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Archive for June, 2017

The proletariat and its ally: The logic of Bolshevik ‘hegemony’-Lars Lih

Posted by admin On June - 21 - 2017 Comments Off on The proletariat and its ally: The logic of Bolshevik ‘hegemony’-Lars Lih


June 19, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist Essays and Commentary website — Were the Bolsheviks fundamentally prepared or fundamentally unprepared by their previous outlook to meet the challenges of 1917? To answer this question, we must first arrive at an understanding of the political strategy of Old Bolshevism. A coherent political strategy must answer two fundamental questions:

What are the driving forces of the revolution in Russia—that is, what classes of Russian society would determine the course of the revolution, what were their interests and degree of organization, how would these classes clash and interact?
What are the prospects of the upcoming revolution—that is, what progressive accomplishments could socialists reasonably hope for and what accomplishments were unlikely to happen?
In late 1906, Karl Kautsky published an article that responded to exactly these questions, as shown by its title: “The Driving Forces and the Prospects of the Russian Revolution.” Kautsky’s analysis was greeted by the left wing in Russian Social Democracy with high enthusiasm and unqualified endorsement. Lenin and Trotsky each arranged for Russian translation and wrote glowing commentaries, as did Iosif Stalin for a Georgian edition. Lenin wrote that Kautsky’s articles was “a brilliant vindication of the fundamental principlesof Bolshevik tactics … Kautsky’s analysis satisfies us completely.” In his commentary, Trotsky strongly equated Kautsky’s outlook with the views expressed in Results and Prospects, his own classic exposition of “permanent revolution”: “I have no reason whatever to reject even a single one of the positions formulated in the article I have translated by Kautsky, because the development of our thinking in these two articles is identical.” In a private letter to Kautsky in 1908, Trotsky told him that his article was “the best theoretical statement of my own views, and gives me great satisfaction.”

Even after 1917, Kautsky’s 1906 article was remembered as a classic exposition of Bolshevik tactics, although now more in anger than in sorrow over his seeming renunciation of these views. In his Renegade Kautsky and the Proletarian Revolution, written in late 1918, Lenin accused Kautsky of covering up his earlier endorsement of Bolshevik tactics. Trotsky no doubt had this article in mind when he wrote in 1922 that Kautsky had earlier published “a merciless rejection of Menshevism and a complete theoretical vindication of the subsequent political tactics of the Bolsheviks.” Stalin chose his commentary on Kautsky to lead off the second volume of his Collected Works, and his pride that such an eminent authority endorsed Bolshevism still comes shining through.[1]

In this second installment of my series “All Power to the Soviets!” I propose to document the political strategy of Old Bolshevism by using Kautsky’s article and the commentaries provided by the Russian “revolutionary Social Democrats.” I have also newly translated the final section of Kautsky’s article, where (as Trotsky noted) “Kautsky sets forth the basic tactical conclusions from his analysis.”

Kautsky entitled this final section “The Proletariat and Its Ally.” Lenin borrowed these words for the title of one of his two commentaries, and I in turn have borrowed them from Lenin. They express the heart of the political strategy of Old Bolshevism: the relationship between the Russian socialist proletariat and the peasantry. After the 1905 revolution, the Bolsheviks summed up their political strategy by labeling it “hegemony,” by which they meant the leadership provided by the proletariat and its party in the common revolutionary struggle of workers and peasants.

Given that “hegemony” has a great many meanings in different contexts, an advantage of using Kautsky’s article is that it helps us grasp the underlying logic of the hegemony scenario apart from particular polemical formulations. Both Lenin and Stalin made a direct connection between Kautsky’s article and Lenin’s earlier book Two Tactics of Social Democracy; they argued that Lenin’s polemical formula “the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” followed the logic of Kautsky’s argument. Lenin nevertheless pointed out that “what is important here, of course, is not this or that formula used by the Bolsheviks to describe their tactic, but the essence of this tactic, totally affirmed by Kautsky.” For his part, Trotsky remarked in his commentary that while Kautsky “very rarely speaks of dialectical materialism, he always uses the method excellently in analyzing social relations.”

Kautsky wrote his article in 1906 as a response to questions posed by Georgy Plekhanov about tactical disputes within Russian Social Democracy. Kautsky’s answers were immediately seized on by the left wing of the Russian party as a crushing vindication of their own strategy. These Russian commentaries increase the value of this set of materials. The question for us in 1917 is not primarily “how did Lenin himself understand Old Bolshevism,” but rather “how did other prominent Bolshevik activists understand it?” Stalin himself is a key figure in controversies about the impact of the April Theses, given his role as a top leader among Petrograd Bolsheviks in March 1917. Discussions of these issues also usually assume a gulf between Old Bolshevism and Trotsky’s “permanent revolution,” yet Lenin and Trotsky both completely endorsed Kautsky’s position without any cavil at all. This mutual endorsement allows us to concentrate on the huge overlap in the outlook of Lenin and Trotsky rather than the relatively minor differences.

Finally, Kautsky’s “Driving Forces” plus the Russian commentaries form a relatively compact body of material, all available in English (although it is much to be regretted that no easily accessible version of Kautsky’s seminal article is available online).[2] I will here set out the course of Kautsky’s argument in a way that brings out its underlying logic (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from “Driving Forces” and the Russian commentaries). I conclude the essay with a brief look at 1917 and beyond.

Hegemony: The heart of Old Bolshevism
Kautsky’s overall argument can be presented as a loose sort of syllogism: a major premise about class allies in general, a minor premise about the specific situation in Russia, and a logical conclusion about how to describe the current Russian revolution. What I call the axiom of the class ally constitutes the major premise: If it is not possible for Social Democracy to achieve victory without the help of another class, then “as a victorious party it will not be able to implement any more of its program than the interests of the class that supports the proletariat allow.” This axiom was not questioned by any Social Democrat and any reasoning about the nature of the Russian revolution had to take it into account.

The application of the axiom to post-1905 Russia was based on the empirical finding that “a solid community of interest [Interessengemeinschaft] exists only between the proletariat and the peasantry. This community of interest must furnish the basis of the whole revolutionary tactic of Russian Social Democracy.” Combined with the axiom of the class ally, the possible worker-peasant alliance pointed to both the victory of the revolution and the limits to its advance: “The revolutionary strength of Russian Social Democracy and the possibility of its victory rests on this community of interests between the industrial proletariat and the peasantry—but this same factor establishes the limits to the possible utilization of this victory.” This assertion about the proletariat and its ally is the heart of Old Bolshevism.

What kind of revolution?
Lenin summed up Kautsky’s recommended tactical principles: “A bourgeois revolution, brought about by the proletariat and the peasantry despite the instability of the bourgeoisie” (according to Lenin, this represented “the fundamental principle of Bolshevik tactics”). This summary formula shows the strain on the traditional Marxist binary of bourgeois vs. socialist revolution. Kautsky reacted to this strain by arguing as follows:

The age of bourgeois revolutions, that is, of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over—in Russia too. There too the proletariat is no longer an appendage and tool of the bourgeoisie, as it was in bourgeois revolutions, but an independent class with independent revolutionary aims. But wherever the proletariat comes forth in this way, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class … The bourgeoisie does not belong to the driving forces of the present revolutionary movement in Russia and to this extent we cannot call it a bourgeois one.

But the revolution in Russia cannot be called a socialist one either, because the axiom of the class ally means that the proletariat will not be in a position to express fully its own ultimate program. Kautsky’s final formula stresses the uniqueness of the Russian revolution:

We should probably best do justice to the Russian revolution and the tasks that it sets us if we view it as neither a bourgeois revolution in the traditional sense nor a socialist one but as a completely unique process that is happening on the borderline between bourgeois and socialist society—one that requires the dissolution of the one while preparing the formation of the other and, in any case, one that is bringing all of humanity [die ganze Menschheit] living within capitalist civilization a powerful stage further in its development.

Why is the peasantry a good ally?
The foundation of the alliance between workers and peasants is ultimately based on a solid community of interests. The peasant wants land on acceptable terms—as Kautsky explains, this means confiscation of gentry land without any compensation. But the drive for land was only the most urgent and visible peasant demand. According to Kautsky, Russian agriculture could only advance if the countryside was given knowledge and capital—or, to translate this argument into Soviet terms, mass literacy campaigns and tractors.

The militaristic tsarist state could not respond to these needs, nor could the wishy-washy liberals with their frightened landowner allies. This situation will therefore “drive the peasants increasingly into the arms of those parties that protect their interests energetically and ruthlessly and that do not permit themselves to be intimidated by liberal doubts: the socialist parties.” Eventually, the proletariat can become “the representative of the mass of the population and thus the victorious party.”

This community of interest was not the only reason why the Russian peasant made a good ally for the workers. Qualitatively, the Russian peasant was steadily becoming less passive and more active, more insightful, more interested in national affairs and political questions.

Events which thirty years ago would have passed the Russian peasant by without a trace now arouse a lively echo from him. He has woken up and realized that the hour has come at last to put an end to his misery. It no longer oppresses him: it provokes him. All of a sudden, he sees himself in a completely new way: he regards the government, to whose control he has hitherto trustingly submitted, as an enemy that must be overthrown.

He will no longer allow others to think for him—he must think for himself, use all his wits, all his energy, all his ruthlessness, abandoning all his prejudices, if he is to hold his own in the whirlpool into which he has been sucked … The easy-going, sleepy and unthinking creature of habit is transformed into an energetic, restless and inexhaustible warrior for the new and the better.

This eloquent passage tells us something important about the classical Marxist attitude toward the peasant. In 1850, Marx argued that the peasantry in France had little chance of acting independently in defense of its own interests on a national scale: it was too isolated, too illiterate, too parochial. This assessment was certainly not based on contempt for peasants as such, but on an empirical assessment of possibilities for effective class organization in the French villages. Accordingly, if the facts on the ground changed, the attitude toward peasant organization should logically also change.

By 1906, according to Kautsky, “the isolation of the [Russian] village had come increasingly to an end”: among the many forces that were breaking down the walls of parochialism were participation in world trade, army conscription, and family members working in the factories. Writing a decade later in 1917, Kautsky reaffirmed this argument and noted that while “the peasantry is still not so advanced in any European country as to seize the political initiative, its interest in and understanding of political questions is expanding everywhere. And this means that the peasantry’s interest in democratic rights and freedoms is growing.”[3]

What is the optimal relationship between the class allies?
Despite the growth in the peasant’s awareness and independence, the role of leader or political leadership on a national scale—the “hegemon”—was still assigned to the proletariat. The proletariat and its party will lead ideologically (making clear to the peasants what was at stake in coming revolutionary battles) and organizationally (making ultimate strategic decisions on a national scale). Thus Russian Social Democracy will take over “the leadership role” [der Führerrolle] that was exercised in earlier revolutions by the radical democratic petty-bourgeoisie in the cities. The Social Democratic proletariat will eventually become the vozhd [leader] of the people as a whole.

[Regarding meaning of “vozhd” and other Russian terms used in this article, see “A Small Glossary for the Hegemony Scenario.”]

Bolshevik “hegemony” does not mean ideological dominance à la Gramsci: the proletariat is not attempting to get the peasantry to accept the proletarian view of the world. Rather, the proletariat helps the peasantry realize its own perceived interests. Precisely because of their growing sophistication and awareness, the peasants will accept proletarian rather than liberal leadership as the most rational way to achieve their own goals.

