Revolution, and their relationship to parliament.

In November and December 1918 the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were seen by their leaders as a potential alternative to parliament, proletarian democracy as opposed to bourgeois democracy.3 The victory of parliament in January 1919 entrenched the parliamentary process. All the revolutionary upsurges afterwards had to contend with it.4 Tony, several times, quotes from an excellent book by John Riddell written 30 years ago,5 but ignores John Riddell’s article written for this journal five years ago.6

Riddell’s emphasis in the latter on the 1920 Kapp putsch is very different from Tony’s. While noting that the general strike called by the right wing SPD trade union leaders to defend the republic did indeed lead to the formation of strike committees, militias and armed detachments and even in the Chemnitz industrial region, the re-emergence of workers’ councils, there was never any suggestion that the workers could seize power directly. On the contrary, the strategic and tactical initiative was with Carl Legien, the notorious right wing trade union leader,7 who formulated the demands for a workers’ government in parliament, composed of left wing parties and the trade unions. The German Communist Party (KPD) and the Comintern were forced to relate to this demand which, understandably, provoked a major controversy.8

Harman explains:

Legien may or may not have been sincere in this suggestion…probably he also felt…that the easiest way to stop the continual criticisms from the extreme left was to put them in government… The “workers’ government” offer was both a way out of a difficult situation for Legien and his friends and a possible trap for the left. But it could also be an opening towards something far more radical, despite Legien, since such a government would be responsible to the working class organisation and not to the bourgeois majority in parliament…

As [the KPD newspaper] Rote Fahne said on 26 March: “At the present stage there does not yet exist a solid base for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat does not dispose of sufficient military force, the Majority Social Democrats still have a big influence over the civil servants, the white collar workers and other sections of workers, the Independents still influence the majority of the urban workers. In order that the great mass of the proletariat can come to accept the Communist doctrine, it is necessary to create a situation of almost complete political freedom and to prevent the bourgeoisie exercising its capitalist dictatorship. The KPD estimates that the setting up of a socialist government, without the least bourgeois element in it, will create extremely favourable conditions for the energetic action of the proletarian masses and allow them to reach the maturity they need to establish their political and social dictatorship”.

The party went on to declare that it would act as “a legal opposition to the government”, provided that government did not “break its guarantees to the working class”.9

The formulation was “very similar to Lenin’s offer in August-September 1917 to support the Menshevik-Social Revolutionary majority in the Russian soviets if they replaced the coalition government with the bourgeois parties with an all socialist government responsible to the soviets”.10

In fact Lenin intervened directly with the KPD to reinforce the “loyal opposition to the government” line, which had split both the KPD and the Comintern. Karl Radek, the Comintern liaison with the KPD, had opposed it because he claimed it “reflected the emergence of a ‘possibilist’ (ie reformist) current in the KPD… Lenin had sufficient authority to end the discussion but the disagreement remained unresolved”.11

Unfortunately the policy was never put to the test.12 Nevertheless the demand for a “workers’ government” was now legitimised and would forcefully resurface in 1923. Later Chris probed the question further in a seminal article, reproduced online for this journal in 2007.13 He analysed contemporary variants of the demands for a workers’ government—especially continuing arguments stimulated after the 1973 coup against the Allende Government in Chile and the rise of “reformed”, “non-Stalinist” Eurocommunist Parties in the 1970s,14 as well as returning to the German Revolution:

The workers cannot change society merely by their parties taking governmental power but leaving the state intact. Secondly we must also recognise that for many workers this delusion represents an increase in class consciousness; they are beginning to think in terms of their class controlling society rather than it being run to openly capitalist criteria.

It is a classic example of contradictory class consciousness. How is it to be resolved?

Our job is to build on the increase in class consciousness but at the same time breaking down the delusions in the role of a left government.

Effectively we have to say to non-revolutionary workers: “You believe that a left government can change society in the interests of the working class; we do not. But we will fight alongside you to put your views to the test. However, we repeat that you should rely on your own struggles, not put your faith in your political leaders.”

The slogan of the left or workers’ government is therefore not seen as a magic panacea, rather it is a tactical slogan that we support but subordinate to our general politics of developing the workers’ struggle.

Our task is to raise slogans that mobilise workers in defence of their interests, to form unity in action with reformist workers and in the struggle to break down the illusions in the “left government”. It is above all in action that consciousness changes.15

Thus the demand for a workers’ government is not dismissed. Rather very strict conditions are proposed for the revolutionary left’s support for it. This becomes absolutely crucial in 1923.

Another major weakness in Tony’s article is his single sentence minimising a uniquely damaging event to the German Revolution: “Even before the [1923] crisis, the KPD had begun to recover from its own disastrous putsch of March 1921, which had severely damaged its credibility”.16 This formulation is inadequate for two reasons. Firstly, the reader must know more about March 1921. Secondly, as we shall see later, the KPD did not recover sufficiently to intervene effectively in 1923.

Harman devoted an entire chapter to March 1921, “The March Madness”.17 This journal has also recently discussed it.18 The reader needed to know what caused the damage to the KPD’s credibility and the role of the Comintern. The twisted political theory known as the “theory of the offensive” which proposed that Communists, “even with only minority support amongst workers, should launch an all out assault on capitalist power”,19 and which had some support from the Comintern and its representative in Germany, Karl Radek.20

In 1923 a revolutionary workers’ movement did indeed develop, led by factory councils. What were the factory councils and what was their ­relationship to the earlier workers’ councils and what we in Britain ­sometimes describe as “works councils” which attempt to integrate workers’ organisations into employers’ structures?21 Pierre Broué has given us a very detailed description which really needs to be read in full. Here I cite some particularly relevant passages. The entrenching of parliament in January 1919 resulted in the Weimar Constitution. Its Article 65 became law in February 1920; it attempted:

to integrate the working class…organisations into appendages of the employers’ authority through the Mitbestimmungsrecht, the right to participation and to consultation. The workers’ organisations had rights in questions of administration and general policy of the firm’s working conditions, hiring and firing, and, in addition, they formed the electoral basis for the “workers’ section” of the membership of the Economic Council of the Reich…the fact that they were elected by all the working people in the firm…meant that revolutionaries could make use of them.22

Confusingly for us, perhaps, these structures were sometimes called factory councils or factory committees. Despite the obvious trap intended by both government and employers, these structures, nevertheless, became a highly contested terrain in the class struggle.23

The German Communists, in line with the strategy of the International and the resolution on factory councils carried during the Second Comintern Congress, placed the struggle for and around factory committees at the centre of the strategic considerations in their factory work. During the Party Congress in November 1920, just before the fusion with the Independents, the delegates had heard and discussed an important report by Brandler24 on the question. He said that the factory councils must be the workers’ instrument to control production, stocktaking, accounting and records, which would help the workers to learn that the rule of the bourgeoisie had to be overthrown.25

Further arguments used by Heinrich Brandler underlined the importance of keeping the factory committees independent of the trade union bureaucrats, as well as seeing their potential for workers to “unite as a class in a framework of councils”.26

In 1923 this perspective would be put to the severest of tests. Unfortunately, Tony Phillips does not properly describe what happened. He implies correctly that the factory council-led workers’ movement mounted a successful challenge to the Wilhelm Cuno government in the summer of that year in the context of a deepening capitalist crisis. But then he goes on to claim that the “factory councils linked up nationally, had the potential to become the basis for a revolutionary workers’ government that could replace the capitalist state”,27 without giving any of the historical details about two separate revolutionary events in 1923 which, tragically, illustrated just how difficult it was to fulfil that potential.

Certainly the rapidly developing factory council movement was very impressive. Led by the KPD, it organised hundreds of thousands of workers across the country independently of the trade union bureaucracy. It successfully called for a general strike to overthrow the Cuno government, demanding a workers’ government with the requisitioning of the necessities of life under the control of workers’ organisations—“control committees”, which gave the factory councils a base in working class communities, drawing in housewives’ groups challenging price rises and speculation, for example.28 The movement demanded an immediate minimum wage and, crucially, the lifting of the ban on the “proletarian hundreds”, armed detachments involving employed and unemployed workers.29

Alas, the outcome was a tremendous disappointment: “German capitalism found reassurance, as so often before, in the attitude of Social Democracy… The SPD decided to vote against Cuno—but offered to join a government run by a party colleague of his, [Gustav] Stresemann, spokesman for a powerful section of German employers”.30

The SPD even managed to persuade Rudolf Hilferding, the famous Marxist economist and a former Independents’ leader, to join the government. The general strike collapsed with a superficial victory—after all, Cuno had gone—and employers met some of the wage demands, but all talk of a workers’ government disintegrated.31

The second event is of a quite different magnitude. It represents the final tragic act and climax of the German Revolution 1918-23. It became irreversibly intertwined with the deepening decay of the Russian Revolution. At its centre was most certainly a German working class with a revolutionary potential. But also at its centre were two propositions that remained untested. First, that factory councils could substitute for workers’ councils or soviets and lead a successful socialist revolution. And, secondly, that a workers’ government, in this case a regional one, would play a decisive strategic role in bringing about such a victory. Also at its centre were the two most principled revolutionary socialist leaders of the moment, Heinrich Brandler, the workers’ leader in Germany, and Leon Trotsky, after Lenin the greatest leader of the Russian Revolution, but at that very moment also literally facing nothing less than a conspiracy to destroy him. Both Brandler and Trotsky were reliant on the KPD—but could it lead a socialist revolution?

It certainly did not initiate this final phase of the revolutionary process. The initiative came from the Soviet government in Moscow and in particular Trotsky and Grigori Zinoviev. The deteriorating situation in Germany was seized upon as proof that a revolutionary situation was fast approaching. Brandler and other leaders were summoned to Moscow to discuss preparations for an armed uprising. Brandler would later write: “I did not view the situation as acutely revolutionary yet…but regarded Trotsky, Zinoviev and the other Russian leaders as more competent”.32 Brandler’s doubts must have been increased by the foul atmosphere in Moscow. It is inconceivable that he didn’t have some sense of just how bitter and explosive was the showdown, in particular, between Zinoviev and Trotsky. After all, the so-called “Troika”, Stalin, Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, had been formed earlier that year to discredit Trotsky, who had missed the opportunity at the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923) to carry out Lenin’s wish to fight Stalin’s bureaucratisation of party rule in Soviet Russia.33

The Bolshevik leadership was hardly in a position to impose a timetable for revolution on Germany. Yet this is precisely what it did. Brandler reluctantly accepted, but lacked confidence in his own abilities to implement the plan. He appealed for Trotsky to come secretly to Germany and join the leadership. Not surprisingly, Zinoviev and the Troika rejected this proposal. Instead a Red Army general was sent to Germany to help the KPD prepare for a military uprising. “The result, inevitably, was a conspiratorialism more usually found in terrorist groups than in mass revolutionary parties. Meanwhile, work among the mass of workers tended to be neglected”.34

This was also Brandler’s view. Nevertheless living standards continued to collapse, the extreme right associated with Adolf Hitler was growing in confidence, especially in Bavaria,35 and the government nationally was in danger of losing control. It moved rightwards, disposing of Hilferding, as it came under pressure from the employers to repeal the eight-hour day. A renewed sense of crisis erupted; millions were not just getting poorer but were increasingly unable even to feed themselves and their families. The KPD grew and there was greater willingness, especially on the left wing of the SPD, to cooperate with the KPD.

Attention shifted to Saxony and Thuringia, the most left wing regional states in Germany, with the coal owners demanding “‘pacification’ of the area by the army…the proletarian hundreds and the Control Committees had become more and more powerful, effectively taking over whole areas during strikes and demonstrations”.36

Saxony and Thuringia became the focus for the final showdown between the government and the working class. Local Communist Parties throughout the country began drawing up operational plans “for the seizure of vital supplies, the elimination of the most dangerous local state officials, the taking over of power stations, the railways and telecommunications centres. Above all they had to find supplies of arms for themselves—to local police stations and armouries where weapons could easily be captured”.37 Inevitably the shadow of the doomed 1921 “theory of the offensive” stalked these plans. The ultimate test would be whether they had the support of a majority of the working class. And this in turn would be tested by the planned national congress of factory councils and their associated control committees and armed groups of the proletarian hundreds.

There was an additional strategically central factor which added to the sense of fragility and arguably even questioned the fundamental competence of the strategy itself. Communists would enter the state governments of Saxony and Thuringia with the aim of locating supplies of police arms:

so that they could be easily seized by the workers. This, claimed Zinoviev, should help them to arm “50,000 to 60,000 men”. Brandler objected: “the Saxon government was in no position to arm the workers because, since the Kapp putsch, all weapons had been taken away from Saxony”… He later claimed that he had warned: “The entry of Communists into the government would not breathe new life into the mass actions, but rather weaken them; for now the masses would expect the Communists to do what they could only do themselves”…

[But] after “Zinoviev banged his fist on the table” and “Trotsky spent a whole evening” with Brandler, trying to persuade him, Brandler accepted the decision. He returned from Moscow to Saxony and, as he got off the train, found from the newspapers he was already a government minister!38

The authorities in Berlin took these potential revolutionary developments in Saxony and Thuringia very seriously. General Müller, head of the Reichswehr, army chief of staff, was dispatched to the two states to disarm the proletarian hundreds and take control of the Saxon police. As the authoritative historian of “Soviet Communism”, E H Carr, would later put it: “The Reichswehr had done what Brandler had shrunk from doing. It had fixed the date on which the Communists must either act or confess their incompetence”.39

Matters were further complicated by the government ban on the national congress of factory councils. A substitute conference was hastily assembled in Saxony following a call from the state’s Social Democrat and Communist ministers on the very day—Sunday 21 October—that Müller’s troops entered the state. Nearly 500 delegates attended including 140 from factory councils. Whether it had the legitimacy to call a general strike to oppose Müller’s armed intervention in Saxony and Thuringia, we shall never know. Brandler certainly thought it had and he led the call for the general strike. He also seems to have taken for granted that the Social Democrat contingents of worker delegates who turned up for the conference, thereby lending it legitimacy, would support him: “Instead he was greeted with stunned silence”.40

The failure of the conference to call for a general strike proved to be the final fatal blow to the German Revolution. If October 1917 dates the start of the international socialist revolution in the 20th century, October 1923 is arguably the date that marks the beginning of its collapse.

Herein lies the ambiguity of Trotsky’s Lessons of October. Chris Harman makes very creative use of this text to illustrate its central argument about the decisive role of revolutionary parties in revolutionary situations by comparing the two Octobers, with a damning conclusion about the KPD: “The party leadership had lost its self-confidence. Its neurotic obsession with March 1921 prevented it from responding to the changed mood of the masses in 1923”; it was “riven by internal rows”and became far too dependent on tactical advice from “men in Moscow”.41

Yet the text, as Trotsky himself makes clear, is not the much needed analysis of what went wrong in Germany. Even though, in general terms, he defends the potential revolutionary role of factory councils, Trotsky is more concerned with the failings of the Troika’s conservative leadership in 1917, making comparisons with what he sees as similar failures in Germany 1923. In Trotsky’s words, “It is indispensable for us to have a concrete account, full of factual data, of last year’s developments in Germany. What we need is such an account as would provide a concrete explanation of the causes of this most cruel historic defeat”.42

That’s why Chris’s assertion, echoing Trotsky, that the KPD had brought “the majority of workers and a section of the middle class to the point where they welcomed the prospect of revolutionary deliverance from the social crisis” (but then let them down) is too speculative.43 Maybe he is right. But contrast this view with that of Victor Serge who witnessed the unfolding drama day by day in Germany:

Nothing could be done without the social democratic masses and these were divided into officials with a stake in the foundering social system and canny workers ridden by fear of revolution… Trotsky (explains) the German defeat in terms of the “crisis of revolutionary leadership”, but that crisis is itself an expression of two other crises: that of popular consciousness, and that of an already bureaucratised International.44

Again contrast with the Bolsheviks’ grip on events in October 1917. Their democratic majority in the soviets gave them the confidence of the working class majority. And even then it was the leadership of the soviets, not the Bolshevik leadership alone, that armed the insurrection and secured its ultimate victory.45 There was no equivalent to the Bolshevik majority in the soviets in Germany in October 1923.

We are left with the frustrating position that we have no ­historical evidence or even a convincing theoretical defence that a strategy ­combining factory councils leading revolutionary workers’ movements with demands for workers’ governments—and the experience from the German Revolution is that the two go together—could have been successful.


1 Rose, 2014.

2 Phillips, 2016, pp185-196. Tony claims I “lean heavily on the documents contained in Gabriel Kuhn’s 2012 book All Power to the Councils! which…also relies heavily on materials by ultra-lefts and anarchists” (p194). This is incorrect. Firstly, as I stated in the talk, Chris Harman’s 1982 book The Lost Revolution is my most valuable source which Tony should have acknowledged particularly because he challenges my suggestion that Chris possibly underestimated the scale of defeat in January 1919, when parliament decisively displaced the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. Secondly, the only documents I discussed from Kuhn are by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Richard Müller and Ernst Daumig, respectively the leading revolutionary socialist intellectuals and workers’ leaders. See also footnote 43.

3 Rose, 2015.

4 Including electing revolutionary socialist MPs into parliament which Lenin described as “obligatory”—Rose, 2013, p130.

5 Riddell, 1986.

6 Riddell, 2011.

7 Phillips, 2016, p190.

8 Riddell, 2011, p117.

9 Harman, 1982, p175.

10 Harman, 1982, p176.

11 Riddell, 2011, p118. See also Duncan Hallas’s powerful defence of this position—Hallas, 1985, p73.

12 Harman, 1982, p177.

13 Harman and Potter, 2007. See also “Workers’ Government: Three Variants”—Riddell, 2011, pp131-133.

14 Especially relevant to the fate of Syriza in Greece with its roots in the Eurocommunist tradition.

15 Harman and Potter, 2007.

16 Phillips, 2016, p193.

17 Harman, 1982, pp192-220.

18 In relation to the controversial leader of the KPD, Paul Levi—Zehetmair and Rose, 2012, pp143-162; Birchall, 2013, pp199-208; Riddell, 2014, pp201-202.

19 Riddell, 2011, p126.

20 For an excellent summary see the quote from Gareth Jenkins in Zehetmair and Rose, 2012, p146.

21 A response to Tony Phillips, who says that “the factory councils had nothing in common with the bureaucratic works councils of Germany today”—Phillips, 2016, p189.