This leadership role is not tied to any specific prediction about the constellation of political parties and the relations between them. Perhaps the peasantry will become organized in relatively coherent political parties, perhaps not. As Lenin was at pains to point out, the role of leadership could be exercised in many ways; it was not dependent on such unpredictable matters. In any event, neither Kautsky nor any of the Russians saw Social Democracy as the junior partner in a governmental coalition of worker and peasant parties. They all envisaged Social Democracy itself coming to power in the revolution, if only temporarily.

What can the worker-peasant revolution hope to accomplish?
The point of creating a worker-peasant vlast [governmental power], with the socialist worker party exercising leadership, is to carry out a program based on “the community of interests” that bind together the two class allies. This situation defines what the revolution can do: carry out the vast agenda of far-reaching change deemed “democratic” by the Marxist tradition. The same situation defines what the revolution cannot do: bring about a lasting socialist transformation of the economy.

There is perhaps a tendency among some Marxists today to look down on a “merely” democratic revolution as one restricted to paltry reforms and a measly “minimum program.” The Bolsheviks had a very different attitude. They saw the democratic transformation of Russia—creation of a radical democracy, land to the peasants, liquidation of the landowning gentry as a class, the eight-hour day for workers, and modernization of all spheres of life—as a highly ambitious and rewarding mission. Furthermore, it was one that only committed socialists could carry out. “The liberals recoil before such gigantic tasks” (Kautsky), but the socialists do not.

Concretely, the main democratic changes sought by the worker-peasant vlast are (politically) a radically democratic republic with full political freedom and (economically) land to the peasants along with the liquidation of the pomeshchiki (gentry landowners) as a class. Some readers will perhaps be surprised by some of the other far-reaching measures mentioned by Kautsky: cancellation of state debts, nationalization of railways, oil wells, mines, dissolution of the standing army, mass education. These and other similar measures are examples of the “minimum program”—an incongruous name, since it means the maximumthat could be achieved without abolishing capitalism. A revolution that carried out “the minimum program” would utterly transform Russia.

Nevertheless, “it is not to be expected that the peasants will become socialists.” Kautsky’s reasoning here was axiomatic for all Social Democrats. Peasant agriculture was still based too exclusively on small farms, and socialism cannot arise from such restricted enterprises. The “intellectual and material conditions” for socialism are still lacking in the Russian countryside, which still made up the vast bulk of Russian society and economy. Even so, Kautsky suggests a possible path forward. If socialism came to dominate in large-scale industrial and agricultural enterprises, it might be able, “through the power of its example, to convince the small-scale peasants and stimulate them to imitation.” This idea is very close to the rationale behind NEP in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

Back in 1906, however, Kautsky concluded that the worker-peasant revolution will most probably result in “a strong peasantry on the basis of private ownership” and thus also the creation of the same gulf between worker and peasant that was the norm in Western Europe. “It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already pointing toward the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring Social Democracy to the helm temporarily” (Trotsky translates: “bring to power [vlast]”.) No Social Democrat (including Trotsky), no matter how much to the left, would have disagreed that Russia’s peasant majority blocked socialist transformation in Russia taken by itself.

But at this point in the argument, Kautsky inserts a surprising yet characteristic caveat:

Clearly, however, we may experience some surprises. We do not know how much longer the Russian revolution will last—and the forms that it has now adopted suggest that it has no desire to come quickly to an end. We also do not know what influence it will exert on Western Europe and how it will stimulate the proletarian movement there. Finally, we do not yet have any idea how the resulting successes of the Western European proletariat will in their turn act on the Russians. We should do well to remember that we are approaching completely new situations and problems for which no earlier stereotype is appropriate.

Writing a decade later, immediately after the February revolution, Kautsky opens up the possibility that the peasant will follow the proletariat, not only against the forces of tsarist reaction but also the bourgeoisie. He again insists that the Russian peasant is a dramatically unpredictable factor:

If one is able to roughly, if not exactly, place the tendencies and needs of the other classes in Russia in parallel with the same phenomena in western Europe, this way of looking at the situation breaks down with the Russian peasant. His material circumstances and historical traditions are quite unique, and at the same time have been in the process of colossal change for three decades.

The peasant is the ‘x’, the unknown variable, in the equation of the Russian Revolution. We are still unable to insert a quantity for it. And yet we know that this quantity is the crucial one, the decisive one. For this reason, the Russian Revolution can and will spring tremendous surprises on us.[4]

Kautsky’s remarks give rise to the following crucial observation: the argument that sets out what the worker-peasant revolution can and cannot do is empirically based and as such open-ended. The facts on the ground will change in surprising ways, and this means we cannot set rigid limits in advance about how much progress toward genuine socialist transformation can be made by a worker-peasant vlast.

What can we expect from the anti-tsarist liberals?
The Russian liberals are indeed motivated to fight against tsarism, but they are also afraid of unbridled revolution. They will therefore try to lead the anti-tsarist revolution, but only in order to cut it off long before it goes “to the end.” They will eventually turn against the revolution if it threatens to get out of hand (as it inevitably will). Fortunately—assuming the Social Democrats do not renounce their own mission to act as vozhd of the Russian narod [people]—the liberal bid for leadership will fail.

This projected scenario is based on an analysis of the liberals’ class position. As a general rule throughout Europe, the liberal bourgeoisie becomes less and less revolutionary as the proletariat becomes more and more organizationally and ideologically independent—and the Russian proletariat is exceptionally advanced in this regard. The main class ally of the liberals—the gentry landowners—were able to play at anti-tsarist radicalism as long as the peasantry seemed quiescent, but 1905 had shown that these days were gone forever. The gentry landowners will therefore become more and more reactionary, and the liberals along with them.

In any event, the liberals are unable to respond in an effective way to the central economic challenge facing Russia: making peasant agriculture progressive and productive. The liberals can only respond to this radical crisis with halfhearted analysis and halfhearted solutions—for instance, transferring gentry land to the peasants, accompanied with a crippling compensation package.

Furthermore, Russia is dependent on foreign capital and is obliged to pay extensive foreign debts in support of the government’s drive for Great Power status. These foreign entanglements make it impossible for the liberals to challenge the interests of European capital. There is a continuity between Kautsky’s critique of the liberals in 1906 and later Bolshevik critiques of “liberal imperialism” before and during the war. Bolshevik rejection of the Provisional Government’s foreign policy in 1917 was thus well prepared.

What implications does Kautsky’s analysis have for disputes among socialists?
Kautsky himself does not dwell on the more divisive implications of his argument, but he is clearly aware of them. He wrote his article in the first place in order to respond to questions submitted by Georgii Plekhanov, who was trying to gather ammunition for one side in the debate among Russian Social Democrats over political strategy. Plekhanov’s quest backfired, since Kautsky’s argument ended up giving powerful ammunition to the other side in the dispute—a fact duly noted not only by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, but also by Mensheviks such as Yurii Martov: “Kautsky, in his final conclusion, is an agreement with com. Lenin and his fellow thinkers who proclaim the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”[5]

The Russian writers dotted Kautsky’s i’s and crossed his t’s in order to bring out the implications of his argument for their factional disputes. Stalin’s commentary focuses exclusively on this issue and spells out for us why Kautsky was seen as an honorary Bolshevik. At the beginning of his pamphlet in Georgian, Stalin remarked that Kautsky was known as “a thorough and thoughtful investigator of tactical problems.” At the present time, “when mutual criticism often aggravates the situation by passing into recrimination and it becomes extremely difficult to ascertain the truth, it is very interesting to hear what an unbiassed and experienced comrade like K. Kautsky has to say.”

Stalin’s exposition is useful for another reason. We are often told that, in March 1917, Stalin was thoroughly disoriented and offered passive or even active support to a Provisional Government dominated by liberals. We are further told that this unrevolutionary behavior was the direct consequence of the inadequacies of Old Bolshevism and its inability to respond to the post-February situation. We therefore need to ask how Stalin himself saw the supposedly inadequate hegemony scenario (it is remarkable how little interest this obvious question has aroused in the past).

Stalin sets out four issues at dispute between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, showing that in each case Kautsky’s authority comes down solidly on the side of the Bolsheviks. The first issue was the nature of the Russian revolution: who will be the leader of the revolution, who will be the vozhd of the rebellious narod? Will it be the bourgeoisie, as in the classic instance of the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” in France? Or will it be the proletariat? Stalin cites the Menshevik writer Aleksandr Martynov: “The hegemony of the proletariat is a harmful utopia.” Stalin defiantly replies: “The hegemony of the proletariat is not a utopia, it is a living fact, the proletariat is actually uniting the discontented elements around itself.” The proletariat is the vozhd of the revolution.

Well then, if the liberals are not the vozhd of the revolution, can they at least be allies of the proletariat? The Bolsheviks answer “no,” because the only reliable allies are the “poorest peasantry” or just plain “peasantry” (Stalin uses these terms interchangeably). Only the peasants can “conclude a solid alliance with the proletariat for the whole period of the current revolution.”

In contrast, the Mensheviks overestimate the revolutionary qualities of the liberals and seek an “agreement” [soglashenie] with them both during Duma elections and in general political strategy. For the sake of this agreement they are ready to compromise on programmatic demands, even to the extent of renouncing the ambitious minimum program (for example, accepting the goal of a constitutional monarchy instead of demanding a democratic republic). The Bolsheviks reject any such deals and agreements, and they can cite Kautsky as an authority.

The third question separating the factions: “what is the class essence of the victory of the revolution, or, in other words, which classes must claim victory in our revolution, which classes must conquer power [vlast]?” According to the Bolsheviks, victory in the revolution entails a worker-peasant vlast. In contrast, Mensheviks want the vlast to be incarnated in a liberal-dominated Duma legislature—a “dictatorship of the Kadets” (the main political party of the liberals). But according to Kautsky (Stalin triumphantly asserts), any such government would be counterrevolutionary.

The fourth and final issue: is it permissible for Social Democrats to participate in a revolutionary worker-peasant government? The Mensheviks say “no,” the Bolsheviks say “yes”: “if in the struggle on the streets the proletariat together with the peasants destroys the old order, if the proletariat sheds blood alongside the peasants, then, naturally, the two should go together into the provisional revolutionary government in order to carry the revolution to the desired results.” In support of the Bolshevik position, Stalin quotes Kautsky’s assertion that the revolution might very well bring Social Democrats to the helm of power.

There exists an opinion that the hegemony scenario allowed and even committed the Bolsheviks in 1917 to participate in the liberal-dominated Provisional Government that was set up immediately following the February revolution. The preceding exposition of Stalin’s argument shows the baselessness of this argument. The “provisional revolutionary government” envisioned by the Bolsheviks in 1906 was a worker-peasant vlast, directed against liberal attempts to lead the revolution, with the party of the socialist proletariat exercising full political leadership. The Bolsheviks rejected in advance any socialist “agreement” with the liberals, not to mention participation in a government dominated by them. Stalin was therefore only stating the obvious when he remarked in March 1917 that the actual Provisional Government was not to be confused with the “provisional revolutionary government” envisioned earlier.[6]

We can conclude that Kautsky’s article not only affirmed the Bolshevik position on the major issues separating the factions, but it also supported in advance the Bolshevik crusade in 1917 against the “agreementism” of the other socialist parties. We may further conclude that if Stalin had actually offered support for the Provisional Government in March 1917 (later posts in this series will refute any such assertion), he did so not because of, but rather in spite of, the clear mandates of Old Bolshevism’s logic of hegemony.

What are the international implications of the hegemony scenario?
We have already mentioned in passing the main international implications of Kautsky’s argument. Tsarism’s Great Power ambitions are a central cause of the burdens placed on the peasants, and both the tsarist state and the liberals are beholden to international capital. The revolution itself and the tactical decisions of the Russian Social Democrats will also have profound international effects:

It is, of course, urgently necessary for us, Western European socialists, to form a definite view of the Russian revolution: it is not a local but an international event, and the way we interpret it will exert a profound influence on the way we view the immediate tactical tasks of our own party … . We also do not know what influence it will exert on Western Europe and how it will stimulate the proletarian movement there. Finally, we do not yet have any idea how the resulting successes of the Western European proletariat will in their turn act on the Russians.

The hegemony scenario summarized
We are now in a position to summarize the hegemony scenario as set forth by Kautsky and enthusiastically endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. This scenario was first and foremost an empirical analysis of the class dynamics of Russia at a particular conjuncture. But these empirical findings are the result of asking a specific set of questions: they are Social Democratic answers to Social Democratic questions. As Lenin put it, Kautsky “has fully confirmed our contention that we are defending the position of revolutionary Social Democracy against opportunism, and not creating any ‘peculiar’ Bolshevik trend.”[7] Furthermore, the various tenets of the hegemony scenario are held together by a single logical argument.

The tactics mandated by Bolshevik hegemony can be concisely summed up in a single sentence: In order to carry the revolution as far as permitted by the community of interests between worker and peasant (“to the end”), the socialist proletariat and its party should strive to institute a worker-peasant vlast based on proletarian leadership of the peasantry, and they should also combat any attempt by liberals to retain leadership of the revolution as well as any attempts by moderate socialists to come to some sort of political agreement with the liberals.

All Power to the Soviets!: Bolshevik hegemony in action
The Second Congress of Soviets was in session on October 25 and 26, 1917 (according to the old calendar). During that short time, it accomplished the following:

Proclaimed the whole vlast was now in the hands of the Soviets of Worker, Soldier and Peasant Deputies.
Established a government that rejected any coalition with liberal or other elite parties.
Refused to be budged by the boycott of the “agreementist” moderate socialists.
Named an exclusively Bolshevik cabinet.
Transferred land to the peasants and eliminated gentry property in land.
Issued a sweeping proposal for ending the war with a “democratic peace.”
Do these actions of the Second Congress and/or the tactics of the Bolshevik party during the revolutionary year confirm or refute the hegemony scenario as set forth by Kautsky in 1906 and endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin? Let us go through the list of the scenario’s key features and check off the items that apply to 1917.

Establishment of a worker-peasant vlast. Check. The official title of the Petrograd Soviet from its inception was “Soviet of Worker and SoldierDeputies” (emphasis added). The soldiers in the Petrograd garrison and in the tsarist army generally were overwhelming peasant in origin, and thus the Soviet claimed even in February to be the authoritative voice of a class alliance.

When Lenin passionately argued in autumn 1917 that the time was ripe for a full exercise of soviet power, one of his central arguments was the nation-wide wave of peasant disturbances. In making this argument, he insisted on continuity with the hegemony scenario: events have “confirmed the Old Bolshevik formulation, correspondingly modifying it, that the peasants must be wrested from the influence of the bourgeoisie.”[8]

Of course, the soviets per se—the institutional vehicle of the worker-peasant vlast in 1917—were mentioned neither by Kautsky nor by the Russian Social Democrats in their commentaries. The hegemony scenario envisaged the establishment of a revolutionary vlast based in some way on the workers and peasants; its exact institutional form could not usefully be predicted in advance. Even in 1917, the possibility of an alternate institutional incarnation for a worker-peasant vlast was bruited by Lenin and others.

As we know, Lenin had ambitious hopes for the soviets as a higher type of democracy that superseded “bourgeois parliamentarianism”—hopes that he expressed in State and Revolution, written in 1917 but published in 1918. Owing to Lenin’s book, this rationale for soviets is very well-known today. What is important for historical understanding is to distinguish between this rationale and the rationale that was crucial in 1917, namely, the soviets as a vehicle for class power.

In his April Theses, Lenin wrote that “the masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Worker Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government.” In response, the Bolshevik Mikhail Kalinin asserted: “The only thing new in com. Lenin’s theses is the assertion that the Soviet of worker deputies is the only form of [revolutionary] government. That’s not true, but what is true is that the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies is for the present moment the only possible vlast.”[9] Thus Kalinin endorsed the “class vehicle” rationale and expressed skepticism about the “higher type of democracy” rationale. Possibly he modified his skepticism after reading State and Revolution a year later. Nevertheless, he was right to distinguish the two ways of looking at the soviets, and also to assert that what was crucial for the ongoing revolution was the idea of the soviets as a vehicle for class power.

Hegemony proper: political leadership by a socialist party based in the proletariat but claiming to express basic peasant interests. Check.

Proclamation of an ambitious and transformational set of measures based on the community of interests between workers and peasants. Check. Lenin made it quite clear that any “steps toward socialism” would be taken only if they responded to perceived peasant interests (as shown later in the present series). The rationale for soviet power presented by the Bolsheviks throughout 1917 was a “democratic” one: the immediate aims of the revolution—land to the peasants, a democratic peace, economic regulation in the interests of the people—could not be attained in coalition with the elites (“agreementism”), but only by an exclusively soviet government.

Combatting any attempt by liberals to lead the revolution, or to halt the unfolding of the revolution, or to turn against the revolution. Check.

Rejection of the “agreementism” of the other socialist parties. Check.

Opposition to militarism and imperialism, hopes for a European revolution that will in turn accelerate the development of the Russian revolution.Check.

Hegemony: victory and limits of the revolution
The pillar of the hegemony scenario was the following assertion, in Kautsky’s words: “The revolutionary strength of Russian Social Democracy and the possibility of its victory rests on this community of interests between the industrial proletariat and the peasantry—but this same factor establishes the limits to the possible utilization of this victory.” As Kautsky’s further discussion revealed, these “limits” were not rigid barriers set in stone, but rather based on an open-ended judgment call about prevailing circumstances—in particular, growing peasant awareness and organization. This crucial assertion is also the fundamental explanation for the Bolshevik victory in the civil war: the Bolsheviks were able to use “a solid community of interest” between workers and peasants, but they did not overstep the limits imposed by the interests of their peasant allies.

In early 1922, Menshevik leader Fyodor Dan wrote about his recent experiences in Soviet Russia in 1920, as the civil war was coming to an end. Dan felt that the defeat of the peasant-based Red Army in Poland was not just a military failure:

[The Red Army] was, is and will remain invincible when it is a question of defense, or protecting the peasants’ revolutionary gains against encroachments from domestic reaction or foreign imperialism. To defend the land he has seized against the possible return of the landlord, the peasant Red Army man will fight within the greatest heroism and the greatest enthusiasm. He will advance barehanded against cannons, tanks, and his revolutionary ardor will infect and disorganize even the most splendid and disciplined troops, as we saw with the Germans, the British and the French in equal measure…

But the idea of Bolshevik communism is so alien and even hostile to the mindset of the peasant Red Army, that he can neither be infected by it himself, nor can he infect others with it. He cannot be attracted by the idea of war to convert capitalist society into communist society, and this is the limit of the Red Army’s potential for the Bolsheviks.[10]

Dan had a strange understanding of “the idea of Bolshevik communism.” Nevertheless, this passage brings home to us two central points about the Russian revolution. First, it was strong when it expressed the peasant program, and weak when it strayed beyond those limits. In his 1907 commentary on Kautsky’s article, Trotsky had suggested that a proletarian regime would feel compelled to insist on socialist changes that would alienate the peasantry, leading to the downfall of the regime, if no help arrived from abroad. As a member of the Bolshevik leadership during the civil war, Trotsky worked hard to falsify this prediction—and indeed, whenever forced to choose between socialist ideals and peasant support, the Bolsheviks chose peasant support.

Immediately after the October revolution, they gained peasant support by letting the peasants break up large estates (much to the scorn of Western socialists, who saw the breakup of large production units as economic regression). In 1919, they moved away from “class war in the villages” to an accommodation with “middle peasants.” In 1920, they based long-term agricultural policy on small-scale peasant agriculture rather than socialist experiments. In 1921, they retreated further by allowing free trade in grain.

“Hegemony” means “leadership.” Although this point was obscured by the Menshevik Dan, the peasants could hardly have constituted an effective fighting force unless they had been given political leadership by a political party based on the urban branch of the narod—a party that was also able to use the essential elite skills of the officers even while ensuring that the officers had no political influence, especially on the central question of peasant land. The Red Army was Bolshevik hegemony in action.

The Russian revolution set off tremors around the globe and unleashed strivings for vast democratic as well as socialist changes. As far as Russia itself was concerned, however, the bottom line was that the West European proletariat did not take power in any country. To the surprise of the Bolsheviks, the worker-peasant vlast survived. Why?—because the core insight of the hegemony scenario proved more robust than even its proponents believed. As pointed out in the title of a Pravda article written by Evgenii Preobrazhensky for the third anniversary of the October revolution in 1920, the “middle peasant” turned out to be “Social Base of the October Revolution.”

Preobrazhensky (later a member of the Left Opposition) argued that “over the whole course of the civil war, the middle peasantry did not go along with the proletariat with a firm tread. It wavered more than once, especially when faced with new conditions and new burdens; more than once it moved in the direction of its class enemies. [But] the worker-peasant state, built on the foundation of an alliance of the proletariat with 80% of the peasantry, already cannot have any competitors for the vlast inside the boundaries of Russia.”

To conclude: The hegemony scenario as set out in 1906 by the spokesman of revolutionary Social Democracy, Karl Kautsky, and enthusiastically endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, tells us why a worker-peasant vlast was created in 1917 as well as why it survived in the civil war that followed.

This is the second article in a seven-part series The first article “‘All Power to the Soviets!’ – Biography of a slogan” can be read here

[1] In 1922, Karl Radek also pointed to the seminal importance of Kautsky’s article. He argued further that Kautsky was closer to Trotsky than to Lenin and indeed that his article was a forerunner to the April Theses. Radek’s memory did him a disservice, since he clearly misdescribes both Kautsky’s article and Lenin’s Theses (see Radek, “Paths of the Russian Revolution,” available on Marxists Internet Archive).

[2] Kautsky’s article plus excerpts from commentaries by Lenin and Trotsky can be found in Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record, eds. Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (2009).

[3] Kautsky, “Prospects of the Russian Revolution” (1917) translated by Ben Lewis.

[4] Kautsky, “Prospects.”

[5] As cited by Stalin in his commentary.

[6] Stalin Sochineniia, 3:10.

[7] As cited in Day and Gaido 2009, p. 568.

[8] Lenin, PSS 34:198.