22 Broué, 2006, p608. See also the original documents relating to this development, translated by Ben Fowkes (Fowkes, 2014, pp65-70).

23 The shop stewards’ movement in the early 1970s in Britain offers a useful analogy.

24 Heinrich Brandler would become the pivotal workers’ leader of the KPD in 1923.

25 Broué, 2006, p609.

26 Broué, 2006, p609.

27 Phillips, 2016, p193.

28 Harman, 1982, pp238-239.

29 Harman, 1982, p268. See also the KPD’s policy document, “The KPD’s Theses on the United Front Tactic and the Workers’ Government, February 1923”, which helped prepare the foundations for this new revolutionary workers’ movement—Fowkes, 2014, pp123-126.

30 Harman, 1982, p270.

31 Harman, 1982, p270.

32 Harman, 1982, p274.

33 “The Anathema” in Deutscher, 2003, pp62-135. “The New Course Controversy” in Cliff, 1991, pp21-40.

34 Harman, 1982, p274, p276.

35 This development cannot be discussed here but a more comprehensive argument about the KPD’s failure in 1923 would have to include very serious accusations about its own contamination by German nationalism and how that may have strengthened the SPD. See Paul Levi’s introduction to the German edition of Trotsky’s Lessons of October, in Fernbach, 2011, p260, also Cliff, 1979, p172, and Harman, 1982, pp252-254.

36 Harman, 1982, p280.

37 Harman, 1982, p282.

38 Harman, 1982, p283. See also Tony Cliff’s criticism both of this decision and Trotsky’s part in it—Cliff, 1991, p72.

39 Cited in Harman, 1982, p286.

40 Harman, 1982, p289.

41 Harman, 1982, p302.

42 Trotsky, 1924.

43 Harman, 1982, p301. Of course, this doesn’t detract from Chris’s achievement in writing an outstanding book which has stood the test of time. Ben Fowkes, referenced several times in this article, wrote that Chris’s book is “the best short account of the critical years of German revolutionary activity between 1918 and 1923. What is particularly impressive is his constant endeavour to set the development of political events against their socio-economic background. The narrative sweeps forward majestically from catastrophe to catastrophe (1914; 1919; 1920; 1921; 1923), and though he always keeps hold of his broad underlying thesis this does not prevent him from introducing illuminating details which are illustrated by the effective use of quotations from most of the English, French and German sources available in 1982 when the book was written. His conclusions as to the reasons for the ultimate failure of the German Revolution have not, I think, been undermined to any substantial extent by the evidence from the new documents that became available in the 1990s” (personal communication). See also Fowkes, 2014, pp72 and 78.

Ben Fowkes is an independent British socialist expert on contemporary German scholarship and the German Revolution. Joseph Choonara, member of this journal’s editorial board, recommends Fowkes’s translation of volume one of Capital (the Penguin classics edition) as the best available.

This praise, of course, does not put Chris beyond criticism, as he would have been the first to acknowledge. We need to guard against “theologising” the work of our leading party intellectuals.

44 Serge, 2012, p203.

45 This was the subject of a mind boggling eve of insurrection dispute between Lenin and Trotsky. See Tony Cliff’s discussion on “Soviet Legality” in Cliff, 1976, p369. See also Cliff, 1976, p314, on the importance of the Bolshevik majority in the soviets.


Birchall, Ian, 2013, “Being Right is Not Enough: Some Thoughts on Paul Levi”, International Socialism 138 (spring),http://isj.org.uk/being-right-is-not-enough-some-thoughts-on-paul-levi/

Broué, Pierre, 2006, The German Revolution 1917-23 (Haymarket).

Cliff, Tony, 1976, Lenin, volume 2, All Power to the Soviets (Bookmarks).

Cliff, Tony, 1979, Lenin, volume 4,The Bolsheviks and World Revolution (Bookmarks).

Cliff, Tony, 1991, Trotsky, volume 3, 1923-1927: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy (Bookmarks).

Deutscher, Isaac, 2003, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Verso).

Fernbach, David (ed), 2011, In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi (Brill).

Fowkes, Ben, 2014, The German Left and the Weimar Republic: A Selection of Documents (Brill).

Hallas, Duncan, 1985, The Comintern (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 1982, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918-1923 (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, and Tim Potter, 2007, “The Workers’ Government”, International Socialism (online only), http://isj.org.uk/the-workers-government/

Kuhn, Gabriel (ed), 2012, All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution (Merlin).

Phillips, Tony, 2016, “Was the German Revolution Defeated by January 1919?” International Socialism 149 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/was-the-german-revolution-defeated-by-january-1919/

Riddell, John, 1986, The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Preparing the Founding Conference (Pathfinder).

Riddell, John, 2011, “The Origins of the United Front Policy”, International Socialism 130 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/the-origins-of-the-united-front-policy/

Riddell, John, 2014, “Letter to the Editor”, International Socialism 142 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/letter-to-the-editor/

Rose, John, 2013, “Lenin’s ‘Left Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder Re-visited”, International Socialism 138 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/lenins-left-wing-communism-an-infantile-disorder-revisited/

Rose, John, 2014, “Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Germany, 1918-19”, talk at Marxism 2014, http://swpradiocast.bandcamp.com/track/workers-and-soldiers-councils-in-germany-1918-19-marxism-2014

Rose, John, 2015, “Luxemburg, Müller and the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils”, International Socialism 147 (summer), http://isj.org.uk/luxemburg-muller-and-the-berlin-councils/

Serge, Victor, 2012, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York Review of Books).

Trotsky, Leon, 1924, “Lessons of October”, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lessons/index.htm

Zehetmair, Sebastian, and John Rose, 2012, “Germany’s Lost Bolshevik, Paul Levi Revisited”, International Socialism 136 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/germanys-lost-bolshevik-paul-levi-revisited/

The heroic deed: myth and revolution-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On May - 8 - 2016 Comments Off on The heroic deed: myth and revolution-Doug Enaa Greene

ammanullah khan

According to legend, the last words of Che Guevara before his execution were “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.” What Che meant here was that the cause of revolution would live on despite his death. Whether or not the myth is true, the meaning behind it has inspired revolutionaries throughout the world. In certain ways, the myth surrounding Che Guevara has been just as important as the truth. In fact, myths provide a crucial underpinning to how ideology and society is able to function. Myths play a major role not only in society, but in radical political movements, as was recognized by the French syndicalist Georges Sorel and the Peruvian communist Jose Carlos Mariategui. And despite the scientific pretensions of much of the left, myths also supply inspiration, passion and faith to militants in the course of struggle.

I. Myth

Before discussing the role of myth on the left, we need to have some idea of how myth works in the world. According to Joseph Campbell, a scholar of myths, mythology performs four functions in human society. The first one is the mystical function where “Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of the mystery that underlies all forms.” [1] The universe is full of wonder, glory and mystery that we lie in awe before. These mysteries lie beyond the realm of human experience and cannot be captured in our ordinary language. Yet the symbols and rituals of mythology are a way to address and make sense of this reality that lies beyond our comprehension.

The second function of myth, Campbell says, is cosmological. Myth in this sense can be thought of as a form of proto-science, showcasing how the universe works by providing explanations for the creation of the world, the origin of human life, the change of seasons, etc. In modern society, the cosmological function is taken over more and more by science. However, Campbell states that myths and science don’t come into conflict, rather science pushes to the edge of mystery, to that which can never be known, such as the source of life.

Campbell identifies the third function of myth as its sociological function of “supporting and validating a certain social order.” [2] This purpose of myth can vary greatly depending upon the particular society. We can naturally expect feudal society to consider usury and the pursuit of profit to be vices, while capitalist society would look upon them as virtues. Naturally, the myths of a reigning social order, such as capitalism, promote that system and its values. Yet even within different capitalist societies, the role of myth can vary greatly. Let us expand on this.

For example, the predominant myths in the United States promote individualism, the American Dream and white supremacy. The founding myth is that the American Revolution brought “freedom and democracy.” Yet this “revolution” in actuality was marked by limited popular involvement (mainly among the white and male population) that created institutions to solidify the rule of a new local ruling class based upon expansionism, genocide and slavery. This legacy of the American Revolution has made it quite easy to be used, obsessively so, by American leaders to promote the dominant values of capitalist society which is reflected in the working class. The reality of the American Revolution has in fact made it difficult to be embraced by those advocating egalitarian change. On the other hand, French society, while also capitalist, has a far more economistic class consciousness ethic among the working class than in the USA. Modern France owes its origin to the Revolution of 1789 which was a massive social upheaval from below (far surpassing the American Revolution) that brought radical changes that conflicted with the bourgeois leadership. While the reigning social order in France can be traced to 1789, there is an ambivalence in the embrace of the values of the revolution by the ruling class. Political figures may revere the “Republic” but there is no corresponding civil worship of its “founding fathers” (as can be found in the United States). Although conservatives can wrap themselves in the Tricolor, the slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” can easily be appropriated by opponents of capitalism such as socialists, communists, and anarchists.

Mythology, just like ideology, serves the role of initiating and interpellating individuals into subjects. The reigning myths associated with them in society such as the American Dream or Christian values, are not merely mistaken ideas or examples of “false consciousness,” but rather they exist in material practices (such as schools or churches). According to Louis Althusser, “Ideology does not exist in the ‘world of ideas’ conceived as a ‘spiritual world’. Ideology exists in institutions and the practices specific to them. We are even tempted to say, more precisely: ideology exists in apparatuses and the practices specific to them.” [3] Ideology (such as myths) exists through the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), even though they are private – churches, schools, families, etc, they still reinforce the rule of the dominant class through ideology. We can see this in the example of Christian fundamentalism, whose adherents not only believe in God, pray and attend church. As Althusser says, “If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices ‘according to the correct principles’.” [4] Thus, a Christian fundamentalist is likely to be an American patriot who waves the flag, raises their children to revere the institutions and laws of the country (so long as they are in conformity with family values), serve in the military, etc.

Yet whereas it was the church that was dominant in feudal society, Althusser identifies the school as the main ISA in modern society. [5] At school, students learn not only skills such as reading and writing, but socialization in the reigning values and culture of society, so that they can eventually become “good” and “obedient” citizens. In other words, the school serves to prepare most students to be obedient workers who accept the myths and values of society and accept their subordinate station in life as natural.

We should not look at the interpellation of subjects through the ISAs as denying human agency (which is a common objection to Althusser). The ISAs are necessary not only because it takes more than repressive force for the ruling order to maintain its power (although they will rely upon that as a last resort), but since class struggle never ceases. “Just as the class struggle never ceases, so the dominant class’s combat to unify existing ideological elements and forms never ceases. This amounts to saying the dominant ideology can never completely resolve its own contradictions, which are a reflection of the class struggle – although its function is to resolve them.” [6] Ideology and myths remain a battleground. The same Christian fundamentalists may consider themselves to be patriotic Americans who believe in free enterprise, but if they are on strike on a picket line, they will no doubt react with hostility to scabs. Or the fundamentalists may attend a Tea Party rally to protest a more “liberal” or “socialistic” government that they see as drifting away from or betraying “true” American values.

Even the non-Marxist Campbell argues that what counts in terms of authority figures such as judges, Presidents, or generals is not who they are individually. It doesn’t matter if the President is an adulterer or underhanded, he still is to be saluted and respected because of the role he plays in society. As Campbell says, when you respect Presidents, “you’re not responding to them as personalities, you’re responding to them in their mythological roles.” [7] According to Campbell, the President should not be corrupt, rather he needs to understand that to perform the mythological role required of him, that “he has to sacrifice his personal desires and even life possibilities to the role that he now signifies.” [8] The mythological role of the President is reflected in how the “Founding Fathers” such as Washington and Jefferson or later Presidents like Abraham Lincoln are revered.

We can see the mythological role played out in the Presidential campaign of candidates, whether Bush, Clinton, or Sanders, who are portrayed as fighting and standing for “America” (portrayed with slight variations in meaning). It doesn’t matter that all this is a total fabrication, what matters is that the role the President, regardless of the individual, plays as a force of social cohesion and in promoting the myths and ideology of America. Thus, in order for the mythological role of President to function, it takes interpellated citizens who accept it on the one hand and an individual candidate who (at least appears to) to forfeit their own wants and needs for the greater good of the country. The President thus becomes the literal embodiment of the nation.

The last function of myth that Campbell identifies is its pedagogical role: “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myths can teach you that.” [9] Human beings regardless of the society they live in, go through different stages in life — moving from childhood to adulthood with new responsibilities that can include marriage and family. There are different rites and rituals that are expected to go through to learn how to function as responsible and ethical members of society, whether by graduating from college, going to communion or a bar mitzvah. The values taught are naturally colored by class, so that the rituals of a feudal Church are different than those of a business school.

Campbell’s four functions of myth apply to socialist movements as well. As we shall see later, when discussing Mariategui, even though socialism is founded on materialistic and scientific principles, myths, symbols, and rituals play key roles in teaching militants how to live, fight and to die as comrades for the communist ideal.

II. Georges Sorel

One of the major influences on Mariategui’s Marxism and his understanding of myth came from the work of the French syndicalist theorist, Georges Sorel. Mariategui hailed Sorel as an equal of Lenin for undertaking “the true revision of Marxism, in the sense of the renovation and continuation of the work of Marx…” [10] Sorel was praised for returning socialism to the “original sentiment of class struggle, as a protest against parliamentary pacification, bourgeoisified socialism,” that was found in reformist socialism. Lastly, Mariategui said, Sorel established “the religious, mystical, metaphysical character of socialism” which proved that “the strength of revolutionaries is not in their science; it is in their faith, in their passion, in their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual force.” [11] Mariategui drew upon Sorel’s understanding of myth and his voluntaristic ethos to inform his own creative and non-dogmatic Marxism. However, Sorel himself remains highly controversial, and his writings on the power of myth and defense of violence, expressed most clearly in Reflections on Violence, have inspired not only Marxists such as Mariategui and Antonio Gramsci, but fascists such as Benito Mussolini.

Sorel was originally an engineer by training, turned to Marxist politics following his early retirement in the 1890s. He contributed to a number of Marxist journals and was involved in supporting Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer falsely accused of treason. However, Sorel did not adhere to the determinism found within the Second International that explained history and the behavior of people through their economic motives. Sorel took up the defense of Marxism against those he perceived as vulgarizers because to him, the moral content was vital. [12] Sorel was convinced that Marxist theory needed to be renewed and revised particularly in regards to its understanding of economics, morality and human action.

To that end, Sorel cast an admiring eye on the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola and briefly to the German Eduard Bernstein during the revisionist controversy. Labriola was praised for his defense of historical materialism and Marxism as a theory of action. [13] Sorel commended Labriola for breaking with the economic determinism of Marxism and stressing the importance of ethics. [14] As part of Sorel’s own revision of Marxism, he came to the conclusion that the labor “theory of value…no longer has any scientific usefulness and . . . gives rise to a great many misunderstandings.” [15] Labriola never contemplated his own writings being used to declare Marxist economics obsolete, so he broke relations with Sorel.

Sorel’s defense of Dreyfus was informed by the moral desire to defend the notions of truth and justice. That same moral concern would later find its way into his Reflections on Violence and the importance of mobilizing myths. Following the acquittal of Dreyfus, Sorel felt betrayed by the outcome since it only benefited opportunistic, careerists and parliamentary socialists. Sorel was repulsed by the reformist politics of Jean Jaures and Alexander Millerand, the latter of whom entered a government of “republican defense.” Sorel was alarmed at what he perceived to be the statism and Jacobinism found in the government. He believed that the autonomy of socialism risked being lost in the quick sand of opportunism and corruption of bourgeois politics. [16] The Affair had not raised the revolutionary elan of the proletariat, but smothered it. Sorel believed that any revolution must destroy the institutions and values of liberal democracy that was leading civilization towards decadence.

To Sorel, the parliamentarism, gradualism, opportunism and reformism found in the parties of the Second International led him to conclude that “the anarchists were right about this, and that, in entering into bourgeois institutions, revolutionaries have been transformed by adopting the spirit of these institutions: all the parliamentary deputies agree that there is very little difference between a representative of the bourgeoisie and a representative of the proletariat.” [17] Sorel’s criticism of the dominant orthodoxy of official Marxism was echoed in the syndicalist movements that developed in opposition to it. Syndicalist unions emerged in France, such as the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), which eschewed any form of political action, reliance on direct action, and a general strike by workers to usher in the revolution. Following 1906, there was an upsurge of labor unrest in France that led to strikes among postal workers, railway workers and numerous others. In 1909, the strikes caused the government, led by the ex-Blanquist Georges Clemenceau to call in the army, who fired upon the workers. [18]

By this time, Sorel had embraced syndicalism and attempted to theorize the movement in Reflections on Violence. In this work, Sorel completed his revision of Marxism, expunging any hint of determinism or its use as a method to understand the laws of the capitalism. Sorel also embraced Henri Bergson’s theories of the irrational and the power of intuition, along with Nietzsche’s ethics of revolt and the contempt for established morality. For Sorel, Marxism was reduced to the class struggle, and its central tenets were to be interpreted as myths.

In contrast to the “garrulous and lying” parliamentary socialists, Sorel praised the syndicalist movement as the “great educative force that contemporary society has at its disposal for preparing the work of the future.” [19] Central to syndicalism was that it was a reflection of the revolutionary general strike which produces an “entirely epic state of mind” that turns the “men of today into the free producers of tomorrow working in workshops where there are no masters.” [20] These workers would be transformed, through their steeling in the “economic epic” of modern factories and by participating in the general strike where the proletariat organizes itself for battle, separating itself distinctly from the other parts of the nation, and regarding itself as the great motive power of history, all other social considerations being subordinated to that of combat; it is very clearly conscious of the glory which will be attached to its historical role and of the heroism of its militant attitude; it longs for the final contest in which it will give proof of the whole measure of its valor. [21]

These heroic workers had no need to plan of battle for the conquest of state power, rather their victory and the downfall of capital would result from the emergence in the working class of a new heroic mentality and the passion of violence, which inspired by the myth of the general strike. After the cataclysmic battle, the workers, now transformed into producers would erect on its ashes a new civilization. To Sorel, whereas once the bourgeoisie, “was still, in the great majority, animated by the conquering, insatiable and pitiless spirit which, at the beginning of the modern epoch, had characterized the creators of new industries and the discoverers of unknown lands,” it had now degenerated and “become almost as stupid as the nobility of the eighteenth century.” [22]

Sorel’s argument hinges on the contention that myth encloses the “whole of socialism in the general strike… [which sees] in each strike a model, a test, a preparation for the great final upheaval.” [23] Although other Marxist theorists of the general strike such as Rosa Luxemburg saw its ethical power in preparing the proletariat for combat, it seen by her as a specific tactic, not a universal theory of revolution. Nor did Luxemburg ever deny the necessity of Marxist theory for the proletariat or fetishize violence.