[9] Sed’maia (aprel’skaia) vserossiiskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov); Petrogradskaia obshchegorodskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov) (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1958).

[10] Two Years of Wandering: A Menshevik Leader in Lenin’s Russia, ed. Francis King, London 2016. This well-presented memoir is highly recommended.

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

U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Changing Strategies, Gains-ASHLEY J. TELLIS,  JEFF EGGERS

Posted by admin On June - 19 - 2017 Comments Off on U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Changing Strategies, Gains-ASHLEY J. TELLIS,  JEFF EGGERS


To protect the integrity of the Afghan state, U.S. policy should aim to end the conflict in ways that mitigate the threats of terrorism, instability, and regional conflict.

Although considerable security, political, and economic progress has been made in Afghanistan, much remains to be done to attain long-term stability and extinguish the Taliban insurgency. In this respect, while the conflict in Afghanistan is no longer consistently in the public eye, it remains of great importance to the United States. Going forward, U.S. policy should aim to protect the integrity of the Afghan state and, toward that end, attempt to end the conflict in ways that mitigate the threats of terrorism, instability, and conflict in the region.

The Current Situation
The security environment in Afghanistan is still precarious, evidenced by the uptick in violence in 2016 and the diminishing government control in rural areas.
Factions of the Government of National Unity remain divided, and a corrupt patronage system continues to impede reform.
Economic growth has shrunk since the drawdown of international forces, while the government remains heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Afghan-Pakistani relations have frayed due to widening differences on security at a time when regional competition in and over Afghanistan persists.
The United States’ willingness to indefinitely subsidize Afghanistan with some $23 billion per year is uncertain, especially when al-Qaeda’s core has been reduced to incoherence.
However, the combination of a weakening Afghan regime and an unchecked Taliban resurgence could lead to the catastrophic collapse of the Afghan government and state, resulting in either a return to anarchy or the recrudescence of terrorist groups.
The Paths Ahead
The United States needs to develop a strategy that protects the gains in Afghanistan while terminating the conflict.
Regional options—resolving the India-Pakistan conflict, creating a neutral Afghanistan, or squeezing Pakistan—are too difficult to rely on alone.
Unilateral options—either pursuing major escalation or a complete disengagement—are equally implausible because of their high costs and risks, respectively.
Only limited approaches—moderately expanding the current commitment, seeking a political settlement, or fostering a long-term counterterrorism partnership—are left. Since a counterterrorism-only solution is unlikely to be efficacious, the United States should prioritize reaching a political settlement with the Taliban while continuing to bolster the Afghan state and its security forces.
To be successful, Washington will need to empower the U.S. ambassador in Kabul to oversee the administration’s entire strategy in Afghanistan; persuade the Afghan government to begin a serious national dialogue on political reconciliation; engage in direct talks with the Taliban; target the Taliban shura, if necessary, while inducing Rawalpindi to constrain the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan; and secure regional support for a political settlement in Afghanistan.
(Ashley J. Tellis
Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs)

The conflict in Afghanistan is the United States’ longest-running war by nearly six years. Approximately 10,000 U.S. troops, and more than twice as many U.S. contractors, remain deployed in this war-torn state.1 Despite all the burdens borne, the United States and its allies have made considerable progress. The two-decades-long war that followed the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had resulted in the comprehensive destruction of its state institutions, armed forces, and national economy. Today, the Afghan state has been reconstituted, Afghan security forces have once again become a national institution, and the economy continues to enable human development improvements while experiencing slow but positive growth. Further, fifteen years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, U.S. and allied (including Afghan) forces have dismantled, for the most part, the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan that attacked the U.S. homeland on that fateful day.

U.S. choices about its future involvement in the country remain arguably the most crucial external factor in the evolution of both the conflict and the Afghan state.
However, significant barriers remain to securing long-term stability and prosperity in the country: the political system is marked by deep cleavages; governance is handicapped by corruption and an inability to deliver law, order, and justice across the entire territory; the Afghan military as a whole is still not effective enough against a resilient Taliban insurgency; and the economy remains dependent on large infusions of foreign aid rather than indigenous sources of growth. These internal challenges, coupled with external pressures—the persistence of deepening Afghan-Pakistani animosity, the prevalence of ongoing regional rivalries in and over Afghanistan, and the potential for donor fatigue as the Afghan conflict continues interminably—could each and together lead to the unraveling of the security, political, and economic gains chalked up since 2001. Should such reversals lead to a tipping point, the survival of the Kabul government, if not the Afghan state itself, could be at serious risk.

This precarious state of affairs suggests that the United States and its allies—who together contribute more than $5 billion annually in civilian assistance to Kabul2—have to make important decisions on how best to support Afghanistan going forward. In fact, U.S. choices about its future involvement in the country remain arguably the most crucial external factor in the evolution of both the conflict and the Afghan state. Based on an internal assessment that his strategy was slow in generating progress, if not altogether faltering, former president Barack Obama jettisoned his long-standing goal of ending the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan during his tenure and chose instead to leave crucial decisions about future U.S. aims and the means for achieving them up to his successor. Donald Trump’s administration is undertaking a review of these issues, and it is likely that policy decisions regarding troop levels and the course of future U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will be announced soon. However, given the challenges facing this White House’s national security team and the time pressures of announcing a decision at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) summit in Brussels on May 25, 2017, it is unclear whether the present audit will be comprehensive enough.

An independent effort to assess U.S. strategy in Afghanistan could accordingly prove useful, and this paper is intended to explore the fundamental strategic choices facing the United States. While the issues related to troop levels and the character of military operations are undoubtedly important, these are properly the province of government. Thus, the focus here is on scrutinizing the larger aims of future U.S. and allied involvement in Afghanistan and the policy approaches that could achieve them—not on the minutiae entailed by the alternatives.


The future of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan cannot be effectively assessed without a closer examination of Afghanistan’s current and evolving security, political, and economic landscapes—and their impact on U.S. strategic aims. There is a broad consensus among observers of Afghanistan today that (1) the security environment in rural areas is deteriorating while the urban areas and their lines of communication remain secure despite a growing Taliban threat; (2) the political situation at the national level is poor but relatively stable, although the pervasive corruption in governmental institutions continues to take a toll on the regime’s effectiveness and legitimacy; and (3) economic conditions are difficult—with growth rates contracting as a result of the reduced foreign troop levels in country—and are unlikely to substantially or rapidly improve.

(Jeff Eggers
Jeff Eggers is a senior fellow at New America, focusing on the behavioral science of policy decisionmaking.)
There is no debate that Afghanistan is experiencing a continuing downturn in security with more than 40 percent of its districts either under Taliban control or influence or in contest.3 In February 2017, General John W. Nicholson, the four-star commander of the U.S.-NATO mission in Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the conflict in Afghanistan reflected a “stalemate.”4 The 2016 “fighting season” prevented a repeat of strategic setbacks, such as the Taliban’s takeover of Kunduz in 2015. However, the 2017 fighting season began with one of the most lethal attacks in the war, when ten Taliban fighters killed more than 150 Afghan soldiers and civilians after infiltrating an army base near Mazar-e-Sharif.5 Pessimists highlight the nonlinear nature of this struggle, the ability of the Taliban to make gains in areas where they enjoy no ethnic advantages, and the possibility of accelerated deterioration without notice or warning. Optimists point to the Afghan National Army, which has remained engaged in fighting despite suffering heavy losses; the Afghan Special Forces, which have proven themselves to be extraordinarily competent despite suffering from overextension; and widespread support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in part because of President Ashraf Ghani’s tireless efforts to enhance their morale and national standing. In contrast, the Taliban appear to be confident about their military position, yet lack the assurance of being able to secure the victories that permitted them to enjoy the near monopoly of power they had achieved in the 1990s—a consequence of both the complexities of Afghan domestic politics and the continued international support for the ANSF and the Afghan state.6

Regardless of how the security situation is assessed, the persistence of the Taliban insurgency is perhaps still the most debilitating challenge facing the country.
Regardless of how the security situation is assessed, the persistence of the Taliban insurgency is perhaps still the most debilitating challenge facing the country; despite the expensive and concerted efforts of the United States, its international allies, and the Afghans themselves, it is far from being extinguished. According to the United Nations, with more than 11,000 civilians killed or wounded, 2016 was the most violent year in Afghanistan since 2009 when reporting began.7 The ANSF, too, suffered extraordinarily high casualties, with 6,785 killed and an additional 11,777 wounded between January and November 2016.8 Notwithstanding the valiant efforts represented by such losses, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has reported that the Afghan government today controls less than 60 percent of the country when measured by area and a little more than 60 percent of the country when measured by population.9 Although the majority of the population still remains under government control or influence, the Taliban appear to be gaining traction thanks to poor local governance and service provision, an accessible safe haven in Pakistan, continuing weaknesses in the ANSF’s combat support capabilities, and the operational limitations of many ANSF components outside of the special forces.

In contrast, the internal political situation in Afghanistan at the highest level of state is generally stable, notwithstanding the disappointing performance of the Government of National Unity (GNU) as the salvaged outcome of the 2014 presidential election. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have yet to put aside their rivalry. They remain divided over appointments—often splitting along patronage lines—as well as over electoral and power-sharing issues. However, the two leaders’ policy differences—for instance, over support for a continued international presence and engagement with Pakistan—are comparatively few. Whatever its weaknesses, the GNU’s endurance has confounded those who predicted its collapse, and it arguably remains preferable to many other alternatives.

As a result of lagging reform, the basis for political legitimacy in Afghanistan remains an atavistic patronage system, fueled in large part by U.S. and international funding.
As a result of lagging reform, the basis for political legitimacy in Afghanistan remains an atavistic patronage system, fueled in large part by U.S. and international funding. In addition, governance remains highly centralized, with district and provincial governors appointed from Kabul. As a result, corruption remains ubiquitous despite Ghani’s commitment to an anticorruption agenda. Troublingly, the Taliban have exploited the fragility and ineffectiveness of the GNU, offering a more agile form of local governance with a reputation, deserved or not, for being less prone to corruption.

Afghanistan’s economy has contracted significantly with the reduction in the international presence, resulting in a recession and less than 1 percent economic growth in 2015.10 While growth is projected to rise to 2.4 percent in 2017 and exceed 3 percent by 2019, such performance hinges on both political stability and an improved security environment. Even at such levels of accomplishment, however, government spending is deficit-financed despite nearly all security costs and half of the nonsecurity expenditures’ being funded by the international community. The longer-term opportunities for sustained growth in Afghanistan have not yet come to fruition. For example, the country is admittedly rich in natural resources—especially metals such as iron, copper, gold, cobalt, rare earth metals, and lithium—but without internal stability and a durable legal regime that effectively regulates mining, the extractive industries that could contribute to the national exchequer have not matured.

Regional trade has been another victim of both the civil war and geopolitics. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA)—vital to Afghanistan as a land-locked country—is still too limited to be transformative. The agreement does not include India, the largest regional market; the administrative barriers to bilateral trade are still extensive; and the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor potentially weakens the promise of the APTTA even further, leaving Afghanistan with fewer opportunities than is desirable.


The preceding assessment leaves little doubt that Afghanistan confronts serious challenges in all areas of national life. Although the country has been successfully revitalized after decades of war—an outcome aided greatly by more U.S. assistance to Kabul than was extended to Europe under the Marshall Plan after the Second World War—the question of whether such support can be extended on an ongoing basis will depend greatly on the worth of U.S. interests and aims in Afghanistan. Recognizing that the threats emerging from Afghanistan have changed considerably since Congress authorized the use of military force in 2001, it is reasonable to evaluate the extent to which the original objectives have been achieved and, if not, whether these objectives remain valid.

The unprecedented trauma of the September 11 attacks prompted the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, which was intended to decimate al-Qaeda and its protectors “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”11 As a result of unrelenting U.S. and allied military operations since then, the core of al-Qaeda has been dismantled to the point of incoherence. Despite this achievement, however, the extremist ideology embodied by al-Qaeda persists across a more diffuse movement, and there are residual fears that the resurgent Taliban insurgency could reestablish a sanctuary for transnational terrorist successors to al-Qaeda, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, as well as formidable regional terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which could provoke major crises involving local nuclear-armed powers India and Pakistan (or even threaten the United States itself should LeT choose to operate further afield).

Permanently eliminating the possibility of such a sanctuary constituted the core objective of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of September 11. This aim had originally mandated the defeat of the Taliban, but as success on this count proved elusive, U.S. strategy evolved by 2010 to focus on transitioning the conflict’s resolution to be an Afghan responsibility, with Washington underwriting its financial costs. Given Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure, its weaknesses in state capacity, and the intensity of the insurgency, the other initial aim of stabilizing Afghanistan—through robust economic development and transformed governance—was increasingly seen as infeasible by the beginning of Obama’s second term. By the end of his presidency, both the open-ended conflict with the Taliban and Washington’s prolonged financial commitment to Kabul became suspect.

U.S. policy going forward should aim to protect the integrity of the Afghan state and, toward that end, attempt to end the hostilities with the Taliban on acceptable terms and in ways that mitigate the threats of terrorism, instability, and conflict in the region.
President Donald Trump thus inherited a U.S. policy toward Afghanistan that was focused on building Afghan security forces while maintaining a modest unilateral counterterrorism capability against transnational threats. Obama’s original strategy sought to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan by 2014. Since it turned out, however, that the ANSF proved incapable of independently holding territory against the Taliban, prolonging the presence of U.S. combat forces in the country was viewed as necessary. Effectively, then, Obama opted to let his successor determine the future of the 9,800-strong U.S. troop contingent in Afghanistan.12 Whether to build up or further reduce the force fell to the Trump administration, but the viability of Obama’s own temporizing solution was unclear: the deployed U.S. detachment is costly to maintain in absolute terms and is large enough to be perceived by the Taliban as an occupying entity, yet it is insufficient to decisively change the course of the struggle on Afghanistan’s battlefield.

Despite these challenges, Afghanistan as a foreign policy issue—or as a national security priority—was seldom raised during the 2016 presidential campaign. Further, in his February 28, 2017, address to a joint session of Congress, Trump mentioned neither the conflict nor the country, and his national security cabinet nominees were scarcely asked about Afghanistan during their confirmation hearings.

Afghanistan’s absence from the political center stage obviously reflects the crowded and more complex foreign policy landscape that currently exists—encompassing difficulties that eclipse those faced during the U.S. intervention after September 11, 2001. In this climate, the Trump administration now has the responsibility to reject or modify the view of its predecessor and take a new approach to Afghanistan. Whatever the course of action it chooses to pursue, the worthiness of the strategy will be judged on how well it incorporates the lessons learned from the campaign thus far and whether it stands a reasonable chance of achieving the United States’ desired aims.

The challenge facing Washington and its international partners in this context is defining realistic goals for Afghanistan that continue to effectively ward off the worst dangers while permitting the consolidation of gains already achieved. Because much has already been accomplished in Afghanistan—though much also remains at risk—U.S. policy going forward should aim to protect the integrity of the Afghan state and, toward that end, attempt to end the hostilities with the Taliban on acceptable terms and in ways that mitigate the threats of terrorism, instability, and conflict in the region.


Afghanistan: Afghan political elites lament what they see as a dissolving regional consensus on Afghanistan, with powers like China, Iran, and Russia beginning to hedge against perceptions of an ascendant Taliban. By and large, Afghans agree on the need for reconciliation as a consequence of their growing fatigue with conflict. Based on a recent survey, approximately 63 percent of Afghans support a peace process as a means of stabilizing the country—although fewer people report sympathies with the armed opposition groups and more people see them as exploiting power rather than seeking to influence Afghan politics.13 The Afghan government continues to hold out hope that reconciliation with the Taliban might be possible, but it perceives Pakistan to be the principal spoiler in this regard. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad have soured since the failure of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group peace process, an effort led by Pakistan to spur talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and supported by the United States and China as observers.14 Ghani invested early political capital in this process, against the odds, and his inability to deliver has left him politically exposed and hardened against Islamabad. Given the uncertain future of reconciliation, Afghanistan desperately seeks a resolute U.S. commitment to Afghanistan to provide economic and diplomatic support, as well as assistance for Afghan national security forces through continued training, the supply of more advanced weapons, and the provision of combat support.

Pakistan: Pakistan continues to believe that only a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government will end the war in Afghanistan, since it has no faith that the United States will muster the commitment and resources to defeat the insurgency militarily. Many Pakistani officials, civilian and military, contend that even if Washington were sufficiently resolute, the Taliban are unlikely to be conclusively defeated.15 In any event, Pakistan appears determined to preserve the sanctuary that the Taliban’s leadership—the Quetta Shura—enjoys on its territory, despite the Pakistan Army’s continued effort to convince Afghanistan and the international community that it has abandoned its former policy of allowing for a distinction between the “good” and “bad” Taliban. Pakistan’s rationale for effectively sheltering the Taliban leadership is complex: whether it seeks to compel an Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line as the permanent Afghan-Pakistani border, whether it desires a hedge against either a too-close Afghan-Indian partnership or an overly hasty U.S. exit from Afghanistan, or whether it strives for influence inside the Afghan government in a postconflict settlement, Rawalpindi seems to believe that protecting the Quetta Shura could advance its interests on all these counts. The Pakistani conviction that India’s true objectives in Afghanistan lie in promoting Baluch separatism and anti-Pakistani militancy in the frontier areas only intensifies its resolve to protect what it sees as its core national security interests.

India: India blames the perpetuation of the Afghan conflict entirely on Pakistan’s uncompromising support for the Taliban. In New Delhi’s eyes, the Taliban may represent a genuine Afghan protest against the Kabul central government post–September 11, 2001, but its endurance is entirely due to Pakistani support that is intended to coerce Afghanistan even as Rawalpindi plays a double game with the United States—accepting U.S. assistance in targeting transnational terrorism while effectively shielding the Taliban. In these circumstances, India sees its nonsecurity assistance to Afghanistan as helping to stabilize the country, demonstrating solidarity with the larger international effort, and assisting a weaker Kabul in standing up to a stronger Islamabad. Successive Indian governments have encouraged the United States to steadfastly prosecute the military campaign in Afghanistan. India contends that it will support whatever the Afghan government chooses in regard to reconciliation, as long as Kabul is not coerced, the integration of the Taliban takes place through a constitutional process, and all sections of Afghan society are comfortable with the terms of reconciliation. Since New Delhi judges that these conditions do not yet exist, it strongly supports current U.S. and Afghan military operations to prevent the Taliban from being able to negotiate from a position of strength.

China: China stepped up its engagement with Afghanistan in 2011 based on a perception that the United States was likely to leave the country before its situation was stabilized. Nonetheless, China’s interests in Afghanistan remain a relatively low priority and are focused mainly on mitigating the risk to stability in western China and to its Belt and Road Initiative. The broader Chinese policy of regional noninterference has resulted in Beijing’s taking a hands-off approach to the most difficult problems of peace and order in Afghanistan. It has relied on the United States to manage these challenges, while it focuses on exploiting the modest economic opportunities that Afghanistan may offer over the long term. China’s long-standing, all-weather relationship with Pakistan, however, has placed it in a position of opposing any initiatives that come at the expense of Pakistan’s interests. It has, for example, been far more sympathetic to Islamabad’s approach to counterterrorism than Afghanistan, India, and the United States have been; and it will continue to promote reconciliation terms that closely mirror Pakistan’s own preferences while in the near term encouraging the development of a regional consensus on opposition to the Islamic State.

Russia: Given the perceived failure of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group and the relatively low levels of U.S. engagement in the current reconciliation process, Russia has begun facilitating a significant regional dialogue on Afghanistan. Its April 2017 meeting, which the United States declined to attend, convened eleven nations.16 Russia has been largely skeptical about the prospects of a U.S. military success in Afghanistan from the very beginning—a view undoubtedly colored by its own experiences in the country. Moscow’s current interest in promoting a political dialogue in Afghanistan, however, is shaped by its expectation that the United States will not remain resolute in its commitment to Afghanistan, especially in the face of supposedly rising threats from the Islamic State in the eastern parts of the country.17 As a consequence, Moscow appears tempted to curry favor with the Taliban, engaging the insurgents as part of its strategy to checkmate the Islamic State and limit the latter’s capacity to expand its operations into Central Asia and eventually Russia itself. Other views of recent Russian actions are less forgiving: some see them as consistent with Russia’s more assertive strategy in Syria, where Moscow effectively intervened in order to back a preferred proxy and contain U.S. influence. In any event, Afghanistan has evoked relatively good cooperation between Washington and Moscow, despite their bilateral relationship deteriorating over the Ukraine crisis. At the moment, Moscow is likely waiting to see how U.S. policy on Russia might shift under the Trump administration.

Iran: Iranian policy on Afghanistan is principally based on hedging against both the Islamic State and U.S. policy toward Tehran. Because of the latter consideration, Iran tacitly supported the Taliban intermittently during the last decade, despite its distaste for the Taliban’s brand of Islam and determined political opposition to them during the late 1990s.18 Since hurting the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was viewed—particularly by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—as a means of punishing the United States itself, some factions of the Iranian state provided low levels of support for Taliban operations, even though Tehran itself has been supportive of the Afghan state and its U.S.-led reconstruction after the September 11 attacks. As the vanguard of Shia Islam, the Iranian regime has been only mildly less opposed to the Deobandi-inspired Afghan Taliban than it has been to the ideological extremism of Salafi-based groups such as the Islamic State. The Iranians see the latter as part of a Saudi ideological project to counter Shia influence, so they are extremely resistant to Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council involvement in Afghanistan—although this remains a lower priority issue than other concerns, such as narcotics and water rights. In general, Iran is skeptical about U.S. success in Afghanistan, and while it might be willing to accept reconciliation as a solution in Afghanistan, much will depend on the terms and on the power any agreement may bestow on the Taliban.


Given the continuing difficulties, there are a variety of alternative strategies that the United States could pursue in Afghanistan—some obviously better than others—if Washington is to achieve its minimal goal of protecting the Afghan state so as to mitigate the threats of terrorism, instability, and conflict in the region. The options iterated below, based on what frequently surfaces in public discussions, are summarily assessed and categorized with reference to their effectiveness and feasibility in advancing this objective.