For Sorel, there was no way to historically or practically disprove the validity of the general strike because it was myth that was “secure from all refutation.” [24] No matter how valid science or criticism, it was could not shake the faith of people in myths such as religion or the general strike. A myth cannot be refuted “since it is, at bottom, identical to the convictions of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement; and it is, in consequence, un-analyzable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions.” [25] A myth was beyond reason and analysis. Myths like the general strike were important to Sorel because they are “are almost pure; they allow us to understand the activity, the sentiments and the ideas of the masses as they prepare themselves to enter on a decisive struggle; they are not descriptions of things but expressions of a will to act.” [26] Thus a myth in the modern world is a tool of combat that can inspire people to destroy the existing order.

Yet Sorel distinguished a myth from utopia because the latter was an intellectual product which is a combination of imaginary institutions having sufficient analogies to real institutions for the jurist to be able to reason about them; it is a construction which can be broken into parts and of which certain pieces have been shaped in such a way that they can (with a few alterations) be fitted into future legislation. [27]

A utopia can be refuted by showing that it is incompatible with “the necessary conditions of modern production.” [28] Thus, Sorel detached Marxism from any analysis of society or rationality and replaced theory with revolutionary myths that were needed to bring forth apocalyptic violence. Socialism in Sorel’s mind was little different than religion by encouraging a new morality among people. [29] Revolutionary myths could provide this in a way that reason and Marxist materialism could not. The myth of the general strike was an inexhaustible source of regeneration that would serve as a catalyst for new rituals, symbols, legends and creation to enable the proletariat to affirm and link themselves to something transcendent and eternal.

Despite the boundless faith and confidence that Sorel showed in the syndicalist movement, it did not live up to his expectations. Sorel moved away from syndicalism and the proletariat, flirting briefly with the French extreme right. Before his death in 1922, Sorel’s political passions were rekindled by both Mussolini (who claimed Sorel as an inspiration) and Lenin.

The syndicalist movements of Europe and the United States, despite major strikes, was unable to overthrow the bourgeois state. Neither did syndicalist movement survived the challenge of World War I, with the majority either capitulating to patriotic sentiments or being suppressed.

Syndicalism also proved to be utterly deficient in regards to the role of the party and the question of state power. In the end, no general strike anywhere brought down the rule of capital, ultimately proving that syndicalism failed the test of power. It was the Bolshevik Party, organized by revolutionary communists, who were able to revitalize Marxism in 1917 by leading a successful revolutionary seizure of power and establishing a new order in Russia. Bolshevik success was built on the concept of a revolutionary party, the unity of theory and practice and the example of soviets. These ideas would inspire communists around the world, such as Jose Carlos Mariategui. [30]

And as we shall see, Mariategui while holding fast to Marxism as a method and doctrine, would find that Sorel’s ideas on myth helped to combat determinism, encourage heroic revolutionary action among the proletariat, and ultimately inspire workers to create a new socialist world upon a degenerated bourgeois society.

III. Mariategui

José Carlos Mariátegui was born on July 14, 1894 (Bastille Day) in Moquegua, Peru as the sixth child to a humble liberal father and a devout Catholic mother (who raised him). Mariategui spent his youth in his grandfather’s leather-working shop, listening to the stories of the laborers who came through and recounted  stories of the working and living conditions on the latifundios, which resembled those of serfdom. At the age of eight, following an accident, Mariategui developed persistent problems in his left leg that eventually caused it to be amputated in 1924, confining him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.

Due to his family’s poverty, Mariátegui left school in the eighth grade, to find a job to help support them. He managed to acquire employment as a linotypist at age fifteen with the Peruvian newspaper, La Prensa. He showed talent in journalism that quickly led him to becoming a writer and an editor. At the age of sixteen, he was already showing an interest in socialism. Eventually, Mariátegui founded two  short-lived pro-labor newspapers. In 1919, Mariátegui not only supported the demands of workers and students, but grew critical of the Peruvian President Leguia, who dissolved the congress and became dictator. The government closed down the critical papers, and exiled Mariategui to Europe as an “information agent.”

Mariátegui stayed in Europe from 1919-23, the experience helped him to mature as a Marxist. He lived primarily in France and Italy, encountering a number of socialists and intellectuals such as Antonio Gramsci, Benedetto Croce, Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse. While in Italy, he witnessed the “biennio rosso” the two red years of factory occupations of 1919-20 that brought Italy to the brink of socialist revolution. Mariátegui was present at the foundation of the Italian Communist Party in 1921 at the famous Livorono congress. He also met an Italian woman, whom he married and bore him four sons. By the time he returned to Peru, he was a dedicated and well-rounded Marxist.

While in Peru, Mariátegui conducted an amazing array of political work. He lectured to workers at the Universidad Popular González Prada. He also worked with workers, socialists and trade unionists to form the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers and the Peruvian Socialist Party, which would become the Communist Party after his death. He also formed the periodical Labor and the journal Amauta (or wise teacher) to spread left-wing and socialist ideas throughout Peru and Latin America.
He also wrote three books during his lifetime. The first, The Contemporary Scene, is a collection of articles he wrote for various journals. The second and his most famous work, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, an original and creative application of Marxist analysis to Peru, highlighting the importance of the indigenous for revolution, along with penetrating insights on history, culture, and education. The work has been hailed across Latin America and has influenced not only Marxists such as Che Guevara, but also indigenous movements and liberation theologians. And his last published work, which is the most relevant for our purposes was The Defense of Marxism (published posthumously), a critique of revisionism and a defense of revolutionary Marxism from a Leninist perspective. Mariátegui’s writing is not objective, but fiercely partisan: “Once again I repeat that I am not an impartial, objective critic. My judgments are nourished by my ideals, my sentiments, my passions. I have an avowed and resolute ambition: to assist in the creation of Peruvian socialism.” [31] Unfortunately, due to declining health, Mariátegui passed away on April 16, 1930, at the age of thirty-six.

It is in The Defense of Marxism that Mariátegui most clearly sets forth his non-dogmatic and anti-deterministic approach to Marxism, and discusses the importance of myths, ethics and symbols (drawing heavily on Sorel). Unlike Sorel, Mariátegui stresses the importance of Marxist theory, stating that “Now more than ever, the proletariat needs to know what is going on in the world.” [32] And for him, the only theory that can provide guidance for the proletariat is Marxism: “Socialism, beginning with Marx, appeared as the conception of a new class, as a theory and movement that had nothing in common with the romanticism of those who repudiated the work of capitalism as an abomination.” [33] For Mariátegui, a Marxist view provided not only clarity on the goal, but it served as a guide for revolutionary political action to get there.

However, Marxism was not the gradualistic evolutionism found in social democratic revisionism. Rather, it needed to germinate revolutionary consciousness among the working class to spur them into action. “Marxism, where it has shown itself to be revolutionary – that is to say where it has been Marxism — has never obeyed a passive and rigid determinism.” [34] Mariátegui argued that capitalism would not topple on its own, but it would take conscious effort by the exploited. Otherwise, there was no way out. More than that, Marx’s critique remained valid so long as capitalism existed — it was in the continuing struggle to transform the world, whether in the mass actions of the proletariat or the construction of socialism that Marxist theory was continually renewed. Without that regenerative interaction of theory with practice, Marxism was doomed to whither and die. “Socialism or, rather, the struggle to transform the social order from capitalist to collectivist, keeps this critique alive, continues it, confirms it, corrects it. Any attempt to categorize it as a simple scientific theory is in vain since it works in history as the gospel and method of a mass movement.” [35]

Yet there are “Marxist” theories that claim to be pure and revolutionary, believing their interpretation of the “sacred texts” provides them with the one true road map to the future. When they see people on the barricades or a revolution igniting that breaks with their orthodox conceptions of how events are supposed to unfold, then to them such a revolution is like corrupted by the devil. They sprinkle the “holy water” of their chosen Marxist quotes to exorcise this demonic spirit of the unexpected revolution. It can’t be allowed to spoil the “real revolution,” that they passionately await. Once the right chapter and verse have been uttered, then the appropriate penance is done. The revolution can be dismissed and the purists can go back to waiting. Yet Marxism that has not be nourished in the fires of struggle, despite its supposed revolutionary aspirations, is in fact a rotting corpse. As Mariategui saw it, the task of revolutionaries was to apply Marxism to the situation at hand in order to make a concrete investigation of Peru (and the wider world). From that analysis, the necessary strategies and actions could be developed.

Following Sorel, Mariátegui argued that it was imperative for the proletariat to make a revolution because bourgeois society was overcome by decadence. This could be seen in its art, literature, and intellectuals. Once the bourgeoisie was a young, heroic and rising class filled with vision and destiny, that had all changed. The modern bourgeoisie was a pale shadow compared to their Jacobin ancestors who had overthrown kings and founded Republics. Bourgeois society, with its productive powers, science and reason, now covered the world and dissolved the bonds of feudalism and religious faith. After the cataclysm of the first World War and Russian Revolution, Mariátegui drew the conclusion that “bourgeois civilization suffers from a lack of myth, of faith, of hope.” [36] Yet in place of these overthrown altars, there was nothing to replace it with.
Mariátegui believed that science and reason were inadequate substitutes for the old myths of religion: “Neither Reason nor Science can meet the need of the infinite that exists in man. Reason itself has been challenged, demonstrating to humanity that it is not enough.” [37]

Reason and science could only be taken so far. They could not fill the gap in the human psyche in the same way myth could. “Only Myth possesses the precious virtue of satisfying its deepest self.” [38] Bourgeois civilization ripped away the holy and the sacred, turning humanity into atomized individuals governed by the faceless market with its lust for unceasing profit. Bourgeois culture is overwhelmingly permeated by chauvinism, mediocrity, racism, sexism, and selfishness. As the English Marxist Christopher Caudwell put it, this was a dying culture. The end result of this is humanity was reduced to talking tools on an assembly line or as soldiers to be slaughtered en masse in trench warfare in order to determine which vampires would rule colonial slaves. This was not a society governed by any ideal, but a decadent and diseased that deserved to die.

So what should replace the bourgeois world lacking in myths? For Mariátegui, man “is a metaphysical animal. He does not live productively without a metaphysical conception of life. Myth moves man in history. Without myth, the history of humanity has no sense of history.” [39] It could only be a new myth that could replace the fallen idols of the bourgeoisie. That new myth was that of communist revolution. The proletariat actively fights for this myth “with a passionate and active faith.” [40] In contrast to capitalism, which had nothing to offer, Mariátegui claimed that “the proletariat affirms.” [41]

In order for the proletariat to achieve heroic deeds, a transformation is needed in their consciousness. The proletariat can not be satisfied with a bigger piece of the pie or to accept the way the world is. Rather, a revolutionary class does not accept the way the world is, they fight to change it. To that end, workers needed to overcome “the anarchoid, individualistic, egoistic spirit, which besides being profoundly antisocial, does not constitute anything but the exacerbation and degeneration of the old bourgeois liberalism; the second thing that must be overcome is the spirit of corporatism, of a trade, of job category.” [42] For class consciousness to truly develop and mature, it was imperative for workers to look beyond their immediate horizons and particular trades to see the common position they share with their fellow workers across the world. Even more than that, communist consciousness had to embrace Lenin’s ideal of the tribune of the people, who is “able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.” [43] This entails solidarity by revolutionaries in France, Britain or the United States, with national liberation movements in the colonies, even if they are seen as “traitors” by their countrymen. Such treason is loyalty to the revolution and humanity. For the tribune of the people, the struggle for women’s rights, anti-racism, or against homophobia are not “distractions” or “divisive,” but had to be taken up as part of the common struggle for liberation.

Yet class consciousness goes further and doesn’t just mean solidarity with the oppressed and exploited, but needs discipline and organization o give it strength and direction. “I want to say to you that it is necessary to give the vanguard proletariat, along with a realist sense of history, a heroic will for creation and implementation. The desire for betterment, the appetite for well-being, are not enough.” [44] When the proletariat is fired by the vision of a new society, they will know that it won’t come down from the skies due to the inexorable development of “economic laws,” but through organization and active struggle. This struggle entails a vanguard infused with the “myth” of a new egalitarian society freed of exploitation and oppression. It is that ideal, not the texts of Marxist theory or science, that allows revolutionaries to endure prison, man the barricades, sing songs, and march together against impossible odds. In pursuit of that myth, the word “comrade” becomes more than a word, solidarity becomes concrete, and the lyrics the “Internationale” are ideals to be achieved. “The strength of revolutionaries is not in their science; it is in their faith, in their passion, in their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual force. It is the force of myth.” [45]

Ultimately, the proletariat is not struggling for a myth, but to create a new and superior civilization. As Mariátegui said, “we do not wish that Socialism in America be a tracing and a copy. It must be a heroic creation.” [46] This heroism means the proletariat had to become aware of their historic mission, shake off their subservience to the ruling class, take the destiny of humanity firmly into their hands and to construct socialism. “In the class struggle, where all the sublime and heroic elements of its ascent reside, the proletariat must elevate itself to a “producers’ morality,” quite distant and distinct from the “slave morality” that its gratuitous professors of morals, horrified by its materialism, officiously attempt to provide. A new civilization cannot arise from a sad and humiliated world of miserable helots with no greater merits or faculties than their servility and misery.” [47]

Yet reformists argue that such a vision is utopian since the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state will inevitably bring disruption to production, massive upheavals, and that socialism will begin at a lower productive level than bourgeois society. Arguably, Mariátegui would accept this since “revolutionaries from all parts of the world must choose between being the victims of violence or using it.” [48] It is only natural that a revolution will disrupt things. What else is to be expected?
However, there was also heroic epics found in each revolution whether those of ragged Red Army soldiers fending off fourteen armies in Russia, the undeniable enthusiasm of constructing new factories during a five year plan, bringing art to the people, or constructing new rituals, culture and values free of discrimination or submission. All of these deeds may take place in ruins, but a new socialist world will rise in its place, to serve the interests of redeemed humanity. Mariategui would no doubt have nodded in agreement with the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, who expressed his revolutionary optimism as follows: “We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.” [49]

For Mariátegui, as opposed to Sorel, myths did not substitute Marxist theory and analysis, but were a necessary supplement to it. While the revolutionary proletariat needed to know the world in order to change it, this was not enough. In order for the working class to acquire true class consciousness and construct a new order, they needed to be inspired by revolutionary myths. Myths would raise the proletariat to a higher conception of life and give it the required faith to face the impossible odds and harsh ordeals that awaited them. Yet Mariátegui argued that the power of revolutionary myths was not just faith in a distant ideal, but in enabling the masses to turn the “myth” of communism into actuality.

IV. Myths of the Movement[50]

Despite the scientific and secular claims of Marxism, socialism, and communism, our movements are not immune from the power of myths, symbols, and rituals. Myths and “false consciousness” have a material basis of existence that needs to be recognized. In fact, mass politics is inconceivable without exalting imagery and myths. Socialist politics can not be conducted solely by rationally combating “false consciousness” in people’s heads by explaining the labor theory of value or the relation between base and superstructure (although theory is definitely needed) or by selling newspapers. The politics of socialism and communism operates at multiple levels, one being to rationally challenge incorrect ideas, while others involve the symbolic and the mythical.

Even in the most secular and rationalistic communist movements, where it is assumed that priests tricked and manipulated people, elements of the mythical and the symbolic played a great role. Take the example of Blanquist communists in France during the 19th century who were led the insurrectionist Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Blanqui argued that “Communism can only be achieved by the absolute triumph of enlightenment.” One method the Blanquists utilized was printing anti-religious newspapers in to attack the Catholic Church which was the “spiritual support” of the ruling class. Doing so they believed would awaken the people. What the Blanquists ultimately believed was needed for the revolution to triumph was an organized conspiracy led by an enlightened elite, not reliance upon the mass of workers to revolt which they believed was impossible because they were under the influence of priests and the ruling class. Once the Blanquist coup succeeded in overthrowing the old order, they would institute an “enlightened dictatorship” that would undertake the pedagogical task of educating the people in secular and republican values.

Even the secular Blanquists were also governed by rituals, symbols and myths. When a member joined the secret society, they took part in an elaborate initiation ceremony where they were blindfolded and had to swear eternal hatred to aristocrats and kings, and to fight for the republic. Failure to abide by this oath was punishable by death. The Blanquist initiation rites were not invented by them, but copied from other secular movements such as the Masons and the Carbonari. Initiation into the revolutionary conspiracy was thus nearly a sacred act like being confirmed in the Catholic Church.

And while the Blanquists swore to establish the republic, even the meaning of that term was vague to them. Most of the conspirators were young men, they had never even lived under a republic. The “Republic” was a myth and an ideal, which had been transmitted to them through word of mouth from older men, from reading history or the speeches of Robespierre. Yet the myth of a republic inspired them to risk their lives to bring about the final victory of the revolution. Furthermore, the name of Blanqui was also a symbol and a myth not just to the conspirators, but to the workers of France. Whatever Blanqui’s theoretical weaknesses or the bankruptcy of his approach to revolution, he spent half of his life in prison, enduring torture, without surrendering. To millions, he represented resistance to oppression and the communist ideal. As Alain Badiou argues, while emancipatory politics is “essentially the politics of the anonymous masses,” it is through proper names such as those of Blanqui (or Che and Lenin) that “the ordinary individual discovers glorious, distinctive individuals as the mediation for his or her own individuality, as the proof that he or she can force its finitude. The anonymous action of millions of militants, rebels, fighters, unrepresentable as such, is combined and counted as one in the simple, powerful symbol of the proper name.” [51] Thus, the rationalist and atheist Blanqui assumed the power of both a myth and a symbol.