Regional Approaches
A Regional Solution to End the Proxy War. If the Afghan conflict is viewed as a consequence of the India-Pakistan rivalry—one that cannot be solved without first engineering a rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad (not to mention Rawalpindi)—the United States ought to invest in achieving a permanent South Asian peace (as Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had originally intended). This solution, however, is misconceived: it fails to account for Afghanistan’s own territorial problem with Pakistan—whose roots predate the latter’s dispute with India—and, in any case, is too difficult to achieve in the short term in ways that would improve the current trajectory of the conflict in Afghanistan. Another version of this option is the concept of regional neutrality, wherein Afghanistan gradually exits its current security-based partnerships in favor of implementing a cooperative security agreement signed by all neighbors and near-neighbors. This solution, however, is more implausible than it initially appears, as Kabul—without assistance from Washington—would have difficulty enforcing such an agreement if it were violated by one or more of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Pressuring of Pakistan to Squeeze the Taliban. This option derives from the view that the war in Afghanistan is perpetuated by the Pakistan Army’s policies—in particular, its search for “strategic depth”—which results in Rawalpindi’s support for a Taliban sanctuary within Pakistan’s borders.19 A solution aimed at pressuring Pakistan would accordingly require Washington to use all its levers of influence, persuasive and coercive, to compel Pakistan to either give up protecting the Taliban leadership or force it to negotiate with Kabul. The logic underlying this solution is straightforward: the history of counterinsurgency campaigns suggests that the presence of a neighboring sanctuary is one of the key factors accounting for either success or failure. Operationalizing this insight in the case of Pakistan, however, is exceptionally difficult, because it requires Washington to convince Rawalpindi to do something that it judges to be against its own interests, even as the United States—given the absence of alternatives such as Iran—remains dependent on Pakistan for the security of its ground and air lines of communication to Afghanistan. Consequently, pressuring Pakistan to squeeze the Taliban can only be part of a larger approach rather than an independent strategy for achieving even the current, more limited, U.S. aims in Afghanistan.
Unilateral Approaches
Major Military Escalation. Akin to what was favored by many U.S. military officers in 2009 during the first Obama term, returning to a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign that could sufficiently debilitate the Taliban-led insurgency—thus allowing for expanded governmental reach and a security apparatus that could safeguard the state from Taliban remnants—would require a sizeable increase in U.S. and allied military forces deployed to Afghanistan and intensive operations that could last for many more years, if not decades. Such an effort would have to include confronting the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan far more resolutely than has been the case so far. Whatever the merits of such an effort in the abstract may be, its moment has now passed because of the strong American disenchantment with expensive foreign wars. Moreover, the demands of such a strategy are beyond what the international community can currently organize, and its past failures in shaping the sociopolitical environment in Afghanistan, ending local corruption, and revitalizing good governance suggest that the complementary factors for military success may lie beyond reach as well. These impediments may well be endemic and not simply the result of incompetence. At any rate, even the threat of resurgent Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan today is unlikely to motivate the United States to embark on a major escalation of the conflict when the demands of nation building at home are judged to be far more onerous in comparison.
Complete Disengagement. A strategy of complete withdrawal of military forces along with a sharp diminution of external assistance—gradually or suddenly—represents the polar opposite of major escalation. Such a strategy could be implemented if the administration were to recast its war aims, declare the primary goal of the original U.S. intervention—the evisceration of al-Qaeda—complete, and announce its intention to concentrate on terrorism at U.S. borders and internally, particularly given the homegrown threat. Such an approach, however, is risky because it could result in the catastrophic collapse of the Afghan government and state, leading to either a return to anarchy or the recrudescence of radical groups within the country. Proponents of this option would rather accept this risk than endure the costs of the status quo, given that the current course could produce eventual failure all the same but at a much higher expense. However, because complete disengagement could produce greater threats to the U.S. homeland over time and because path dependency often leads to an organic preference for the status quo, the administration is unlikely to countenance this course of action without some assurance of either a prospective political settlement or the option to quickly return to counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan should circumstances demand it.
Limited Approaches
Political Settlement. A strategy of seeking a political settlement in Afghanistan would require the United States to more concertedly pursue what it has not yet done: protecting the Afghan state and the gains achieved since September 11, 2001, by actively pursuing reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban in order to integrate them into the Afghan political system and thereby end the current civil war. It is conceivable, although it is not yet proven, that this approach could maintain and secure U.S. interests vis-à-vis transnational terrorist groups, whose relationships with the Taliban range from breakable (al-Qaeda) to opposing (Islamic State), as well as other regional terrorist organizations (LeT) that could precipitate major crises. Achieving this objective would require the United States to preserve some means of conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, even as it pursues a political settlement with formidable operational challenges.
Status Quo Plus. This approach assumes that the current strategy is generally effective but requires more time and some material reinforcement. Pursuing this approach would entail a modest expansion in the U.S. troop presence in terms of both its overall numbers and authorities, especially in regard to permitting greater combat support for the ANSF; increased pressure on Pakistan to eliminate the insurgent sanctuary; continued financial support for the Afghan government and its security forces; ongoing encouragement of the Afghan state’s political, governance, and economic reforms; and opportunistic engagement with the Taliban in pursuit of reconciliation if and when conditions prove propitious. The status quo plus approach, in essence, would reinforce all the current international lines of effort vis-à-vis Afghanistan to enable further strengthening of the Afghan state and to allow new opportunities for success as time goes by.
Enduring Counterterrorism Partnership. The third limited option could be developing a long-term, open-ended partnership with Kabul focused predominantly, if not solely, on the United States’ primary issue of concern: counterterrorism. In this scenario, U.S. Special Operations Forces would continue to target global and regional terrorist groups from permanent U.S. bases inside Afghanistan. But, under this strategy, the United States would reduce all its other investments—military, economic, and diplomatic—for rebuilding the Afghan state, offering to the state only those benefits that arise from either the limited U.S. counterterrorism presence or the efforts aimed at targeting common enemies, including the Taliban. This strategic choice, obviously, would reduce the overall financial burdens of engagement with Afghanistan, except for those costs associated with sustaining the permanent, counterterrorism military presence, most likely at the Bagram air base.

No extended analysis is required to conclude that neither regional nor unilateral approaches alone would satisfy U.S. strategic interests at this juncture. No regional or unilateral strategy by itself would be sufficient to protect and strengthen the Afghan state either through conflict termination or a successful counterinsurgency effort.

The regional strategies are simply too difficult, too lengthy, too indirect, and too unpredictable, even if Washington were to invest heavily in them. For example, Islamabad has strong incentives to protect the Taliban in order to secure leverage over Kabul while simultaneously having the capacity to resist U.S. pressure as a result of Washington’s dependence on Islamabad for connectivity to Afghanistan. The only solutions that potentially could sever this Gordian Knot are a U.S. surrender to Pakistan, permitting its proxies free rein in Afghanistan at Kabul’s expense, or a confrontation with Pakistan by all means necessary, including military force. The former remedy would likely provoke a major regional crisis involving many of Afghanistan’s neighbors, whereas the latter would involve armed clashes between the United States and Pakistan. The different risks inherent in each solution, therefore, make them unlikely to be the preferred courses of action in Washington.

The unilateral approaches are just as problematic for other reasons. Today, there is little appetite in the United States for a major escalation in Afghanistan when it appears that much of the transnational threat from within the country has been diminished or displaced by homegrown dangers. The Taliban is undoubtedly viewed as a distasteful force, but summoning the will and the resources to defeat it militarily through a long, high-intensity counterinsurgency campaign seems beyond what the political climate in the United States can currently bear. Completely disengaging from Afghanistan, however, is equally problematic because it foregoes an opportunity to manage the risks to the homeland, however small they might appear today.

There is, however, an influential group of senior policymakers in the Trump administration who, despite the president’s highly publicized concerns about radical Islam, are inclined toward disengagement because the costs of the Afghan conflict are viewed as prohibitive at a time when the terrorist groups capable of targeting the United States have been marginalized. President Trump himself likely holds such views, if his 2012 remarks about Afghanistan being “a complete and total disaster” are any indication.20 Obviously, it is well recognized that the Taliban’s return to dominance might provide new opportunities for resuscitating inveterate enemies of the United States, but the issue boils down to the high costs of sustaining a campaign against a political foe that is unlikely to directly target the U.S. homeland and whether a more effective—and cheaper—strategy for protecting the nation can be identified. Because the latter cannot be guaranteed, and also due to the momentum of previous policy choices, those in the administration advocating for continued involvement could carry the day for now, but the larger trend is clear: the United States seems increasingly uncomfortable with spending approximately $23 billion annually—more than $5 billion in aid to Kabul with the remainder in support of U.S. military operations—to support an open-ended conflict.21 Consequently, the search for limited approaches will only grow in intensity over time.

The simplest of the more limited approaches is shifting toward a long-term presence in Afghanistan—one centered on counterterrorism. The advantages of such a posture to the United States are self-evident. Washington would enjoy an enduring presence in Afghanistan, which could be used for continuous targeting of current (and any future) militant groups that might threaten U.S. interests while advancing other U.S. regional objectives in an unsettled part of the world. And it would provide the Afghan state with the psychological benefits of a durable U.S. commitment, which could dissuade the Taliban from believing that they could wait out the U.S. and international presence that justifies spurning current Afghan offers of reconciliation. Moreover, such a posture would be much less costly and perhaps acceptable to those who chafe at the current burdens imposed by the Afghan war on Washington.

However, the disadvantages of this limited strategy are significant. For starters, the narrow focus would mean a sharp reduction in U.S. economic and political assistance, which would further weaken the Afghan government’s capacity to cope with the insurgency—thus making the objective of containing the Taliban even more difficult to achieve. The prospect of a near-permanent U.S. presence in the country, moreover, could further perpetuate the conflict at varying levels of intensity rather than work toward its resolution. These consequences would make a U.S. strategy anchored on pure counterterrorism unappealing for any Afghan government, which would perceive it as bringing major disadvantages for Kabul, whatever the benefits may be for Washington. The fact that a lighter counterterrorism footprint would not suffice to limit any serious Taliban advances—because the Americans committed to this mission would likely remain more focused on force protection rather than concerted terrorism targeting—would only intensify Afghan disenchantment with such an approach. Finally, although a counterterrorism-centered strategy is indeed cheaper than any other limited option, it would not be long before the U.S. political system tired of even such a moderately burdensome commitment if it neither protected the Afghan state effectively nor coped adequately with the terrorist threats in the region. The initial attractiveness of the counterterrorism strategy, therefore, evaporates when tested against the twin demands of credibility and feasibility.

If the foregoing arguments are persuasive, the limited approaches left for the United States in Afghanistan are some modified version of the status quo or a more concerted effort at securing a political settlement. Both strategies have important similarities but also significant differences. The status quo plus approach—which could turn out to be the default approach for the Trump administration if the president sticks to his campaign commitment to keep American troops in Afghanistan even though he would “hate doing it”22—requires a modest injection of additional troops into Afghanistan for an indeterminate duration. The principal mission of all U.S. forces would remain the training of their Afghan counterparts, but the provision of additional authorities would permit U.S. commanders to offer specific assistance in combat support, medical evacuation, and surveillance and targeting when required by Afghan contingents to arrest the loss of territorial control to insurgents.