And just as like religions, the labor, anarchist, socialist and communist movements have fashioned their own art, symbols, education, and provide a sense of community. Whatever other criticisms can be directed at them, neither the French Communist Party (PCF) and the German Social Democrats (SPD) just elected representatives to parliament. Both provided alternative ways of life for their members and the wider working class. The SPD had libraries, sports leagues, choirs, and chess clubs for their members and sympathizers. Even if a worker was not a member of either the PCF or the SPD, they could find a sense of community and reinforcement for their shared values of working class struggle and socialism within the broader subculture that the parties fostered. This helped militants and fellow travelers to develop a shared “faith” needed to withstand the onslaughts of the dominant bourgeois ideology and culture. Party militants and sympathizers may not be able to refute the arguments of bourgeois ideologists, but once they were convinced of socialism and had that belief reinforced by their shared myths, rituals, and symbols found within proletarian struggle and culture fostered by the party, then their conviction becomes unbreakable. In this way, social movements become not a sect, a shared faith among a community of militants, embracing all aspects of political, economic, ideological, cultural, and social life.

Movements also develop their own aesthetics and manner of dress. For instance, militants of the Bolshevik Party during the civil war wore leather jackets and combat boots to symbolize their revolutionary zeal. The Bolsheviks also embraced the artistic avant garde, as can be seen in the symbolic image of the “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” or the emblem of the hammer and sickle that are powerful representations to convey the values of the revolutionary cause to communists, artists and workers. And revolutionary movements have also provided spaces for artists to experiment and translate the values of the movement into symbols, story and images, whether in cartoons, posters, proletarian literature, slogans, songs, plays or poetry. Yet the aesthetic of each movement is unique and time specific. For instance, even though both conveyed a radical aesthetic, the beret and guns of the Black Panthers was far different than the long beards of German radicals in the 1840s.

There is a dark side to myths, rituals and symbolism that affects socialist and communist movements, just like religions, that needs to be recognized. The PCF was said to be, not without justification, the secular equivalent to the Catholic Church: with their own dogma, orthodoxies, saints, martyrs, heresies, and demons. Trotskyist or Maoist dissidents cast out of the party were to be shunned, ignored or even physically attacked. Militants were encouraged not to question the socialist credentials of the Soviet Union or its many abrupt turns in foreign policy, since this could demoralize workers or cause them to lose faith in the revolutionary cause. Intellectuals in the PCF such as Louis Althusser would raise their criticisms of the party in deliberately obscure or oblique language or keep silent, because otherwise they would be expelled and lose any chance to partake in the great historical mission (supposedly embodied by the party). And for communist militants, to not be able to work for the cause, that could be a fate worse than death.

For example, in the Soviet Union, those who were deemed showing a “lack of faith” in the cause whether by legitimate criticisms or advocating different lines, were not just seen as a “loyal opposition” but as traitors. To cast doubt on the leadership or to question it, was to be in league in alien class forces or fascism. Indeed, the great purge trials of the 1930s, despite the trappings of legality and jurisprudence (despite lacking physical proof or corroboration) were conducted more like the Catholic inquisition than a court of law where heresy was synonymous with treason and unbelief. Ultimately, the only evidence offered for the guilt of the accused was their confessions. The similarities between the methods of Soviet trials and the Inquisition was pointed out by one of the accused, Nikolai Bukharin who said: “The confession of the accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence.” [52]

V. Conclusion

Despite the dogmas and inquisitions that an embrace of myths can encourage in radical movements, it is impossible to imagine politics without them. There is a material existence to myths that rationalist theories of “false consciousness” don’t recognize. The myths, symbols and rituals of radicalism remain a part of how we remember our past, imagine our future, forge a common bond of solidarity so that we know how to live and how to die for the communist ideal.


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 38.
[2] Ibid. 39.
[3] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism (New York: Verso Books, 2014), 156.
[4] Ibid. 259.
[5] Ibid. 251.
[6] Ibid. 220.
[7] Campbell 1991, 14.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid. 39.
[10] Jose Carlos Mariátegui, “Henri de Man and the Crisis of Marxism” in Jose Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 189.
[11] Mariategui, “Man and Myth,” in Mariategui: An Anthology 2011, 387.
[12] Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 40.
[13] See John L. Stanley ed., From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002) 30-1 and 154-5; and Sternhell 1994, 21, 39-40.
[14] “The Ethics of Socialism” in From Georges Sorel 2002, 106; Sternhell 1994, 43-46.
[15] Quoted in Sternhell 1994, 42.
[16] See From Georges Sorel 2002, 10.
[17] Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 34.
[18] See my “How anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and IWW militants were drawn to Bolshevism: four case studies,” LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/2935
[19] Sorel 2004, 112 and 243.
[20] Ibid. 250 and 238.
[21] Ibid. 249 and 161.
[22] Ibid. 75 and 72.
[23] Ibid. 110.
[24] Ibid. 30.
[25] Ibid. 29.
[26] Ibid. 28.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid. 29.
[29] Ibid. 30.
[30] See How anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and IWW militants were drawn to Bolshevism: four case studies” (note 18).
[31] Jose Carlos Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), xxxiv.
[32] Mariátegui, “The World Crisis and the Peruvian Proletariat,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 296.
[33] Mariátegui, “The Heroic and Creative Sense of Socialism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 212.
[34] Mariátegui, “Marxist Determinism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 208.
[35] Mariátegui, “Modern Philosophy and Marxism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 194. [36] Mariátegui, “Man and Myth,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 383.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid. 384.
[40] Ibid. 387.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Mariátegui, “Message to the Workers’ Congress,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 181.
[43] V. I. Lenin, “What is to be Done?” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iii.htm
[44] Mariátegui, “Message to the Workers’ Congress,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 185.
[45] Mariátegui, “Man and Myth,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 387.
[46] Mariátegui, “Anniversary and a Balance Sense,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 130.
[47] Mariátegui, “Heroic and Creative Sense of Socialism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 212-3.
[48] Jose Carlos Mariategui, “Ethics and Socialism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/mariateg/works/1930-ethics.htm
[49] Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution (Oakland: AK Press, 2007), 478.
[50] I have also drawn from the following two essays by Mike Ely: Sing our own song: “Igniting a communist aesthetic renaissance,” Kasama Project and “Communist foreshocks: Words, ritual and symbols,” Kasama Project. http://k2.kasamaproject.org/kasama/3938-70communist-foreshocks-words-ritual-and-symbols
[51] Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (New York: Verso, 2010), 249-50. Robert C. Tucker and Stephen Cohen, ed. The Great Purge Trial (New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers,1965), 667.  See also Isaac Deutscher and David King, The Great Purges (New York: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1984).

Anti-imperial Marxism: Borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation- Eric Blanc

Posted by admin On May - 8 - 2016 Comments Off on Anti-imperial Marxism: Borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation- Eric Blanc

ammanullah khan

Latvian Marxist polemic against class harmony
Given the importance Marxists place on the fight against racial and national oppression, it is surprising that relatively little attention has been paid to the socialists of imperial Russia’s borderlands. Most of the inhabitants of the tsarist empire were non-Russian (Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Finns, Latvians, Georgians, Muslims, etc.), as were most revolutionaries. Yet academic and activist historiography has distorted our understanding of the socialist movement’s overall development by narrowly focusing on Central Russia.

This article examines some of the major debates on the national question between borderland and Russian Marxists before the 1905 revolution. In the empire’s periphery—notably Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the Caucasus, and Ukraine—non-Russian Marxist parties sought to tie national liberation to a class struggle orientation. Most advocated a united revolutionary movement on the basis of national autonomy or federalism.

In this early period, both V. I. Lenin and the Iskra current to which he belonged were less sympathetic to national aspirations than has usually been assumed. Iskra’s push for working-class unity was undermined by the limitations of its stance on the national question. Many of the positions later championed by Lenin and the Communist International were in these years opposed by Iskra and advocated by non-Russian socialists.

In the following sections I outline the key issues where the differences between Iskraists and borderland Marxists in the years preceding 1905 were at their clearest: i.e., regarding empire-wide party centralism, national oppression, assimilationism, and state federalism. As such, this article does not address important topics such as the Polish question and “the right to self-determination,” the Jewish Bund’s push for “national” party organization, the internal conflicts among the borderland Social Democrats themselves, and their political evolutions during and following the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.[1]

My more limited aim here is, first, to present some of the pioneering contributions of non-Russian socialists towards the development of a Marxist approach to national liberation. Given that so much socialist historiography on this question has been based primarily on the writings of V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, I seek to address this imbalance by highlighting the arguments of the borderland Marxists. Second, by stressing the early limitations of both Lenin and his comrades—their positions, as will be shown, often diverged—this article seeks to demonstrate the extent to which their politics changed over many years through political conflicts and accumulated experience. The axiom that Marxism develops through learning from the actual practice of working-class struggle is well illustrated by the transformation of Russian Marxists’ approach to the national question.

Eventually the Bolsheviks overcame their earlier limitations and implemented an effective strategy of national liberation. Though Lenin’s evolution began in 1913, the fundamental turn in the practice of the Bolshevik party as a whole came after the 1917–20 defeats of socialist revolutions in Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In response to these setbacks, numerous Bolsheviks in all levels and regions concluded that addressing non-Russian national aspirations was an urgent necessity. To root the Soviet regime among non-Russian peoples, the Bolsheviks from 1921–23 onwards actively developed national cultures and languages, implemented state federalism, and promoted borderland Marxists to leadership positions.  Had the Bolsheviks reoriented their approach years earlier they may have more successfully built a base among non-Russians and more effectively spread socialist revolution beyond Central Russia. Understanding the complexities of this history is important for those of us who seek to uphold and develop the best traditions of Bolshevism and the early Communist International.

Revolutionary socialism

It is necessary to begin by noting that all those parties engaged in this early debate considered themselves revolutionary socialists and generally acted as such.2 The following statement by the Latvian Social Democratic Union (LSS) was typical:

We are not nationalists, we are socialists. We will never forget that our first calling is to awaken, enlighten and liberate the working class from political and economic slavery. We address the national question only in so far as it is important for these goals.[3]

None of the borderland social democratic (i.e., Marxist) parties at this time advocated the prioritization of national over class demands, promoted national development as an end in itself, or supported cross-class “national unity.” All believed workers of different nationalities should unite for their common interests. Borderland Marxists’ activities in the workers’ movement in this period were remarkably similar to their Russian comrades: they organized strikes, demonstrations, study groups, and distributed illegal revolutionary papers and proclamations denouncing the bourgeoisie and the tsar. The militant practices of the borderland SDs became evident to all during the 1905 revolution, which advanced furthest in the non-Russian regions.

Consider, for example, the politics of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). In its 1892 founding program, the PPS declared:

The Polish Socialist Party, as the party of the working masses, fights against all class governments. . . . The Polish Socialist Party demands the complete abolition of class rule. . . . Therefore, it sets as its primary goal the conquest of political power for the proletariat and by the proletariat.[4]

The PPS advocated unity and collaboration between workers of different nationalities within Poland and across the empire, including with Russians.[5] An 1894 editorial in the party’s newspaper Robotnik (Worker) counterposed a class struggle perspective to hollow patriotism:

The principles of the Polish Socialist Party are known. Our party is primarily a workers party, its goals and demands are the expression of the interests of the working class: it leads the class struggle against the capitalists, and prepares and organizes the masses for this. . . . Every effort in this direction, even those without political slogans, every clash of the workers against the manufacturers, we consider much more valuable for the cause of freedom than the loudest patriotic cry. . . . Those who abstain from such clashes cannot belong to the party, they are imposters.[6]

According to the PPS, only the proletariat could defend the Polish nation and win national independence, as the Polish upper class had capitulated to the occupying power.[7] In light of the accommodation of borderland bourgeoisies to tsarist rule, it was understandable that cross-class nationalism held little appeal for non-Russian revolutionaries. In short, the PPS promoted both the class struggle and national independence, though significant internal differences over how to synthesize and balance these goals, and how to ally with Russian revolutionaries, existed from the party’s inception. One wing led by Joseph Pilsudski prioritized winning national independence, but by 1903 it was in a minority inside the Polish organization; contrary to the claims of many writers, the PPS as a whole in these years should not be considered a nationalist party.[8] The PPS’s Marxist statements did not remain only on paper. The PPS was primarily involved in the workers’ movement and its push for collaboration with Russians found a favorable response from the federalist Russian Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), as Russian Iskraists preferred an alliance with Rosa Luxemburg’s smaller and stridently anti-nationalist party (the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania-SDKPiL). In 1904 and 1905 the PPS and SRs collaborated closely, co-organized conferences, led revolutionary work in the tsarist army, and issued joint proclamations.[9]

During the 1905 revolution, the PPS was often more active in building unity with the Central Russian revolutionary movement than Luxemburg’s SDKPiL: in November the PPS sent party leader Feliks Kon to the St. Petersburg soviet to help coordinate the empire-wide struggle.[10] Similarly, the PPS initiated a semi-insurrectionary general strike in December 1905 across Poland in response to the Moscow workers’ uprising.[11] In 1906, the Pilsudski minority was expelled by the PPS’s Marxist majority; the PPS-Left’s subsequent attempts to join the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDRP) failed only because they were blocked by Luxemburg’s organization, which in 1906 had demanded and won this veto power as a precondition for joining the RSDRP.[12]

The Jewish Bund also advocated class struggle and internationalism. According to Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, Bundists were no more than “Zionists afraid of seasickness.”[13] Such a statement, however, says more about Plekhanov than it does about the Bund, which declared that Zionists and Social Democrats (SDs) were “unconditional enemies between whom there are no points in common.”[14] For Bund leader Vladimir Medem, “solidarity of the whole nation means giving up the class struggle, means peace between proletariat and bourgeoisie, means spiritual and material enslavement of the proletariat.”[15] Chaim Weizmann, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, lamented:

Our hardest struggle everywhere is conducted against the Jewish Social Democrats (the Judischer Arbeiterbund of Russia and Poland). . . . Saddest and most lamentable is the fact that although this movement consumes much Jewish energy and heroism, and is located within the Jewish fold, the attitude it evidences towards Jewish nationalism is one of antipathy, swelling at times to fanatical hatred.[16]

Like Iskra, the Bund was committed both in theory and practice to building proletarian unity across national divisions. The most effective means to achieve this goal, Bundists argued, was through national-Marxist organizations that would closely coordinate on a local, regional, and statewide level. One need not share this perspective to take it seriously as a plausible socialist strategy.

The most successful example of the Bund’s organizational approach was in Latvia, where it established a Federal Committee with the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) in Riga. The responsibility of the Federal Committee was to coordinate SD work in multinational workplaces; organize strikes and demonstrations; issue common proclamations; agitate among students, teachers and in the army; and distribute illegal literature. In all other questions, the national SD organizations were independent.[17] During the revolutionary upsurge of 1905, the Federal Committee won hegemony over the entire working class and established de facto proletarian rule over Riga late in the year. Across the empire throughout 1905, the Bund’s practice was consistently revolutionary Marxist, as it organized strikes and armed struggle, built cross-ethnic collaboration, and rejected any blocs with liberals or nationalists. Because of the Bund’s demonstrated militancy during 1905, it was the Bolsheviks who successfully pushed for its reintegration into the RSDRP in 1906, against the objections of the Mensheviks.[18]

On various issues, borderland socialists were even more radical than the Russian SDs. For example, all Russian Marxists at this time saw the conquest of a democratic republic as the immediate task of the impending revolution. Leftists in the Polish PPS, however, argued for the possibility and desirability of moving straight to a socialist revolution, thereby pioneering the strategy of tying national liberation to socialist revolution later famously articulated in Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. In the words of PPS leader Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, “Who says that the Polish republic that we will win shall necessarily be a bourgeois state? . . . The day we kick out the Tsarist invasion–the main obstacle to (the socialist program’s) implementation–we will do everything possible at the same time, it goes without saying, to socialize the means of production.”[19]

Similarly, the Latvian LSS declared that it did not fight for a bourgeois republic, as the task of the proletariat was to “go beyond” this demand, towards a workers’ democracy.[20] At a moment when most SDs across Russia and Europe thought that the bourgeois-democratic state could be seized by the working class and transformed into a vehicle for socialism, the LSS—twelve years before Lenin’s State and Revolution—explicitly quoted and praised Marx’s declaration that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”[21] Social and national liberation, it argued, could only be won through smashing the capitalist state:

This new society in the Baltic can only be created through the conscious work of the Latvian national proletariat and this work can only be carried out if the proletariat governs the political activity in our land. We strive to show the working class that this can happen only by destroying the bourgeois state, that only establishing a proletarian state—i.e., by sharpening and furthering the class war to its conclusion—will make possible the founding of a new society in the Latvian land, where there will be no exploiters or exploited. It will be a new Latvia, a Latvian state, a Latvian democracy.[22]

After the defeat of the 1905 revolution, the tumultuous geopolitics of World War I, and the polarization of the October Revolution, some (though not most) of the borderland parties became reformist and/or nationalist. Throughout the crucial period of 1917-1923, socialist conflicts over the national question became inextricable from fundamental differences over whether the unfolding revolution should seek to overthrow capitalism or limit itself to establishing a bourgeois democracy. But in the years before 1905 borderland socialists and Russian SDs generally shared a common strategic outlook on the basic questions of working-class independence, internationalism, and anti-tsarist revolution. Their differences concerned how these goals could be effectively reached and how to incorporate national liberation into the general revolutionary struggle.

Party federalism and centralism

Of all the debates between Russian and borderland SDs, the conflict over party organization was the most concrete and the most immediate. As such, it fed into the factional context in which the broader polemics on the national question, discussed below, took place. Iskra (The Spark), a predominantly Russian Marxist current founded in 1900, aimed to build a centralized empire-wide party capable of leading a successful overthrow of the autocracy. Lenin made a strong case for this perspective:

In matters pertaining to the struggle against the autocracy, the struggle against the bourgeoisie of Russia as a whole, we must act as a single and centralized militant organization, have behind us the whole of the proletariat, without distinction of language or nationality, a proletariat whose unity is cemented by the continual joint solution of problems of theory and practice, of tactics and organization; and we must not set up organizations that would march separately, each along its own track; we must not weaken the force of our offensive by breaking up into numerous independent political parties.[23]

As is well known, Iskraists objected to the Bund for organizing Jews separately from other workers and for advocating a decentralized empire-wide party. It is important to distinguish between these two issues, which have often been conflated in the historiography. While Iskra’s advocacy of multiethnic organizations was generally shared by SDs in the borderlands, its stance on All-Russian organizational centralization was widely rejected.

All of the borderland parties at this time—whether or not they organized one or more nationalities—rejected Iskra’s push for a single centralized All-Russian party.[24] A leader of Rosa Luxemburg’s anti-nationalist SDKPiL, for example, argued: “To accept these terms [Iskra’s organizational proposal] means agreeing to the destruction of our party, making her one of the local organizations of the Russian party, which given the state of the struggle in Russia would be detrimental to our movement.”[25]  Most SDs advocated a looser federal party to unite SDs across the empire. One of the main reasons that the Bund, and not the other non-Russian parties, found itself at the center of the conflict with Iskra was simply that it had been part of the RSDRP since its 1898 founding congress (which the Bund had hosted in Minsk), thus it could not be ignored.

Recognition of a federal status for the Bund would have undermined Iskra’s central organizational project: the overcoming of the atomization of Russian Marxism. At the turn of the century, SDs in Central Russia were dispersed and narrowly focused; Iskra’s party-building plan was above all an effort of militants oriented to Russian-speaking regions to overcome this ineffective kustarnichestvo (amateurish localism).[26] Given the growing revolutionary upsurge, according to Iskra it was urgently necessary to connect the atomized circles into a powerful centralized All-Russian party capable of leading the rapidly rising tide of revolutionary struggle to overthrow the autocracy.

Lenin argued that the ideal relationship of the central leadership towards the local committees should be like that of a conductor in an orchestra towards the musicians.[27] Along these lines, at the RSDRP Second Congress he rejected placing any explicit limits on the powers of the central party leadership: “The Central Committee must be allowed to determine for itself the sphere of its own competence, since any local matter might affect the interests of the Party as a whole, and the Central Committee should be in a position to intervene in local affairs, even, perhaps, going against local interests, if such action was in the interests of the Party as a whole.”[28] Martov similarly defended the unrestricted right of the Central Committee to dissolve local committees.[29]

In the eyes of Iskra, the Bund’s resistance to party centralization was not qualitatively different from Russian circles in St. Petersburg or Moscow that placed their own narrow focus above the needs of the broader struggle. Martov argued that for the sake of the revolution the Bund needed to abandon this myopic kustarnichestvo, which had “brought our movement into a blind alley.”[30] He warned that if the Bund were granted its organizational proposals, other SD committees across the country would then make this same demand for local control.[31]

A centralized Marxist party across the empire certainly would have been a tremendous political lever against the tsarist state. Lenin’s organizational perspective was not rooted in a dictatorial desire for absolute control, as so many anticommunist writers have claimed, but rather a commitment to overcoming the dispersion of the empire’s socialist forces, to more effectively fight for political freedom and socialism:

The accursed history of autocracy has left us a legacy of tremendous estrangement between the working classes of the various nationalities oppressed by that autocracy. This estrangement is a very great evil, a very great obstacle in the struggle against the autocracy, and we must not legitimize this evil or sanctify this outrageous state of affairs by establishing any such “principles” as separate parties or a “federation” of parties. . . . The more we realize the need for unity and the more firmly we are convinced that a concerted offensive against the autocracy is impossible without complete unity, the more obvious becomes the necessity for a centralized organization of the struggle in the conditions of our political system.[32]

Iskra’s organizational objective was legitimate, arguably even ideal. Far less clear is whether a centralized party was indispensable for the overthrow of tsarism; whether such a party was achievable in the specific context of the Russian empire at the turn of the century; and, in these conditions, whether Iskra’s organizational moves were the most effective to build All-Russian proletarian unity.

There were several problems with Iskra’s perspective. First, it tended to conflate the dynamics in Central Russia with that of the empire as a whole. By 1903–04, Polish, Jewish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Latvian, and Finnish socialists had already moved beyond disconnected circles and had built parties centralized on a regional level. Reflecting the social and geographic distance between the various peoples living under the tsarist state, these parties had arisen and cohered separately from each other.

Given the strong traditions of federalism in the tsarist empire’s socialist movement, as well as the “orthodox” precedent of the Austrian Social Democracy’s 1897 decision to organizationally federate itself, Iskra’s stance on All-Russian centralization was far more controversial than that of the Bund. Finnish scholar Antti Kujala notes that Lenin and Iskra’s centralizing stance was “a real innovation.”[33] To view opposition to empire-wide centralization as analogous to the kustarnischestvo of small circles in Central Russia was a questionable leap on Iskra’s part. The Bund, like the other borderland parties, did not object to centralization as such. In fact, the Bund was a highly centralized and relatively top-down party that granted its own central committee as extensive powers as proposed by Iskra.[34] Iskraists repeatedly pointed to the Bund as a model for an efficient and disciplined underground apparatus.[35]

The debate was whether this centralization should be extended across the state and whether empire-wide workers’ unity had to take the form advocated by Iskra. In response to Lenin’s declaration that the Bundists were “nationalists” who made a “mockery” of calls for proletarian unity, the Bund replied: “We ask Iskra: Do you seriously believe that ‘joint struggle’ [uniting workers of different nationalities] presumes only one type of organization, that of Iskra? That ‘joint struggle’ is impossible in any other organizational form?”[36]

Opposition to Iskra’s All-Russian organizational approach was rooted in various overlapping dynamics. One contributing factor was that borderland parties were generally far bigger than their Russian comrades in this period; Iskra seemed to be calling for the subordination of their organizations into a weaker and somewhat distant Russian party. For instance, Iskra granted Bundists only five of the fifty-one votes at the RSDRP Second Congress, even though the Bund’s membership was close to three times higher than the rest of the party combined.[37]

Uneven organizational strength was compounded by concerns that a Russian-led party might not as effectively defend the interests of non-Russian workers, particularly regarding national liberation. In these debates, organizational and political issues were always intertwined—borderland SDs’ insistence on organizational autonomy was linked to what they saw as Iskra’s limitations on the national question. Latvian SD Pēteris Stučka, who many years later became the leader of Latvian Bolshevism, challenged Iskra’s view that greater organizational centralization would always lead to greater political effectiveness.[38]  This was not necessarily the case, Stučka argued, because the Russian SDs were “somewhat indifferent to the other nationalities in Russia” and did not often have a good understanding of the particularities of the borderlands.[39]

Without absolutely precluding the All-Russian organizational centralism desired by Iskra, Stučka argued that a federalist approach was the most appropriate step towards closer unity at that moment in time: We do not know enough about the organizations of other nationalities. Naturally, this explains our hesitancy towards a merger on the basis of centralization. Amalgamation, to discard everything that we have established through long struggle, to transfer all deciding powers to the hands of a foreign Central Committee in which we have no voice (our votes will disappear among the large number of other votes) is and will be hard for us. It would be easier for us to join on a basis that would allow us self-government, and to set up a Central Committee where we had some say and whose power over us would be limited. . . . The first step we take towards unity must not be a leap into an unknown sea.[40]

In this context, the initial move towards a unified party required a federalist approach:

If Russia’s proletarians of different nationalities were to unite in a federal party, this party would be the best opportunity for its constituents to get mutually acquainted and more and more move closer to each other. I am sure that even though a federal bond is weaker, it will be the best path towards a closer merger. The Central Committee will receive more and more trust and authority—but this time the authority will be given voluntarily and with full trust. Only then will there grow a strong Russian Social Democratic Party, which will merge the conscious proletarians of all Russia’s nationalities into a united struggle for a single goal.[41]

Stučka concluded that it would not be possible to free Russia as a whole without the participation of non-Russians.[42]

Widespread opposition to a centralized empire-wide party placed Iskra in a bind. Knowing that other non-Russian SDs also supported a federalist approach, the Bund proposed that the upcoming 1903 Second Congress of the RSDRP invite all Marxist parties of the empire—Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, etc.—to join and participate. Without the borderland SDs, the Bund argued, Iskra could only build a Russian party, not an All-Russian party.[44] But Iskraists knew that their centralizing plans would not be accepted by such a broader congress. While expressing a desire that all nationalities eventually be included in the RSDRP, Lenin and Iskra nevertheless rejected the Bund’s proposal:

By formally advancing the “right” of “all” nationalities to found the long-ago-founded Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, the Bund manifestly confirms that it is precisely over the question of the notorious “federation” that it has raised the whole issue. . . . We cannot but favor representation of “all” nationalities at the congress, but at the same time we must remember that we can think of expanding the nucleus or allying it with other organizations only after the formation of this nucleus has been completed (or, at the very least, after there is no doubt about its stability).[44]

This was a sensible approach to consolidating Iskra’s organizational project, but it raises serious questions about the representativity of the RSDRP as an All-Russian party. Given Iskra’s weakness in the borderlands, one has to wonder whether there were viable alternatives to declaring that a primarily Russian party represented the whole proletariat in the state. Without renouncing their organizational goals, Iskraists could have accepted party federalism with the borderland SDs as a first step towards closer organizational unity or they could have worked as a current within the existing borderland parties. Had Iskra adopted a more flexible organizational approach, its efforts to root itself in non-Russian regions and to build empire-wide proletarian unity may have been more effective.[45]

The axiom of “one centralized party for one state” made sense in nation-states like France; whether it was appropriate for an expansive multinational empire like tsarist Russia is questionable. Similar debates would later arise in Ireland, Algeria, and beyond, as Marxists from oppressed nations demanded organizational independence from their comrades in the metropoles.[46]

Fighting oppression

Evaluating the pushback of borderland SDs against All-Russian party centralism is inextricable from an assessment of Russian Marxists’ general politics on national liberation in this period. On the one hand, Iskra explicitly and consistently supported legal equality for all and opposed the tsarist government’s Russification policies. Lenin wrote in 1903:

Since the state arena in which we are working today was created and is being maintained and extended by means of a series of outrageous acts of violence, then, to make the struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression successful, we must not disperse but unite the forces of the working class, which is the most oppressed and the most capable of fighting. The demand for recognition of every nationality’s right to self-determination simply implies that we, the party of the proletariat, must always and unconditionally oppose any attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or injustice.[47]

On the other hand, the national question was not a major focus of the Iskraists. Based in relatively ethnically-homogeneous Central Russia and the Russified cities of Ukraine, and organizing primarily Russian and Russified workers and students, Iskraists generally operated in milieus where national liberation was seen as a marginal issue. Lenin did not write his first theoretical examination of the national question until 1913—two decades after the start of his political career. His initial draft programs for the party in the 1890s did not discuss the national question and did not go beyond calling for legal equality.[48] Illustrative of this neglect is Lenin’s famous 1902 pamphlet What is to Be Done?, which basically ignores the domination of non-Russians.[49] Ironically, the following quote is often cited today as evidence of Lenin’s longstanding fight against all forms of oppression: “The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.”[50]

This important formulation was largely a reiteration of the 1891 German Marxist Erfurt Program’s declaration that Social Democrats fought against “not only the exploitation and oppression of wage earners, but any form of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against a class, party, sex, or race.”[51] But the discussion on this question in What Is To De Done? did not address oppressed nationalities (or women). By my rough count, the number of article references to non-proletarian domination and struggle in tsarist Russia breaks down as follows: liberals and zemstvo (local government) activists: 16; students: 16; peasants: 8; religious sects: 5; soldiers: 3; non-Russian nationalities: 0. This omission of the autocracy’s domination of borderland peoples is particularly problematic given that a core argument of What Is To Be Done? is the need for an “All-Russian” (i.e., empire-wide) newspaper and party. One could easily get the impression from Lenin’s pamphlet that tsarist Russia was a homogenous nation-state rather than a multinational empire. At no point does What Is to Be Done? address how Iskra, a Russian-language newspaper, could feasibly act as the empire-wide “collective organizer” for a polity in which the native language of most people was not Russian.

In 1903, Lenin wrote his first string of pieces on the national question. Polemics mostly against the Bund and the PPS, these short articles focused on the salient point that Marxists opposed national oppression and that only the united struggle of workers of all nationalities could end it. Nevertheless, key aspects of Lenin’s later national liberation strategy were absent, including a focus on fighting “great nation” chauvinism; a stress on the distinction between oppressor and oppressed peoples; critical support for the nationalism of dominated peoples; advocacy of national autonomy or federalism; a conception of the anti-imperialist united front; and a view of national movements as central to the fight for socialism.

Despite the political limitations of these articles, it is significant that Iskra’s main writer on this topic was Lenin—in both this formative period and later years he proved to be more aware of the national question than most of the rest of the Russian party. Even N. N. Popov’s 1934 Stalinist Outline History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union acknowledged that in these early years “the local party organizations had hitherto not paid the national question the attention it deserved, and as a consequence were not always able to counteract successfully the influence of the bourgeois nationalists who made great capital out of their national demands among the workers and toilers of the oppressed nationalities.”[52] Two Bolshevik leaders similarly recalled that, “The issue was not even that we were not fond of the slogans of autonomy, federation, and independence, and that we advocated ‘unity.’ The issue is that we completely avoided the national liberation movement.”[53]

Nationally conscious socialists in the periphery of the empire generally joined the non-Russian organizations. Ethnic Russians in these regions mostly joined the “All-Russian” parties, as did most Russified militants, who as Lenin noted “over-do this Russian frame of mind.”[54] This factional pattern, coupled with the fact that Russian chauvinism and nationalism tended to be strongest among Russians in the borderlands, helps explain why the most anti-national wing of the Bolsheviks was generally based in the empire’s periphery.[55] Particularly after 1914, this gap between Lenin’s approach and those of his comrades on the ground became a major source of internal conflict within Bolshevism. Historian Jeremy Smith notes that the history of Bolshevik national policy between 1917 and 1923 is “largely the story of a struggle between the center and the periphery in which it was, perhaps surprisingly, the center which supported local autonomy.”[56]

Given that the national question was a much more pressing issue in the borderlands than in Central Russia, it is not surprising that the fight against national oppression was led by socialists from the dominated nationalities themselves. For example, after pogroms began to proliferate from 1902 onwards, Bundist self-defense squads spread across the Pale. To fight the pogromists, Jewish workers and students organized themselves into groups of “tens,” armed with an assortment of knives, clubs, axes, bombs, revolvers, and meat cleavers. Maxim Gorky, the well-known Russian SD author, noted: “It is hard to imagine the extent to which the face of the Jewish community has been changed under the influence of the revolutionary activity of the Bund, and to what extent the attitude of Christians towards Jews has also changed because of this. . . . The exceptional heroism of Jews in their revolutionary struggle is known by all.”[57]

One socialist critic has recently argued that the Bund “took it for granted from its very inception that the task of fighting anti-Semitism was that of the Jewish workers, rather than the working class as a whole.”[58] In reality, the Bund explicitly rejected this idea and criticized Zionists for advocating it.[59] After the anti-Jewish violence in Kishinev in April 1903, the Bund stressed the need to fight Zionist efforts to use the pogrom as a pretext to “foment discord between Jewish and Christian workers” and called for the joint struggle of workers of all nationalities.[60] This internationalist orientation was put into practice as Bundists actively involved non-Jewish workers and other SD organizations in the fight against anti-Semitism and the pogroms—the famous Gomel defense squad that fought off pogromists in August 1903, for instance, was multinational in composition.[61]

The early record of Russian revolutionaries was not stellar when it came to fighting anti-Jewish violence. In an infamous act that discredited Russian radicals for many years, leaders of the populist Narodnaia Volia had publicly praised the 1881 pogrom wave as the first step towards revolution: “You have begun to rebel against the Jews. You have done well. Soon the revolt will be taken across all of Russia against the Tsar, the pany [landowning gentry], the Jews.”[62]

Pavel Axelrod, an influential founder of Russian Marxism, was privately opposed to this statement’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, but he nevertheless failed to state so publicly. Rather, he publicly argued that the pogroms could have been transformed by socialists into an anti-tsarist rebellion, declaring in an 1881 article that the pogroms should have been “the beginning of a socialist class movement in the name of ‘land and freedom’ for the laboring masses. It was only necessary, in Kiev for example, to direct the crowd to the quarter of the Jewish capitalists, to the banks, where the capital of the upper classes of all nationalities is concentrated.”[63]

Socialist ambivalence towards defending Jews continued well into the 1890s. The 1891 congress of the Second International rejected a resolution to support equal rights for Jews. Instead, the congress resolved that it condemned both “anti-semitic and philo-semitic [pro-Jewish] agitation, which are, in the hands of the capitalists and the ruling classes, one of the means for diverting the socialist movement from the right path and introducing discord among the workers.”[64] In the early 1890s, Russian SDs in Odessa banned Jews from membership in order not to estrange anti-Semitic Russian workers.[65] Lenin noted Plekhanov’s prejudiced comments about the Bund at a 1900 conference of the Emancipation of Labor group (the precursor to Iskra):

Plekhanov displayed extreme intolerance and openly declared it to be an organization of exploiters who exploit the Russians and not a Social-Democratic organization. He said that our aim was to eject this Bund from the Party, that the Jews are all chauvinists and nationalists, that a Russian party should be Russian and should not render itself into “captivity” to the “brood of vipers,” etc. None of our objections to these indecent speeches had any result and Plekhanov stuck to his ideas to the full, saying that we simply did not know enough about the Jews, that we had no real experience in dealing with Jews.[66]

By 1903, however, Russian Marxists were firmly committed to fighting anti-Jewish violence. Iskraists explicitly opposed the tsar’s persecution of non-Russian nationalities and sought to establish a democratic republic that would guarantee equal rights for all citizens. In May 1903, Iskra published an article by Plekhanov criticizing the conduct of Narodnaia Volia in 1881 and calling for a resolute struggle against anti-Semitic pogroms.[67] The RSDRP Second Congress passed a resolution along these lines.[68]

This position marked a major shift away from the hesitations of earlier generations of socialists. Yet various aspects of the Russian socialist response remained problematic. In a polemic against the Bund following the 1902 pogrom in Częstochowa (tsarist Poland), Lenin claimed it was “infantile” for the Bund to assert that “anti-Semitism has struck roots in the mass of the workers.”[69] Lenin’s argument—that anti-Semitism corresponded to the interests of the bourgeoisie not the proletariat—basically elided the issue raised by the Bund.[70]

Bundists criticized Iskra for prioritizing the fight against Jewish particularism over the fight against anti-Semitism: “The Russian committees are more interested in the enlightenment of the Jewish masses and their liberation from prejudices . . . than the eradication of savage anti-Semitism . . . there is no doubt that from a revolutionary point of view, this is a large negligence.”[71] Iskra’s article in response to this charge affirmed its steadfast opposition to the pogroms and anti-Semitism, but also argued that Jewish nationalism was in fact a “much more threatening development for the class organization of the proletariat than anti-Semitism.”[72] The latter could only lead “completely culturally and politically dark [backwards] elements” of the population, Iskra argued, while the former was winning over “cultured layers of the Jewish proletariat.”[73] Iskra concluded that “we cannot abandon the task of combating the ‘prejudices of the Jewish masses.’”[74]

Most borderland SDs rejected this emphasis on fighting the nationalism of the oppressed more than the nationalism of the oppressor. One PPS leader put forward the following as a strategic alternative: “If he [the socialist] is a Jew, let him fight Zionism in words and deeds. If he is a Christian, let him combat anti-Semitism in agitation and by personal example.”[75]

To their credit, during both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, Russian Marxists, usually in alliance with the Bund, proved to be consistent fighters against the pogromists. Any lingering hesitations dissipated as tsarist officials and reactionary forces sought to direct anti-Semitic violence against the entire revolutionary movement, which they claimed was led and controlled by Jews—in this context, combatting pogroms became a necessity of self-defense for the socialist movement as a whole.