Overall, this strategy would involve maintaining U.S. commitment to the transition plans agreed to at the 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit: the United States would provide military and economic assistance to Kabul through 2020, after which both its assistance funding and its troop presence would presumably decline. The key distinguishing feature of the status quo plus approach is that even if the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has not been entirely successful in defeating the insurgency and building a robust Afghan state, suitably bolstering the current course of action offers opportunities to repair present deficiencies and exploit new opportunities for political and military success. The risks associated with this approach are that the United States could be plowing more resources into a strategy that has not yet borne, and may never bear, full fruit.

The status quo plus approach includes space for seeking a widely acceptable political settlement that might end the conflict with the Taliban. It does not, however, prioritize reconciliation because of the expectation that a negotiated suspension of hostilities is currently implausible. The reluctance to emphasize peace talks is also colored by the fear that an early negotiation will redound to Kabul’s disadvantage if it is undertaken at a time when the current stalemate hurts the Afghan state more than it burdens the Taliban. The format of the existing reconciliation process does not serve to advance the effort either. To begin with, the Afghan government is formally the sole interlocutor with the Taliban, but the latter are contemptuous of Kabul and seek to negotiate only with Washington. Furthermore, Kabul has little incentive to seriously negotiate with the Taliban as long as it is assured continued U.S. economic, political, and military support; this support permits Afghan leaders to delay any efforts at rapprochement in the expectation that prospective military success will strengthen their negotiating hand. Finally, the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan has made Rawalpindi—backed by Chinese support—a critical intermediary in the reconciliation process, and Pakistani objectives here are far from benign: rather than compelling the Taliban to seek peace with Kabul, thereby bringing the conflict to an end, the Pakistan Army seeks to use the insurgents to extort concessions from the Afghan government to include limitations on cooperation with India and acceptance of what Pakistan sees as its legitimate security interests in Afghanistan.23

A widespread desire to end the war in Afghanistan, however, does not automatically guarantee an acceptable settlement.
Some of these handicaps could be mitigated by making a political settlement a critical line of effort for the first time in U.S. strategy, especially if the Afghan conflict could be resolved in a manner that also secures U.S. counterterrorism interests. A political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan has been discussed for more than a decade, but it has only gained momentum in recent years due to the international community and Afghans becoming increasingly tired of the conflict. In the past, reconciliation suffered because it was an ancillary element of allied strategy, not a purposeful goal. Making it the targeted, rather than incidental, objective of policy going forward may offer promise; the Afghan government’s recent deal with the Hezb-e-Islami militant group provides small but meaningful confidence that a political dialogue is possible.24

A widespread desire to end the war in Afghanistan, however, does not automatically guarantee an acceptable settlement. Success in this regard will require many elements of the status quo plus approach, including continued economic, political, and military assistance to the Afghan government; but these investments must be shaped by the ultimate objective of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and achieving a political settlement that is acceptable to all sides in order to protect the Afghan state. This strategy is plausible insofar as the Taliban are already in conflict with the Islamic State, have claimed a willingness to break formally with al-Qaeda, and appear interested in exploring reconciliation on the condition that it eventually results in the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. The obstacles to any meaningful accomplishment, however, cannot be overstated. For starters, it remains to be confirmed that the Taliban’s strategic aims are focused merely on ending the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan as a prelude to peaceful integration into the Afghan polity. If they are, a feasible deal involving the Afghan government, the United States, and the international community could be crafted to allow for the eventual departure of foreign forces after the requirements of counterterrorism and enforcing a peace agreement are satisfied. If not, and the Taliban’s actual aim is to forcibly secure political control in the south and east or undermine or take over the Afghan state writ large, the prospects for a negotiated settlement are dim. Obviously, there is no way to confirm the Taliban’s intentions outside of negotiations, and in this sense, a deliberately targeted process—as an activity alongside strengthening the Afghan state—emerges as a sensible path.

If the U.S. administration chooses to reorient its strategy to prioritize a settlement, five specific actions should be undertaken. First, the U.S. government should revamp its decisionmaking processes to ensure that the totality of U.S. investments in Afghanistan—to include military operations—are oriented toward bringing the Taliban into the negotiating process. This will require the closest political coordination with the Afghan government as well as with the senior U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan—a task that should be the formal responsibility of an empowered U.S. ambassador in Kabul enjoying all the appropriate authorities, resources, and staff necessary for success. Because accomplishing the goal of protecting the Afghan state by ending the conflict will require “high degrees of agility, nuance, and local understanding in a dynamic, complex, and competitive environment,”25 Kabul, rather than Washington, should become the locus for policy implementation, and the ambassador, as the “czar” overseeing all U.S. activity in Afghanistan, must enjoy the autonomy to make the decisions necessary to realize the administration’s objectives without micromanagement by Washington.

Second, Washington should press Kabul to begin a broad intra-Afghan dialogue on the aims and terms of political reconciliation with the Taliban. Although most Afghans seek some sort of settlement to end the current conflict, there are deep divisions among them about the stipulations that would govern reconciliation. Creating a consensus will be critical if a sustainable political settlement is to be achieved. This will require bringing together not only all the various ethnic groups represented in the polity but also key societal constituencies, such as women, ideally in a consultation process that encompasses the provincial, regional, and national levels. Such a conversation will provide an opportunity for ordinary Afghans to define the kind of peace they seek, clarify the kind of compromises they are willing to accept in any negotiation with the Taliban, and develop strategies to ensure that the reconciliation process actually delivers on its promises. Involving the entire range of stakeholders in multiple consultations that would eventually lead up to a loya jirga (grand assembly) that ratifies the consensus is essential to ensure the sustainability of any negotiated peace with the Taliban.

Third, Washington should acknowledge that it is an active participant in the conflict with the Taliban and, as such, prepare to enter into direct talks with the insurgent leadership for the purposes of ending the war and ensuring the success of the broader intra-Afghan dialogue. Engaging in direct parleys with the Taliban allows the United States to minimize the importance of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group’s efforts, which have diminished considerably in importance, while simultaneously driving a deeper wedge between the Quetta Shura and Rawalpindi to exploit their different interests.26 Any direct U.S. conversations with the Taliban, however, will require Washington and Kabul to coordinate much more closely to prevent their own differences, if any, from stymieing any genuine opportunities for progress. Moreover, given that the reconciliation dialogue should remain formally Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, continual negotiations between Kabul and Washington on the aims, terms, and limits of the settlement process will be necessary. Although the United States and Afghanistan are allies in the conflict with the Taliban, it is surprising how uncoordinated the two nations’ strategies have been thus far. If reconciliation is to offer a viable exit from the war, the chasm between Washington and Kabul will have to be bridged with alacrity.

Washington should acknowledge that it is an active participant in the conflict with the Taliban and, as such, prepare to enter into direct talks with the insurgent leadership for the purposes of ending the war and ensuring the success of the broader intra-Afghan dialogue.
Fourth, the United States will have to make difficult decisions about whether to target the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, even while engaged in a political dialogue. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue. Thus far, the United States has resisted interdicting the Quetta Shura, except for former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was seen as implacably opposed to negotiations. Because there is no assurance that direct discussions with the Taliban will bear fruit, Washington should remain willing to target their leadership whenever required, thereby undermining the protection of their sanctuary to either push them to the negotiating table or compel them to stay there. The imperative of targeting the shura may in fact increase in urgency if the Taliban leadership concludes that their current military successes on the battlefield liberate them from the alternative of having to explore any reconciliation that may end up in a compromise with the Afghan state.

Fifth, any effort at seeking a political settlement in Afghanistan will require soliciting regional cooperation for success. All of Afghanistan’s immediate and extended neighbors will be content to support a U.S. effort at pursuing reconciliation with the Taliban so long as their own particular interests are protected. Thus, for example, Iran, Russia, and China would support a negotiated settlement with the Taliban as long as the ensuing agreement contributes toward both defeating the threat posed by the Islamic state and ensuring that the Taliban would not support (or offer succor to) radical Sunni groups intent on destabilizing their own countries. Even India could support reconciliation under such conditions, but because it is unclear how such restraint would be enforced, New Delhi would prefer that Afghan moderates control the process of Taliban reintegration (or, at the very least, that it occur through a constitutional process that most Afghans are comfortable with).

The main challenge to successful reconciliation, other than the Taliban’s preferences itself, will continue to be Pakistan. Rawalpindi would obviously support reconciliation in principle, but it desires an outcome that guarantees to its Taliban clients a share of national power through negotiation in the hope that this result would protect its strategic interests vis-à-vis both Afghanistan and India. Because this result is not at all guaranteed, persuading Pakistan to lean on the Quetta Shura to participate in reconciliation will prove to be an uphill task. While Washington should use more coercion to supplement the inducements long offered toward this end, U.S. leverage on Rawalpindi in actuality is quite limited. The only strategy that stands some chance of success in these circumstances is appealing to Rawalpindi’s self-interest: should the United States fail to secure a political settlement in Afghanistan with Pakistani cooperation, the possible U.S. exit from the country would further exacerbate the conflict in Afghanistan. This, in turn, would only deepen Afghan-Indian cooperation to Pakistan’s even greater disadvantage; further secure the Afghan sanctuary for extremist groups attacking Pakistan; and, by creating stronger incentives for all the regional powers to meddle in Afghan politics in order to protect their own interests, guarantee a much more turbulent western frontier—all with added burdens for Pakistan’s security. Since there is no assurance that Rawalpindi will be moved by even the threat of such outcomes—given that Pakistan can confidently count on China’s assistance for larger geopolitical reasons—Washington can only hope to mitigate Rawalpindi’s obduracy as best it can while it continues to pursue a political settlement in Afghanistan.

All these considerations collectively illuminate how difficult the path to political reconciliation with the Taliban will be. Furthermore, even if the strategy of prioritizing a political settlement is ultimately successful, it is unlikely to produce meaningful results in the near term. The process itself could go on for years and will experience considerable vicissitudes along the way. Significant oscillations are in fact inevitable because of the deep chasms that currently exist on many substantive issues. For example, can the Taliban’s insistence on the exit of all foreign forces be reconciled with the Afghan government’s desire for some long-term U.S. military presence to ensure Afghanistan’s geopolitical independence and to hedge against a resurgence of terrorism and a renewed Taliban insurgency? Can the Taliban’s vision of an Islamic emirate be subordinated to the Afghan polity’s desire to preserve an Islamic republic? Can the Pakistani desire for integrating the Taliban into the Afghan government as insurance for protecting its interests be reconciled with the Afghan determination to avoid strategic subordination to Pakistan at all costs?

The status quo plus approach thus provides a critical backstop to the political settlement process as well as a safety net should the attempts at dialogue fail.
These and many more substantive issues are certain to bedevil any reconciliation initiative. Some issues could be resolved by procedural solutions such as the proper sequencing of political commitments, the incorporation of conditional reciprocity, and even possibly the introduction of third-party mediation at the appropriate juncture. But the very real obstacles to success cannot be overlooked at a time when many states in the region have not only different views about what a successful political settlement should look like but also the capability to impede the outcomes desired by various factions within Afghanistan. For all these reasons, any approach centered on reconciliation cannot be pursued in isolation; a parallel effort to strengthen the Afghan state, especially its military capabilities, and to press Pakistan to change its current strategic behavior, will be essential. The status quo plus approach thus provides a critical backstop to the political settlement process as well as a safety net should the attempts at dialogue fail.