Assimilationism and national culture

A major point of contention between borderland SDs and Iskra concerned the issue of assimilation and national culture. Arguments in favor of assimilationism could certainly find considerable theoretical justification in the Marxist canon. During the 1848 revolution, Marx and Engels had distinguished between “non-historical nations” such as Ukrainians and Czechs that were fated by history to disappear and “historical nations” like Germany or Poland that would solidify in the modern world.[76] Ethnic absorption into society at large was widely seen as a progressive act eliminating outdated divisions. This merging process would have to be voluntary, as forced state assimilation would be both oppressive and ultimately counterproductive.

It was with this theoretical legacy that Russian Marxists favored the voluntary assimilation of non-Russians.[77] This was not merely a theoretical question about the distant future, but an immediate issue of political practice. For example, in a context marked by the tsarist prohibition of the Ukrainian language, Russian SDs played a central role in assimilating ethnic-Ukrainian workers in Ukraine’s cities, a practice that Ukrainian SDs noted was dangerously isolating the urban labor movement from the native Ukrainian countryside.[78] In 1900, the Ukrainian Socialist Party wrote that “as to the Russian socialists, we hope that certain Great Russian aims which make their appearance here and there will disappear with the blossoming of socialist consciousness.”[79] Yet as late as 1913 Lenin argued that “the historically progressive nature of the ‘assimilation’ of the Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers will be as undoubted as the progressive nature of the grinding down of nations in America.”[80]

In light of the rise of the Ukrainian national struggle from 1917 onwards, and the chaos created for the Ukrainian revolution by the chasm between the Russified cities and the Ukrainian countryside, the problematic aspects of Iskra’s approach are evident. But it should be noted that Ukrainian national consciousness at the turn of the century was a marginal phenomenon largely limited to student circles. The mistake of the Iskraists was not so much Russian chauvinism, but rather a failure to foresee the possibility of an upsurge in Ukrainian national sentiment.

While Iskra tended to assume that national consciousness and national movements would get weaker as capitalist development and proletarian struggle advanced, other Marxist currents believed that that the opposite would prove to be the case. Kelles-Krauz of the PPS argued in 1899 for the relevance of the fight for Ukrainian independence on the following grounds: “Economic evolution and the class struggle will give rise to—or revive—national sentiment, above all to the Ruthenians [Ukrainians], who will without a doubt create their own remarkable socialist movement.”[81] Seeing the emergence of proletarian-separatist movements in the borderlands as key to the overthrow of tsarism, the PPS supported the Ukrainian socialist movement and advocated an independent Ukraine. When the Iskraist theoretical journal Zaria declared that it would be “strange” to demand political autonomy for “Little Russians” (Ukrainians) because they “do not need it,” the PPS replied that this was a “matter whose decision must be unconditionally left to the concerned nationalities themselves.”[82]

The debate on assimilation above all revolved around “the Jewish question.” Lenin argued that the emancipation of Jews from feudalism and political oppression necessarily required their assimilation into society at large.[83] “Can we possibly attribute to chance the fact that it is the reactionary forces all over Europe, and especially in Russia, who oppose the assimilation of the Jews and try to perpetuate their isolation? That is precisely what the Jewish problem amounts to: assimilation or isolation?” he wrote.[84] According to Iskra’s conception, Jewish culture was exclusively the expression of religious backwardness and segregation from European civilization. Lyubov Axelrod, for instance, bluntly declared in Iskra that:

Jews will only fully join European culture when they finally part ways with their national beliefs, in other words, when they assimilate. . . . We do not consider the Jewish jargon [Yiddish] to be a cultural language. . . . Knowledge of the Russian language provides a full opportunity to become acquainted with the main results of culture, while knowledge of the Jewish jargon does not. . . That is why we, Social Democrats, condemn the Jewish jargon.[85]

In 1904 Bundist leader Vladimir Medem sought to articulate a revolutionary Marxist alternative to assimilationism. Medem’s theory of “neutralism” argued that it was contrary to the interests of the proletariat to either politically promote or oppose assimilation. His core argument was that,

If history condemns Jews to assimilate into other nations, we will not take steps to delay this process, nor to assist it. We are neutral. . . . We are not against assimilation, we are against assimilationism. If history brings the flowering of a distinctive Jewish culture . . . we are neutral.[86]

Most Bundists did not deny the possibility that the masses of Jewish people in Eastern Europe could eventually assimilate. But they projected this as a distant, and not necessarily inevitable, process. Polemicizing against the idea that the Jewish question would immediately disappear after the fall of the autocracy, one Bundist predicted that “the day after the political revolution, Jewish culture and literature will flourish. It is possible that the Jewish nation will later disappear, but in the first few years after the fall of the autocracy it will develop.”[87] Latvian SDs similarly opposed Russian Marxists’ assimilationism and accused them of being indifferent to national issues: “Forget about your nationality—[this is their] simple, easy and clever solution to the national question.”[88] In contrast with Iskra, the PPS in this period dropped its initially assimilationist approach to Jews.[89]

Though assimilationism remained hegemonic among Russian SDs, an occasional dissident voice was raised. In late 1903, a long letter to the editor in Iskra by the author B-v challenged Lenin’s stance on assimilation, on both theoretical and political grounds. In an October 1903 polemic with the Bund, Lenin had argued as follows:

Hostility towards non-native sections of the population can only be eliminated [quoting German SPD theoretician Karl Kautsky] “when the non-native sections of the population cease to be alien and blend with the general mass of the population. That is the only possible solution of the Jewish problem, and we should support everything that makes for the ending of Jewish isolation.” Yet the Bund is resisting this only possible solution.[90]

B-v criticized this for implying that hatred to Jews was an inevitable and natural response to Jewish “alienness”—a type of reasoning shared by anti-Semites.[91] Moreover, B-v continued, if discrimination could only be eliminated through assimilation then this granted anti-Semitism “if not immortality, then at least a very, very long existence.”[92] An alternative approach existed: eliminating anti-Semitism among the Christian masses through uniting with Jewish workers in the class struggle.[93]

To build this proletarian unity, B-v argued, it was politically wrong to substitute the slogan “Proletarians of the world unite!” with that of “Jewish proletarians: Assimilate!”[94] Such an approach reflected a dismissive attitude towards the existing Jewish culture and language.[95] Observable trends in the national question, the author noted, did not prove whether or not Jews would inevitably assimilate. As such, it was wrong to draw political conclusions for today from speculations about the future.[96]

This critique was closer in some respects to Kautsky’s actual position than Lenin’s article. The citation of Kautsky in Lenin’s article was distorted by mistranslation and omission. According to Lenin, Kautsky had argued that the only solution to Jewish question was assimilation; but in fact Kautsky had argued that while this was the only ultimate solution, in the interim it was necessary to inculcate the masses against anti-Semitism through education. Kautsky’s actual wording was the following:

How can this hostility be overcome? Most radically in as such as those parts of the population that bear the alien character stop being alien and mix with the whole of the population. This is ultimately the only possible solution of the Jewish question, and everything that ends Jewish isolation should be supported. But Jewish particularism is the product of thousands of years of development, they cannot be assimilated all of a sudden into the whole of the remaining population. As long as this has not happened, there is only one way to counter the aversion to Jewish particularism: the education of the masses.[97]

The political content of this citation discrepancy is underlined by the fact that, unlike Kautsky, Lenin at no point in his piece mentions the need to fight anti-Semitism. Far more than Kautsky, Lenin’s article placed the burden for resolving the Jewish question on Jews themselves. Of course, Lenin was certainly opposed to anti-Semitism; this text was a polemic and its emphasis reflected a heated factional fight with the Bund. Nevertheless, the piece seemed to validate the charge that Iskra was insufficiently oriented to fighting anti-Semitism.

Further limitations in Iskra’s approach to the national question were illustrated in the debate on language equality at the 1903 RSDRP Second Congress. While Lenin, Trotsky, and Julius Martov supported “equality for all citizens,” they opposed the Bund’s proposal, seconded by the Caucasian SDs, to explicitly include “equality of languages” in the party program. This proposal was met with laughter and a long controversy ensued, pitting Iskraists against borderland SDs and the non-Iskra center. Pointing to the case of Poles in Germany, Bundists argued that equal legal rights for all citizens would not necessarily mean that their language would be recognized as equal in state institutions.[98] Only after multiple tied votes (and Iskraist attempts to postpone taking any decision) was a plank on language rights eventually included. Yet the final 1903 RSDRP resolution also included recognition of a “state language,” a position criticized by various borderland SDs for implying continued Russian hegemony in the democratic regime envisioned by the RSDRP.[99]

It was on the question of national culture that the Bolsheviks’ most radical reversed their orientation after the October Revolution. The new Soviet regime eventually not only dropped all assimilationist orientations and practices, it went far beyond simply granting equality to all citizens: from 1921 onwards it actively promoted the consolidation and expansion of national languages, cultures, and autonomous institutions for all non-Russians, including for both Jews and Ukrainians. Smith notes that “the policy of the Bolsheviks was now, by means of territorial autonomy, ethnic consolidation, education, linguistic and cultural development, and the recruitment of national communists, to promote the nation as a focus for the overall development of the non-Russians to the ‘higher stage’ of socialism.”[100]

State federalism and autonomy

Iskra called for a single centralized republic for the whole territory and generally opposed governmental federalism and national autonomy. Arguing that the demand for a centralized state was best suited for uniting workers across national divisions, Lenin wrote:

It is not the business of the proletariat to preach federalism and national autonomy; it is not the business of the proletariat to advance such demands, which inevitably amount to a demand for the establishment of an autonomous class state. It is the business of the proletariat to rally the greatest possible masses of workers of each and every nationality more closely, to rally them for struggle in the broadest possible arena for a democratic republic and for socialism.[101]

In hindsight, Iskraists underestimated the implications of organizing in an empire, rather than a nation-state. Partly this reflected unconscious assumptions about the cohesive nature of “Russia,” which were shared widely in Russian society across the political spectrum. Nowhere was the Russian SD’s unintentional absorption of these views more clear than in Ukraine. Bolshevik leaders later noted that “we in fact gave no answer to the Ukrainian question because we did not know of it, as we considered it only a ‘petty bourgeois whim’ . . . for us there was no Ukraine, only ‘South Russia.’”[102]

Iskra’s approach also reflected an overestimation of the tendency of capitalism to socially, politically, and culturally integrate the different nationalities of tsarist Russia. According to Lenin, the “disintegration of Russia” called for by the PPS “is and will remain an empty phrase, as long as economic development continues to bring the different parts of a political whole more and more closely together.”[103] In response, the PPS accused him of echoing Luxemburg’s perspective.[104] Reflecting on the reasons why the Bolsheviks eventually reversed their stance on state federalism in 1918, Stalin noted that “the national movement proved to be far more weighty a factor, and the process of amalgamation of nations far more complicated a matter than might have appeared formerly, in the period prior to the war, or in the period prior to the October Revolution.”[105]

The “orthodox” Marxist precedent for federalism was established when the Austrian Social Democracy’s 1899 Brünn congress adopted a watershed national program on the basis of Kautsky’s stance. Austria-Hungary, the Brünn resolution stated, should be transformed into a “democratic federal state of nationalities.”[106] The Brünn resolution denounced “bureaucratic state-centralism” as it was an obstacle for “the cultivation and development of the national specificity of all peoples.”[107]

Most non-Russian Marxist parties advocated different forms of broad national autonomy or federalism. “Freedom and democracy in Russia are inconceivable without free peoples linked to each other solely through mutual alliances that are freely entered into. Russia must be proclaimed as an association of free democratic republics,” argued the Latvian LSS.[108] The Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party similarly demanded broad autonomy for Ukraine in a federal Russia. Opposing proposals to limit autonomy to administrative or cultural questions, it proposed a vision of national autonomy concretized in a legislative Sejm (parliament) with the power to control financial, agrarian, economic, educational, and cultural affairs.[109]  Bundists developed their own particular case for national federalism. They argued that the establishment of political freedom and legal equality would not necessarily end the oppression of minority groups.[110] Without collective rights and institutions for all peoples, national minorities would be subjected to de facto coerced assimilation, manifest in the inevitable pressures to adopt the culture of the majority.[111] Therefore individual legal equality was inadequate and had to be supplemented by autonomous governmental cultural institutions for all nationalities irrespective of the territory in which they lived—national-cultural autonomy (NCA).

Essentially the Bund advocated a form of what is now called “multiculturalism”—though, as a Marxist organization, it did not promote “diversity” or “national culture” as goals in themselves. Medem argued that “national identity itself is not important . . . we look at things from the point of view of expediency for the proletariat.”[112] According to Bundists, NCA could not eliminate national oppression, as this goal was achievable only through the overthrow of capitalism.[113] Its essential purpose was to sufficiently minimize national oppression and ethnic tensions so that workers of all nationalities could more effectively unite and fight against their class enemies.[114]

A significant aspect of the Bund’s initial orientation was its support for combining nonterritorial and territorial national solutions.[115] On the crucial question of Polish independence, the position of Bundists in this period was identical to that of Lenin: unity of all workers against tsarism, combined with recognizing the right of Poles to secede, but not advocating secession.[116] At the 1903 RSDRP congress, the Bund in fact promoted more extensive territorial sovereignty for non-Russians than Lenin—it was a Bundist who proposed the demand for “regional self-government,” which Lenin opposed as it could give the impression that “Social-Democrats wanted to split the whole state up into small regions.”[117]

There were almost no serious theoretical critiques of NCA in this period—the major Marxist debates on this topic only came after the 1907 publication of “Austro-Marxist” Otto Bauer’s The Nationalities Question and Social Democracy, a historical-materialist examination of the rise of nations that argued for NCA in the Austro-Hungarian empire. One noteworthy exception was a 1903 analysis by Kelles-Krauz, which presaged (and arguably politically surpassed) the well-known 1913 polemics against NCA by Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

Kelles-Krauz focused his fire not on the Bund, but rather Austrian NCA advocate Karl Renner, whom he accused of reformism and a German-patriotic defense of the existing Austrian imperial state. Comparing Renner’s perspective to that of Rosa Luxemburg, he noted that both failed to foresee the potential for a progressive emergence of political separatism and the revolutionary break-up of the imperial state.[118] Renner’s proposal to limit the scope of national autonomy to cultural issues offered too little actual power to dominated peoples. Kelles-Krauz praised the Brünn program’s proposal for territorial autonomy, though he argued that to be fully consistent with democratic and revolutionary principles the Austrian party should explicitly recognize the right of these autonomous nations to secede.[119]

In contrast with the later works of Lenin and Stalin, Kelles-Krauz did not entirely dismiss the relevancy of NCA. While it was too limited for territorial nations, he argued that it made sense for “dispersed minority nationalities.”[120] Cultural autonomy, he noted, corresponded well to the needs of Jews, as territorial solutions were precluded by their geographic dispersion.[121] Kelles-Krauz concluded that, if so wished by Jews, an independent Poland would grant them “full national rights and corporate autonomy,” manifest in autonomous schools and cultural institutions.[122]

Kelles-Krauz’s analysis of NCA stands out for at least two reasons. The first concerns the question of secession. A commonality of Renner, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Austrian SDs, Bundists, and Iskraists was their explicit desire to maintain a single state for the entire imperial territory in Austria or Russia. Their differences concerned the form of such a state and whether one should recognize the right of nations to secede from it. In contrast, Kelles-Krauz, like the PPS as a whole, rejected the desirability of maintaining these big states. As such, his critique of Renner was more forceful than the later Bolshevik stance, which combined advocacy of a centralized republic for the whole territory of the empire with recognition of the right of secession.

The second significant element of Kelles-Krauz’s piece was that, by arguing for the relevance of NCA for Jews, it showed that territorial and non-territorial solutions to the national question were not mutually exclusive. Lenin and Stalin’s later focus on counterposing these two approaches was neither absolutely necessary nor particularly “orthodox.”

When in 1905 Karl Kautsky finally published a piece on Russia’s national question, he argued that given the “strong urge for independence” demonstrated by non-Russians in the tsarist empire, the only way to avoid the complete secession of these oppressed nationalities was for a democratic Russia to be transformed into “a federal state, the ‘United States of Russia.’”[123] He cautioned that such a territorial solution could not resolve national oppression on its own, as it did not address the national minorities on these lands.[124] In Russia—like in Austria, the Balkans, and Asia Minor—it was common for multiple peoples to live interspersed on a given territory, “resulting in national questions that are incomprehensible for a Western European and unsolvable through Western European means.”[125]

Given this particular dilemma, Kautsky put forward the perspective of the SDs in Austria as a plausible solution for Russia, arguing that “a series of useful proposals have been made in Austria to combine the self-administration of regions with the self-administration of each nation, and in the Austrian social democratic party the two forms of autonomy are in practice implemented side by side with each other.”[126] Kautsky’s article was published in Russian by the Bund, which justifiably saw it as a vindication of its perspective.


After 1905, Russian Marxists began rethinking their approach to national liberation and eventually adopted many of the positions first articulated by borderland SDs. The Bolshevik leadership’s first evolution came during 1913–14. Partly a reaction to an upturn in national movements during and following the 1905 revolution, this shift was in its most immediate sense a response to factional struggles culminating in the Bolsheviks’ definitive organizational break from the “Menshevik-liquidators” in 1912. As the Bolsheviks found themselves with little support among non-Russian workers, and as they were accused by their factional opponents, of indifference to national liberation, Lenin and Stalin responded by publishing extensive polemical treatises on the national question. Similarly, the 1913 Bolshevik conference for the first time resolved to support regional autonomy, explicitly recognize the right to secede, and reject Russian as the official state language.[127]

A more fundamental change in Lenin’s strategy came after 1914. Following the capitulation of Second International leaders across Europe to their ruling classes’ nationalist war drives, and as part of his new analysis of imperialism, Lenin now argued that capitalism increased rather than diminished national divisions, and he now stressed the centrality of national liberation movements in the fight for world socialism.[128]

But Lenin’s innovations on the national question were for years met with hostility or indifference by Bolshevik militants, particularly those in the borderlands; much of the latter’s writings during World War I are polemics against the Luxemburgism of his own comrades in Ukraine and Poland.[129] Yurii Lapchynsky, a Bolshevik leader in Ukraine, later recalled that “it seemed to us then that the question of nationalities only made the task more complicated, only distracted the workers’ attention from the main issue: from the revolutionary work . . . the attitude of most of us to the national cause was as to one that did not concern us, the revolutionary workers.”[130]

In and after the 1917 revolution, which witnessed an explosive rise of national movements in the borderlands, Bolshevik national policies reflected this bifurcation. Lenin and most top Bolshevik leaders, seeing the urgency of winning the support of non-Russian peoples, deepened their support for national demands, for example by adopting state federalism in 1917-18.[131] Just as important, the Communist International raised the banner of anti-colonialism and the anti-imperialist united front across the globe.[132]

Yet in the non-Russian regions of the empire, Bolshevism continued to resemble Luxemburgism and Iskraism more than the new orientation proposed by Lenin and the Communist International. “In the Russian-dominated Soviets in the [borderland] regions it was Great Russian attitudes which prevailed, and they frequently clashed with the representatives of the local population,” observes Smith.[133] This relative indifference to national liberation, though certainly not the sole factor determining the revolution’s course in the borderlands, had catastrophic consequences for the spread of the socialist revolution to the empire’s periphery. Noting the prevalence of “Great Russian” chauvinism within Communist ranks during these years, N. N. Popov writes that “this attitude towards the national question, veiled by leftist phrases, did tremendous harm to the party and was of no less tremendous benefit to the forces of counter-revolution, which took every opportunity of playing upon the nationalist feeling to be met with among the formerly oppressed peoples.”[134]

Various factors contributed to the Bolsheviks’ reorientation after 1920, as new soviet governments were established in Ukraine and the Caucasus, largely through Red Army intervention. First, the Bolshevik party during these years received an influx of borderland SDs committed to furthering national liberation within the framework of the soviet state. Second, after the initial chaos of the civil war diminished somewhat, the Bolshevik center began to more effectively push back against the Luxemburgism of its party ranks. Third, and most important, the 1917-20 defeats of the revolution in the empire’s periphery led to a significant rethinking of the national question among the party as a whole. The result was an ambitious project of non-Russian national development, centered on the promotion of non-Russian cultures and languages, governmental federalism, and the incorporation of borderland socialists into top leadership posts.[135]

How much political sovereignty should be delegated to the national republics remained a major debate within the party, as was manifest during Lenin’s famous 1922–23 “last struggle” against bureaucratic-centralistic impositions on Georgia by Georgian Bolsheviks Joseph Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, in alliance with Polish Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinsky.[136] Whatever their limitations, the government’s new “indigenization” policies on the whole fostered a profound “national renaissance” in the borderlands that lasted until the Stalinist counterrevolution of the 1930s.

In short, Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ approach to national liberation evolved through political practice over many years. Their ability to flexibly absorb and articulate the lessons from this period of revolutionary upheaval remains a vital political foundation for the international Marxist movement. But there is no need to gloss over the difficulties and defeats it took for them to overcome the limitations of Iskraism. Today, like a century ago, learning from experience and missteps in struggle remains an indispensable component of effective revolutionary socialist politics.

I want to thank John Riddell, David Walters, Tithi Bhattacharya, Todd Chretien, and the ISR editors for their comments on this article.


[1]. A more comprehensive account would also necessarily examine how positions on the national question were rooted in the distinct social contexts of the empire, as well as the parties’ broader strategic conceptions of the “driving forces” of the revolution, tactics towards the workers’ movement, and relations with the peasant struggle. These topics are addressed in my forthcoming monograph, Anti-Colonial Marxism: Oppression & Revolution in the Tsarist Borderlands (Brill—Historical Materialism Book Series).

[2]. One exception was the Finnish Social Democratic Party, whose moderate policies in these years reflected the fact that, unlike all the other SD organizations in the empire, it was a legalized party. This legal status was made possible by the considerable political freedom and national autonomy granted to Finland by the tsarist regime.

[3]. Cited in Helene Dopkewitsch, Die entwicklung des lettländischen Staatsgedankens bis 1918 (Berlin: H.R. Engelmann, 1936), 24–25.

[4]. “Szkic programu Polskiej Partii Socjalistycznej,” (1892) in Feliks Tych, Polskie programy socjalistyczne 1878–1918 (Warszawa: Ksiąka i Wiedza, 1975), 248, 252.

[5]. “Sprawozdanie z obrad i uchwały IV zjazdu P.P.S. (w Warszawie),” (1897) in Aleksander Malinowski, ed., Materyały do historyi P.P.S. i ruchu rewolucyjnego w zaborze rosyjskim od r. 1893–1904. tom I, rok 1893–1897 (Warszawa: Odbito w drukarni narodowej w Krakowie, 1907), 301.

[6]. “Wyjaśnienie,” Robotnik, November 30, 1894.

[7]. “Szkic programu Polskiej Partii Socjalistycznej,” 251.

[8]. For recent charges of PPS “nationalism” see, for example, Liliana Riga, The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 117.

[9]. On the relations of the SRs and the PPS, see the discussion in Antti Kujala, Vallankumous ja kansallinen itsemääräämisoikeus: venäjän sosialistiset puolueet ja suomalainen radikalismi vuosisadan alussa (Helsinki: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1989).

[10]. Jan Sobczak, Współpraca SDKPiL z SDPRR: 1893–1907: geneza zjednoczenia i stanowisko SDKPiL wewnątrz SDPRR (Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1980), 386.

[11]. On the December events in Poland, see Eugeniusz Przybyszewski, “Proletariat w ruchu rewolucyjnym w Polsce” (1930) in Pisma (Warszawa, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1961), 477–90.

[12]. On these developments, see Janina Kasprzakowa, Ideologia i polityka PPS-Lewicy w latach 1907–1914 (Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1965).

[13]. Cited in Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 255.

[14]. “Воззвание ЦК бунда к еврейской интеллигенции,” (1901) in К.М. Андерсон et al., eds., Бунд: документы и mатериалы, 1894–1921 (Москва: РОССПЭН, 2010), 154.

[15]. Владимир Медем, Социал-демократия и национальный вопрос (Санкт-Петербург: Бусселя, 1906), 18.

[16]. Chaim Weizmann to Theodor Herzl, May 6, 1903, in The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, Vol. II, Series A, edited by Barnet Litvinoff (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 305, 307.

[17]. Brūno Kalnin¸š, Latvijas sociāldemokratijas piecdesmit gadi (Stokholmā: LSDSP Ārzemju Komitejas Izdevuma, 1956), 39; P. Dauge, P. Stučkas dzīve un darbs (Rīgā: Latvijas Valsts Izdevniecība, 1958), 196.

[18]. Россѝйская социáл-демократѝческая рабό́чая пáртия, Четвертый (объединительный) съезд РСДРП, апрель-май 1906 года: протоколы (Москва: Государственное Издательство Политической Литературы, 1959), 422–56.

[19]. Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Anon.), “Les Motifs de Notre Programme,” Bulletin Officiel du Parti Socialiste Polonais 9 (1896), 3.

[20]. Miķelis Valters (Anon.), “Baltijas sociālās demokrātijas jautājumi,” Revolucionārā baltija 2 (1905): 23–24.

[21]. Ibid., 18.

[22]. Ibid., 20. My emphasis.

[23]. V. I. Lenin, “Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an ‘Independent Political Party’?” (1903) Collected Works, Vol. 6 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977—same publisher information for all subsequent Lenin volumes cited), 333.

[24]. The only partial exception was the Georgian SDs, who joined the RSDRP in 1903. Though their organization was formally subordinate to the RSDRP leadership, in practice the Georgian SDs from 1905 onwards acted as a “party within the party” that implemented its own line on crucial issues such as agrarian struggle, party organization, terrorism, and the Duma. See Stephen F. Jones, Socialism in Georgian Colors: The European Road to Social Democracy, 1883–1917 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[25]. “J. Marchlewski do Członków Komitetu Zagranicznego SDKPiL,” (1903) in Feliks Tych, ed., Socjaldemokracja królestwa polskiego i litwy: materiały i dokumenty, tom II, 1902–1903 (Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1962), 457.

[26]. For a discussion of kustarnichestvo, and Iskra’s party-building plan, see Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2006).

[27]. V. I. Lenin, “Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks,” (1902) Collected Works, Vol. 6, 248.

[28]. Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, 1903, Second Ordinary Congress of the RSDLP: Complete Text of the Minutes, translated by Brian Pearce (London: New Park Publications, 1978), 199.

[29]. Russian Social Democratic Labor Party Minutes, 356.

[30]. Л. Мартов, “Единая русская социал демократия и интересы еврейского пролетариата,” Искра, 15 March 1903.

[31]. Ibid.

[32]. Lenin, “The National Question in Our Programme,” (1903) Collected Works, Vol. 6, 460.

[33]. Kujala, 83.

[34]. Nathan Weinstock, Le Pain de Misère: Histoire du Mouvement Ouvrier Juif en Europe Tome I. L’Empire Russe Jusqu’en 1914 (Paris: La Découverte, 1984), 114–16, 120–24.

[35]. Ibid., 179.

[36]. “Листовка пограничного комитета бунда 22 (9) сентября 1903 г.,” (1903) in Андерсон, 369.

[37]. Андерсон, 8.

[38]. Pēteris Stučka (Anon.) “Vienība vai federācija,” Sociāldemokrāts 27 (1904), 5.

[39]. Ibid.

[40]. Ibid., 8.

[41]. Ibid., 7.

[42]. Ibid., 8.

[43]. Harold Shukman, The Relations Between the Jewish Bund and the RSDRP, 1897–1903 (Ph.D. diss., Oxford University, 1961), 120.

[44]. Lenin, “Concerning the Statement of the Bund,” (1903) Collected Works, Vol. 6, 322–23.

[45]. At the 1906 RSDRP congress, both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks dropped their insistence on strict empire-wide centralization, allowing for the entry of the Bund, the Latvian SDs, and the Polish SDs into the RSDRP on a de facto federalist basis. After 1912, in the wake of their organizational break with the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks reversed this tacit acceptance of party federalism, as they sought to organizationally coalesce the RSDRP around their faction.

[46]. See Mike Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland: the Pursuit of the Workers’ Republic since 1916 (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1984) and Allison Drew, We Are No Longer in France: Communists in Colonial Algeria (New York: Manchester University Press, 2014).

[47]. Lenin, “On the Manifesto of the League of the Armenian Social-Democrats,” (1903) Collected Works, Vol. 6, 326–27. This article’s vague formulation of “the right to self-determination” should be noted. In a follow-up 1903 article in Iskra, Lenin wrote that “self-determination” meant the right to form an independent state, but the 1903 RSDRP congress resolution left it undefined. Only in 1913 did the Bolsheviks officially define it in their program as “the right to secede.”

[48]. Lenin, “Draft and Explanation of a Program for the Social-Democratic Party,” (1895) Collected Works, Vol. 2; Lenin, “A Draft Program of Our Party,” (1899) Collected Works, Vol.  4.

[49]. There is only one brief reference in the text to national oppression, made in passing in a section dedicated to the need to build an All-Russian (rather than local) Marxist newspaper: Lenin notes that “the Party that fights against all economic, political, social, and national oppression, can and must find, gather, train, mobilize, and set into motion such an army of omniscient people.” Lenin, “What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement,” (1902) Collected Works, Vol. 5, 488.

[50]. Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” 423.

[51]. Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands. Abgehalten zu Erfurt vom 14. bis 20. Oktober 1891 (Berlin: Verlag des “Vorwärts” Berliner Volksblatt Th. Glocke, 1891), 4.

[52]. N. N. Popov, Outline History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (New York, International Publishers, 1934), Vol. 1, 285.

[53]. Сергій Мазлах and Василь Шахрай, До хвилі (1919) (Нью-Йорк: Пролог, 1969), 165.

[54]. Lenin, ‘The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation,”’ (1922) Collected Works, Vol. 36, 606. On the social-ethnic roots of the political affiliations of socialists under tsarism, see Robert J. Brym, The Jewish Intelligentsia and Russian Marxism: a Sociological Study of Intellectual Radicalism and Ideological Divergence (New York: Schocken Books, 1978) and Riga 2012.

[55]. On the centrality of the borderlands for Russian nationalism, see, for example, Faith Hillis, Children of Rus’: Right-Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

[56]. Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917–23 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 6.

[57]. Cited in Weinstock, 214–15.

[58]. Sai Englert, “The Jewish Labour Bund,” International Socialism 135 (2012): 121.

[59]. Le Bounde: Volume III de “L’Internationale Ouvrière et Socialiste” Brochure N.2 (Gand: Société Coopérative “Volksdrukkerij,” 1909), 55.

[60]. “Отчет о V cъезде бунда с проектами резолюций и устава бунда июнь-октябрь 1903 г.,” (1903) in Андерсон, 338.

[61]. Henry J. Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia from its Origins to 1905 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972), 224, 229.

[62]. Cited in Erich Haberer, Jews and Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 212.

[63]. Cited in Abraham Ascher, “Pavel Axelrod: A Conflict between Jewish Loyalty and Revolutionary Dedication,” The Russian Review 24, 3 (1965): 253.

[64]. Russian Social Democratic Labour Party Minutes, 503. Referred to hereafter as RSDLP Minutes.

[65]. Robert Weinberg, The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: Blood on the Steps, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 65–66.

[66]. Lenin, “How the “Spark” Was Nearly Extinguished,” (1900) Collected Works, Vol. 4, 335–36.

[67]. “Времена меняются,” Искра, May 1, 1903.

[68]. RSDLP Minutes, 23.

[69]. Lenin, “Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an ‘Independent Political Party’?,” Collected Works, Vol. 6, 331.

[70]. Ibid, 331–32.

[71]. Cited in “Мобилизация реакционных сил и наши задачи,” Искра, June 1, 1903.

[72]. Ibid.

[73]. Ibid.

[74]. Ibid.

[75]. Józef Kwiatek, Kwestya żydowska (Kraków: Nakładem Administracyi “Prawa Ludu,” “Naprzodu” i “Kolejarza,” 1904), 34.

[76]. Roman Rosdolsky, Engels and the “Nonhistoric” Peoples: the National Question in the Revolution of 1848, translated by John-Paul Himka (Glasgow: Critique Books, 1986).

[77]. On early Ukrainian socialists and their relations with Russian Marxists, see George Y. Boshyk, The Rise of Ukrainian Political Parties in Russia, 1900–1907: with Special Reference to Social Democracy  (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 1981).

[78]. Л. Рыбалка, Русскіе соціалдемократы и національный вопросъ (Женева: Изданіе редакціи украинской соціалдемократической газеты “боротьба”, 1917), 31.

[79]. Cited in Boshyk, 409.

[80]. Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” (1913) Collected Works, Vol. 20, 31.

[81]. Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Elehard Esse), “Socialistes Polonais et Russes,” L’Humanité Nouvelle: Revue Internationale: Sciences, Lettres et Arts 3, 4 (1899): 449–50.

[82]. К.К., “О еврейском рабочем движении,” Заря 4 (1902), 50; “Z pracy,” Przedświt 22, 8 (1902), 310.

[83]. Lenin, “The Position of the Bund in the Party,” (1903) Collected Works, Vol. 7, 100–02.

[84]. Lenin, “The Position of the Bund in the Party,” 100.

[85]. Любовь Аксельрод (Еврей), “Несколько слов в ответ товарищу б–ву,” Искра, January 25, 1904.

[86]. Медем, 21–22.

[87]. “Протоколы v съезда бунда. июнь 1903 г.,” (1903) in Андерсон, 296.

[88]. Cited in Aivars Stranga, Ebreji Baltijā: no lenākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam, 14. gadsimts-1945. Gads (Rīga: Latvijas Vēsture Fonds, 2008), 344.

[89]. Joshua D. Zimmerman, Poles, Jews, and the Politics of Nationality: the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party in late Tsarist Russia, 1892–1914 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 165–73, 184–90.

[90]. Lenin, “The Position of the Bund in the Party,” 101. Lenin’s emphasis.

[91]. Б-в, “Антисемитизм, ассимиляция и пролетарская борьба,” Искра, December 15, 1903.

[92]. Ibid.

[93]. Ibid.

[94]. Ibid.

[95]. Ibid.

[96]. Ibid.

[97]. Karl Kautsky, “Das massaker von kischeneff und die judenfrage,” Die Neue Zeit, 21, 36 (1903): 306. My emphasis.

[98]. RSDLP Minutes, 223–29.

[99]. RSDLP Minutes, 6. For a 1904 critique of this point by the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party, see Boshyk, 254.

[100]. Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 28.

[101]. Lenin, “On the Manifesto of the League of the Armenian Social-Democrats,” 326.

[102]. Мазлах and Шахрай, 97.

[103]. Lenin, “The National Question in Our Programme,” 459.

[104]. “Iskra o kwestyi polskiej,” Przedświt 23, 9 (1903), 369.

[105]. See the 1924 “Author’s Note” in J. V. Stalin, “Against Federalism,” (1917) Works, Vol. 3 (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953), 33.

[106]. “Nationalitäten programm der österreichischen sozialdemokratie,” (1899) in Die Österreichische Sozialdemokratie im Spiegel Ihrer Programme, edited by Albrecht K. Konecny (Wien: Dr.-Karl-Renner-Institut, 1977), 10.

[107]. Ibid.

[108]. Cited in Dopkewitsch, 21.

[109]. Микола Порш, Про автономію украiни (Кiевъ: Просвѣшенiе, 1907).

[110]. Медем, 34–6.

[111]. Ibid., 47.

[112]. “Протоколы V съезда бунда. июнь 1903 г.,” 285.

[113]. Медем, 29.

[114]. Ibid., 53–54.

[115]. Ibid., 55.

[116]. Zimmerman, 55, 109, 177; Russian Social Democratic Labour Party Minutes, 229.

[117]. Shukman, 229-30; Russian Social Democratic Labour Party Minutes, 221.

[118]. Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, “Program narodowościowy socyalnej demokracyi austryackiej a program P.P.S.,” (1903) in Wybór pism politycznych (Kraków: Nakładem Drukarni Narodowej, 1907), 201.

[119]. Ibid., 214.

[120]. Ibid., 215.

[121]. Ibid.

[122]. Ibid., 216–17.

[123]. Karl Kautsky, “Die nationalitätenfrage in russland,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, April 29. 1905.

[124]. Ibid.

[125]. Ibid.

[126]. Ibid.

[127]. Lenin, “Resolutions of the Summer, 1913, Joint Conference of the Central Committee of the RSDLP and Party Officials,” (1913), in Collected Works, Vol. 19, 427–29.

[128]. Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. Theses,” (1916) Collected Works, Vol.22.

[129]. See Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” (1916) Collected Works, Vol. 22 and  “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,” (1916) Collected Works, Vol. 23.

[130]. Cited in Jurij Borys, The Sovietization of Ukraine, 1917–1923: the Communist Doctrine and Practice of National Self-determination (Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1980), 134.

[131]. Lenin, “Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People,” (1918) Collected Works, Vol. 26.

[132]. See John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920-First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder, 1993).

[133]. Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 6.

[134]. Popov, Outline History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vol. II, 72.

[135]. On the general evolution of Bolshevik national policies in these years see, for example, Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question. On the Soviet Union’s “affirmative action” policies, see Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (London: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[136]. Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).


Bureaucracy and revolution-Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy

Posted by admin On May - 6 - 2016 Comments Off on Bureaucracy and revolution-Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy

ammanullah khan

Leon Trotsky was one of the great original Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century. But his followers, persecuted and isolated, transformed Trotsky’s developing thought into an orthodoxy, and continued in this defensiveness long after the circumstances that gave birth to it had vanished. Increasingly divided, they competed bitterly among themselves as to who were Trotsky’s true followers.

So Twiss’s book should be welcomed for giving a new and valuable perspective on Trotsky’s thinking. In a work that is scholarly in the best sense of the term, Twiss traces Trotsky’s developing thought about the nature of bureaucracy in Russia from 1917 to 1940. He places Trotsky’s ideas in context, showing what Trotsky knew and what (especially in the years of exile) he couldn’t know; he also measures Trotsky’s analyses against what we now know in retrospect, not to score points but to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Trotsky’s thinking. So the Trotsky we get is not a prophet, nor is he the villain depicted in anti-Marxist polemics. Twiss depicts Trotsky sympathetically, recognizing the power of his thought, but does not lapse into the advocacy of a devotee.

What we get is a year-by-year, sometimes month-by-month, record of Trotsky’s changing positions. Unlike all too many of his self-appointed followers, Trotsky was not afraid to change his mind. At times he was confused, almost bewildered, by the course of events. But those events, in the twenty-three years after the October Revolution, were unprecedented and unpredictable. What Twiss shows us is a razor-sharp mind, informed by the best traditions of international Marxism, grappling with developments that were perhaps too difficult for any thinker to fully comprehend. Time and again Trotsky was surprised by the way in which Stalinism evolved; but a revolutionary who is incapable of being surprised cannot learn from events.

In the difficult years immediately after the revolution, Trotsky saw the problem of bureaucracy essentially in terms of efficiency. Obviously this reflected reality. If the revolution could not feed its citizens and defeat its military opponents, then any other aspirations were futile. Trotsky himself favored methods like the “militarisation of labour” and the subordination of trade unions to the state that could be seen as authoritarian, if not bureaucratic. But the very survival of the revolution was at stake.

It was Lenin rather than Trotsky who first became alive to the dangers of bureaucracy within the party and state machine that was governing Russia. As Lenin recognized, the working class that had taken power in 1917 had almost “disappeared” as a result of the civil war. The party of the working class was substituting itself for the direct rule of the working class through the soviets. While Trotsky was skeptical of Lenin’s belief that the solution lay in the Rabkrin [Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate], he worked with Lenin to challenge the emerging bureaucracy.

Twiss argues that Trotsky began to see the roots of bureaucracy in “political alienation.” State officials demonstrated, in Trotsky’s words “complete indifference to the living human being”; Trotsky perceived “a frightful abyss between the state machine and the working masses.” It was the absence of the direct involvement of the working class in the running of society that created a space in which bureaucracy could grow; the only cure to the problem was the revival of working-class self-activity and self-organization. But no policy from above could instigate such revival.

So the bureaucracy grew—the sheer numbers showed the weight that bureaucracy was acquiring in Russian society; by 1926 there were 25,000 paid party officials and two million employees of state institutions. And increasingly Stalin put himself at the head of this bureaucracy. The Left Opposition in its various forms confronted Stalin, but was defeated, and Trotsky was exiled. With enormous force of will Trotsky devoted the rest of his life to trying to understand what had gone wrong and how it might be righted.

Trotsky was now confronted by developments that challenged all his expectations. The Left Opposition had defined Stalin as representing a “centrist” current between the Left Opposition and the right. But from 1928 Stalin appeared to take a sharp turn to the left. Industrialization was accelerated (with a sharp fall in workers’ living standards); there was a drive for collectivization and war against the kulaks (rich peasants). Internationally social-democratic parties were denounced as being “social fascist.” Stalin actually appeared to have borrowed some points from the Left Opposition’s program, though in a bureaucratic, undemocratic, and overaccelerated manner. How could this be understood?

Trotsky came from a Marxist tradition for which the French Revolution of 1789 was an essential point of reference. He knew the histories by Jaurès, Kropotkin, and many others. To try to understand the present in terms of the past is of course legitimate and necessary; what other basis for understanding do we have? But Trotsky became preoccupied with the question of “Thermidor.” In July 1794 (during the month of Thermidor in the French revolutionary calendar) the most radical phase of the Revolution had been brought to an end with the overthrow and execution of Robespierre and his Jacobin allies. Would the Russian Revolution come to a similar reactionary end?

In fact the parallels with Thermidor were quite limited. In 1794 the rule of the most radical wing of the bourgeoisie gave way to rule in the interests of the bourgeoisie as a whole. Thermidor and later Napoleon did not restore feudalism, but laid the bases for modern capitalist France. Stalin, on the other hand, replaced the rule of the working class through soviets with the rule of a party claiming to represent the working class. As time went on the analogy with Thermidor became less and less illuminating.

Likewise with the concept of Bonapartism which Trotsky deployed to try to explain Stalin. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx had examined the means whereby Louis Bonaparte had overturned the gains of the 1848 revolution. Certainly there were parallels with both Stalinism and fascism, but sometimes Trotsky allowed those parallels to obscure what was new and original about the whole phenomenon of Stalinism.

In fact Stalinism called into question established ideas of “left” and “right.” In what sense could Stalin’s domestic policies after 1928 be described as “left”? And the Comintern doctrine that there was little or no difference between social democracy and fascism might seem “ultra-left.” But historically ultraleftism had generally been the product of newly radicalized activists who lacked the patience to persuade and win allies—what Lenin called an “infantile disorder.” Stalin’s “leftism” had very different roots.

And Trotsky remained convinced that the end result of Stalinism would be the restoration of capitalism—understood in the form of private ownership of the means of production. In fact Stalinism would produce a new form of centrally directed economy, which would survive for over half a century and transform Russia into a major industrial economy.

Trotsky was further shocked by Hitler’s accession to power—largely as a result of the German communists’ failure to build a united front to stop him. Trotsky was compelled by the logic of events to abandon his belief that the Russian regime could be reformed and to acknowledge the necessity of constructing an open political alternative.

It was only with The Revolution Betrayed in 1936 that Trotsky set out a full account of what the Stalinist bureaucracy had become. Twiss gives a critical analysis of this key text, showing its strengths, but also arguing that it fell short of being a “coherent whole.” There were still loose ends and unanswered questions, problems that Trotsky continued to grapple with until he was murdered.

Trotsky showed how the bureaucracy had become a social group that had interests of its own, and would use the most murderous means to defend those interests. But was the bureaucracy a new ruling class? This was the issue that for several decades would set Trotsky’s followers at each other’s throats—with some justice, since it was clearly an important question that had massive political implications. But it was not the only question, and Twiss places it in the context of a much broader discussion. On the actual question he seems to be calmly agnostic, many miles from those orthodox thinkers who have made it into the equivalent of a loyalty oath.

We should therefore be very grateful to Twiss for this portrait of Trotsky the thinker; his formidable insights are all the more powerful when set against his obvious if inevitable mistakes. If Stalinism is no longer with us, the debate about the Russian Revolution, and whether it proves that all revolutionary attempts to change the world are doomed to end in dictatorship, is still a central one for socialists.

But it also contributes to a broader discussion. Any future revolution will be very different from October 1917, and will surprise us, or our heirs, as much as the aftermath of October surprised Trotsky. The task of envisaging what a genuinely libertarian socialism might look like remains. In particular, Trotsky located the origins of bureaucracy in scarcity—“when there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order.” He believed bureaucracy could be overcome by the achievement of abundance. But if we have learned one thing from the environmentalists, it is that scarcity may always be with us. So the need for democracy in establishing social and economic priorities will be even more central.

Economic crisis and class struggle-Phil Gasper

Posted by admin On May - 6 - 2016 Comments Off on Economic crisis and class struggle-Phil Gasper

ammanullah khan

The most fundamental argument in favor of socialism is that capitalism is an irrational system that over the long term cannot meet the basic needs of the majority of the population because of its tendency to go into economic crisis. But what if economic crisis leads not to the growth of the left but to the rise of the far right? This is the argument of the radical economist Doug Henwood in a short article published in May on the MRzine Web site.

Henwood begins by criticizing “radicals [who] have fantasized that a serious recession—or depression—would lead to mass radicalization,” and he goes on to argue that there is empirical support for the opposite view—that economic crisis actually benefits the far right not the radical left. The evidence he cites is recent research by the economists Markus Brükner and Hans Peter Grüner. Brükner and Grüner studied sixteen European countries and discovered that between 1970 and 2002, every 1 percent decline in economic growth in these countries was associated with an increase in the vote share of far right and nationalist parties of between 1 and 2 percent.

By contrast, Brükner and Grüner found no corresponding increase in electoral support for communist parties during the same periods of economic decline. Henwood concludes that “recessions are not good for the left and are good for the right,” and that Brükner and Grüner’s research “helps explain the rise of the Tea Partiers and other strange life forms on the right.”

The first thing to note is that this is an incredibly narrow study on which to base the sweeping conclusion that “recessions are not good for the left and are good for the right.” In fact Henwood himself immediately notes one “major exception,” namely the United States during the Great Depression, when economic crisis led to a series of mass strikes, the birth of industrial unions, and the growth of the Communist Party to about 80,000 members. However, he adds that this was only because the scale of the crisis was so severe, with unemployment rates reaching 25 percent and, additionally, the “Great Depression didn’t do much for the left in Europe.”

In fact that last claim is not accurate. While the far right obviously grew as a result of the Depression, eventually seizing power in Germany, Spain, and Austria, the left also grew in many European countries, and there was nothing inevitable about its ultimate defeat. In Germany, the Social Democratic and Communist Parties had millions of supporters, and in the election of November 1932, the last genuinely free vote before Hitler took power, their combined support was several percentage points ahead of the Nazis. The tragedy was that the two left-wing parties were fatally divided and unable to agree on a common strategy to defeat the far right in the streets as well as at the ballot box. Similarly in Spain the left grew significantly. It eventually lost the civil war as a result of major conflicts between the different left-wing parties and outside support for Franco’s fascists.

Second, economic crises are a fact of life under capitalism, and one of the main arguments in favor of a different kind of economic system. Henwood instructs the left to “stop hoping for the worst,” but our hopes either way are irrelevant to how the economy actually performs, and severe recessions will periodically take place no matter what we think about them. If it were true that in such circumstances the right will grow and the left will not, there would be grounds for thoroughgoing political pessimism. During periods of economic growth and stability, the radical transformation of society would seem unnecessary, while during periods of economic crisis it would be impossible.

Henwood is certainly right about one thing—there is no automatic relationship between economic crisis and “mass radicalization.” But it is equally wrong to think that there is an automatic connection between crisis and the growth of the right. Whether or not an economic slump results in an increase in class struggle and gains for the left depends on a whole set of complex factors, including the nature of the crisis and the constellation of political forces going into it.

Perhaps no one has written about the relationship between economic booms, slumps, and political consciousness with more insight than the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who addressed these issues several times in the 1920s and the 1930s. In a report he wrote for the Communist International in 1921, Trotsky noted that, “there is no automatic dependence of the proletarian revolutionary movement upon a crisis. There is only a dialectical interaction. It is essential to understand this.” The example that Trotksy used to illustrate this point is worth quoting at length:

Let us look at the relations in Russia. The 1905 revolution was defeated. The workers bore great sacrifices. In 1906 and 1907 the last revolutionary flare-ups occurred and by the autumn of 1907 a great world crisis broke out. The signal for it was given by Wall Street’s Black Friday. Throughout 1907 and 1908 and 1909 the most terrible crisis reigned in Russia too. It killed the movement completely, because the workers had suffered so greatly during the struggle that this depression could act only to dishearten them. There were many disputes among us over what would lead to the revolution: a crisis or a favorable conjuncture?

At that time many of us defended the viewpoint that the Russian revolutionary movement could be regenerated only by a favorable economic conjuncture. And that is what took place. In 1910, 1911 and 1912, there was an improvement in our economic situation and a favorable conjuncture which acted to reassemble the demoralized and devitalized workers who had lost their courage. They realized again how important they were in production; and they passed over to an offensive, first in the economic field and later in the political field as well. On the eve of the war [in 1914] the working class had become so consolidated, thanks to this period of prosperity, that it was able to pass to a direct assault.

This period of class militancy was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War, when a wave of patriotism swept over the country, engulfing all but the most class-conscious workers. But as the war dragged on and Russia suffered massive casualties, patriotism gave way to cynicism and then anger, which eventually culminated in the successful revolutions of 1917.

One conclusion that Trotsky drew from examples like these was that class struggle was not simply the result of economic slump or of economic boom, but was often the result of the rapid shift from slump to boom and back again. Slumps can show the necessity for change, but they can also weaken the power of the working class as some lose their jobs and others become desperate to hang on to theirs. A return to economic growth can give workers renewed confidence to make significant demands, but if the new expansion is long-lived, the possibility for radical change will be lost until a new crisis begins. Here is Trotsky again:

Many of you will recall that Marx and Engels wrote in 1851—when the boom was at its peak—that it was necessary at that time to recognize that the Revolution of 1848 had terminated, or, at any rate, had been interrupted until the next crisis. Engels wrote that while the crisis of 1847 was the mother of revolution, the boom of 1849–51 was the mother of triumphant counter-revolution. It would, however, be very one-sided and utterly false to interpret these judgments in the sense that a crisis invariably engenders revolutionary action while a boom, on the contrary, pacifies the working class…

The irresolute and half-way Revolution of 1848 did, however, sweep away the remnants of the regime of guilds and serfdom and thereby extended the framework of capitalist development. Under these conditions and these conditions alone, the boom of 1851 marked the beginning of an entire epoch of capitalist prosperity which lasted till 1873. In citing Engels it is very dangerous to overlook these basic facts…. At issue here is not whether an improvement in the conjuncture is possible, but whether the fluctuations of the conjuncture are proceeding along an ascending or descending curve. This is the most important aspect of the whole question.

So it was the long period of capitalist expansion in the 1850s and 1860s that stabilized the system and led to a relatively low level of class struggle. By contrast, the period after the First World War, according to Trotsky, was one of long-term instability and decline, during which “upswings can only be of a superficial…character, while crises become more and more prolonged and deeper going.”

The effect of booms and slumps will thus depend in part on the underlying state of the economy—whether it is in a period of sustained expansion in which recessions are relatively minor interruptions, or whether it is in a period of decline in which the booms are short-lived and sustained growth cannot be achieved.

Today we find ourselves in a period of long-term economic instability, in which a return to sustained growth seems unlikely any time in the near future. During the past decade the U.S. economy has experienced two recessions—the most recent, the worst since the Great Depression—and low growth. Even when the economy was growing in the middle of the decade real wages continued to decline. Now the economy is growing again, but unemployment remains high (the real figure is around 15 percent) and there is a strong chance that there will soon be another recession.

Will the current period prove more favorable to the left or to the right? Over the past eighteen months we have certainly seen the growth of the right, including vicious scapegoating of immigrants and the emergence of the Tea Party, with its attacks on “big government” and the supposed socialism of the Obama administration, and its strong undercurrent of racism. Some commentators, including Noam Chomsky, are convinced that there is a real threat of fascism, with parallels to the decline of Weimar Germany and the rise of the Nazis.

There is certainly no reason to be complacent about these developments, but the comparison with Germany in the 1930s makes little sense. Far from being a mass movement, the journalists Anthony DiMaggio and Paul Street describe the Tea Party as “a top-down interest group led by national and local political officials and financed by corporate America” and “fundamentally dependent upon the Republican Party.”

While the Tea Party has been able to mobilize a few thousand people and demonstrations around the country, these have been dwarfed by recent progressive mobilizations, including hundreds of thousands demonstrating for LGBT and immigrant rights. But progressive demonstrations generally receive very little media attention, while the cable channels—particularly, of course, Fox News—have given Tea Party events a level of exposure totally disproportionate to the numbers involved.

DiMaggio and Street argue that, despite some impressive recent mobilizations, much of the left has been “significantly pacified and demobilized by Obama and the corporate Democrats, has surely failed to capitalize on the recent economic downturn, and has generally failed to establish a progressive movement in the short term.” But they also point out that “the Tea Party represents a concession from Republican Party elites that they (along with their Democratic counterparts) no longer enjoy much legitimacy among the American people.  Their only way of appealing to voters is to appear as if they are not political leaders, but ‘average people’ taking part in a populist uprising against a corrupt political system.”

Opinion polls show that there has been a significant shift to the left in terms of political attitudes over the past few years. In May, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 43 percent of people under the age of thirty in the United States view socialism favorably, exactly the same percentage as those with a favorable view of capitalism. That figure alone shows that there is a remarkable opportunity for the left to grow in the current period. We have to honestly acknowledge that organizations to the left of the Democratic Party are tiny and that the labor movement in this country is at a low ebb. But if we are serious about changing the world, now is the time to get involved and rebuild them. The left can grow in a period of economic crisis.

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