1 Heidi M. Peters, Moshe Schwartz, and Lawrence Kapp, “Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Iraq and Afghanistan: 2007-2017,”Congressional Research Service, April 28, 2017, 4, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R44116.pdf.

2 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Quarterly Report to the United States Congress (Washington, DC: SIGAR, January 30, 2017) 4.

3 Ibid, 90.

4 The Situation in Afghanistan: Hearing Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 115th Cong. (2017) (statement of General John W. Nicholson, Commander U.S. Forces-Afghanistan).

5 Christina Lamb, “150 Feared Killed in Taliban Raid on Afghan Military Base,” Times, April 23, 2017, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/150-feared-killed-in-taliban-raid-on-afghan-military-base-lf6b07rzm.

6 Borhan Osman and Anand Gopal, “Taliban Views on a Future State,” New York University Center on International Cooperation, July 2016, http://cic.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/taliban_future_state_final.pdf.

7 UN News Center, “UN Renews Call for Protection of Afghan Civilians, After Casualty Figures Spike in 2016,” United Nations, February 6, 2017, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56113#.WRNWUhMrJhE.

8 SIGAR, Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, 98.

9 Ibid, 90.

10 World Bank, “Afghanistan Overview,” World Bank, accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/afghanistan/overview.

11 Richard F. Grimmet, “Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Response to the 9/11 Attacks (P.L. 107-40): Legislative History,”Congressional Research Service, updated January 6, 2007, 1–6, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RS22357.pdf.

12 Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan, “The U.S. Was Supposed to Leave Afghanistan by 2017. Now It Might Take Decades,” Washington Post, January 26, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/01/26/the-u-s-was-supposed-to-leave-afghanistan-by-2017-now-it-might-take-decades/.

13 Zachary Warren, John Rieger, Charlotte E. Maxwell-Jones, and Nancy Kelly, eds., A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016 (Washington, DC: Asia Foundation, 2016), 7.

14 Catherine Putz, “Afghanistan’s Biggest Problem: Relations With Pakistan,” Diplomat, July 26, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/07/afghanistans-biggest-problem-relations-with-pakistan/.

15 Ayaz Gul, “Pakistan Rejects US Blame for Not Doing Enough to End Afghan War,” Voice of America, May 20, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/a/pakistan-reacts-sharply-to-afghan-related-us-accusations/3338994.html.

16 “US Skips Out on Afghanistan-Taliban conference in Moscow,” Deutsche Welle, April 14, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/us-skips-out-on-afghanistan-taliban-conference-in-moscow/a-38426486.

17 Lauren McNally, et al., The Islamic State in Afghanistan: Examining Its Threat to Stability, (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 2016), 1–24; and Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Missy Ryan, “Two U.S. Troops Die Battling Islamic State in Eastern Afghanistan,” Washington Post, April 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/two-us-troops-die-battling-islamic-state-militants-in-eastern-afghanistan/2017/04/27/14879ad8-2b55-11e7-be51-b3fc6ff7faee_story.html?utm_term=.d9c59903ed36.

18 Margherita Stancati, “Iran Backs Taliban With Cash and Arms,” Wall Street Journal,June 11, 2015, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-backs-taliban-with-cash-and-arms-1434065528.

19 An insightful discussion of Pakistan’s search for “strategic depth” can be found in C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 103–35.

20 Cited in Doug Bandow, “The Nation-Building Experiment That Failed: Time for U.S. to Leave Afghanistan,” Forbes, March 1, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/dougbandow/2017/03/01/the-nation-building-experiment-that-failed-time-for-u-s-to-leave-afghanistan/#735f797065b2.

21 Amy Belasco, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” Congressional Research Service, December 8, 2014, 14, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf.

22 Donald Trump, interview by Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News, April 28, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/transcript/2016/04/29/donald-trump-on-his-foreign-policy-strategy.

23 Fair, Fighting to the End, 103–35.

24 “Afghanistan: Hezb-i-Islami Armed Group Signs Peace Deal,” Al Jazeera, September 22, 2016,http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/gulbuddin-hekmatyar-group-signs-afghan-peace-deal-160922093420326.html.

25 Christopher D. Kolenda, “Focused Engagement: A New Way Forward in Afghanistan,” Center for a New American Security, February 21, 2017, 13, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/focused-engagement.

26 Halimullah Kousary, “The Afghan Peace Talks, QCG and the China-Pakistan Role,” Diplomat, July 8, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/07/the-afghan-peace-talks-qcg-and-china-pakistan-role/; and Abubakar Siddique, “Are the Taliban Falling Apart?” Gandhara, October 27, 2016, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-are-the-taliban-falling-apart/28078306.html.


The Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs focuses on the pressing international security challenges of the emerging world order, especially U.S. foreign policy and relationships in Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The Chair was established in April 2017 in recognition of Ratan N. Tata’s leadership on Carnegie’s Board of Trustees and his role in taking Indian industry beyond its national borders to create a global brand, emphasizing innovation as the hallmark of commercial success, and contributing to the building of U.S.-India ties.

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Trotsky and Gramsci on Revolutionary Strategy-Doug Greene

Posted by admin On June - 13 - 2017 Comments Off on Trotsky and Gramsci on Revolutionary Strategy-Doug Greene

Gramsci and Trotsky: Strategy for the Revolution in the West
By Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello
Argentina: Left Voice, 2016

Following the recession of 2007-8, workers in the advanced capitalist countries have endured an onslaught of austerity measures and a decline in their living standards. The crisis has also fueled the rise of far-right parties such as the Golden Dawn in Greece in Greece and the National Front in France. Despite the immensity of the crisis, illusions in bourgeois democracy remains firmly intact. The left has not been much help in challenging those illusions, but supports various “neo-reformist” movements or figures such as SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal. However, these desperate times cry out for a renewal of revolutionary and communist strategy. With the lack of strategic discussion, Albamonte and Maiello’s new book, Gramsci and Trotsky aims to fill that gap. Their book consists of two lengthy essays that explore the thinking of two of the most important 20th century revolutionaries—Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci—on revolutionary tactics and strategy. Whereas other writers often see these two Marxists in conflict, Albamonte and Maiello view them not as adversaries, but as comrades-in-arms who have points of convergence alongside their differences. Their work is a welcome contribution, that is theoretically sharp, well-written and informed on the latest literature.

I. The German Revolution

The first half of the book explores how Trotsky and Gramsci dealt with questions of the united front, strategy and the class struggle in light of the 1923 German Revolution.

Debates on the united front marked a shift in the strategy of the Communist International (Comintern) after the failure of an earlier “leftist” insurrectionism, most notably during the 1921 March Action in Germany that was a crushing defeat for the German Communist Party (KPD). Trotsky was one of the main proponents of the turn towards the united front at the Comintern’s Third (1921) and Fourth Congresses (1922).

The united front was conceived as a defensive strategy where communists would ally with social democrats and other forces to defend workers’ living standards and organizations from capitalist assaults. However, the united front was not strictly defensive, but involved the strategic goal of allowing communists to win “the majority of the working class for revolution as a result of their common experiences or their rejection of their reformist or centrist leaderships.” (p. 24)

The workers’ government was not a simple reformist government, but a means to arm the working class and rally them to take the offensive.
The debate in the Comintern on the potentially revolutionary role of “workers’ governments” grew directly out of the united front strategy. The workers’ government was seen as a means for communists to secure a revolutionary bastion as part of a deepening class struggle. A workers’ government was conceived of as a government of socialists, with communists either in coalition with it, or supporting it as a loyal opposition. The workers’ government was not a simple reformist government, but a means to arm the working class and rally them to take the offensive. Communist support for workers’ governments was not as an end in itself or confined within the boundaries of bourgeois legality, but as a transitional demand and jumping off point for creating the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The united front and workers’ government were soon put to the test as a revolutionary situation developed in Germany in 1923. After Germany was unable to pay its reparations payments, the French army invaded the industrial heartland of the Ruhr in January. This event caused the collapse of the German economy, hyper-inflation, mass unemployment, the rise of the Nazis, and reopened the possibilities for communist revolution. Workers flocked to the KPD, formed factory committees and Proletarian Hundreds (working class militia) to secure food, control out-of-control prices and defend themselves against the right-wing.

In the states of Saxony and Thuringia there was an opportunity to form workers’ governments between the KPD and leftists in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In October, the KPD and SPD (with the support of Trotsky and the Comintern) formed coalition governments in both Saxony and Thuringia. The KPD and Comintern planned for the workers’ governments to strengthen the Proletarian Hundreds and disarm right-wing paramilitaries. It was believed this would cause the national government to send in the Reichswehr (German army). This would be the signal for insurrection throughout the rest of Germany around the slogan of defense of the ‘workers’ government’ against the Reichswehr. In other words, a strategy of defense turn into a revolutionary offensive.

However, the workers’ governments made no practical measures to arm the Proletarian Hundreds, while social democrats in the factory committees refused to support any general strike or insurrection against the Reichswehr. On October 21, when the Reichswehr was sent into Saxony and Thuringia to restore order, the KPD’s plans were in total disarray, forcing them to call off the planned insurrection. Only in Hamburg did an abortive uprising occur (since they didn’t get word that the uprising was canceled). The failure of the “German October” marked the last gasp of the revolutionary wave in Europe which had begun with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Upon reflection, Trotsky argued that the KPD failed because their strategy was “confined within the framework of bourgeois constitutional legality and limited by its confidence in the left wing of social democracy.” (p. 29) Secondly, the KPD showed that “when the entire objective situation demanded that the party undertake a decisive blow, the party did not act to organise the revolution but kept awaiting it.” (p. 35) Lastly, the KPD leadership lost their nerve and failed at the decisive moment to shift from a “war of position” to a “war of maneuver.”

Although Trotsky offered a sober assessment for the failure of the German Revolution, the Comintern did not draw up a balance-sheet nor they believe that the revolutionary wave in Europe had passed. Instead, the Comintern still believed the conquest of power by communists was on the immediate agenda.

At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in 1924 (the first after Lenin died), Trotsky was the sole defender of the original formula of the united front. Trotsky argued that the Comintern needed to continue following the united front strategy while simultaneously avoiding both the right danger of adapting to social democracy and the left deviation of putschism.

The Comintern refused to adopt this strategic line and proclaimed just a few years later that revolution was on the horizon and abandoned the united front for sectarian isolation. The “third period” line proved disastrous for the KPD and the German working class in face of the rising Nazi threat.

For Trotsky, one of the great lessons of the German revolution was that it was an era of great turns, where the political situation changed quickly, which communists had to appreciate in order to quickly shift their tactics and strategy.

In contrast to Trotsky, Gramsci made no substantial contributions in the Comintern on the German Revolution. His conclusion was of a more “‘general’ character, that is, that the existence of more solid superstructures in the ‘west’ made the “actions of the masses slower and more cautious.” (p. 40) Gramsci argued that the appropriate strategy for revolutionaries in the west was a “war of position” (which he saw as the united front in action) as opposed to a frontal “war of maneuver,” which was more appropriate to the east.

Trotsky agreed with Gramsci that the political structures in the west differed from the east, but he proposed a different strategy. As mentioned, for Trotsky, the main issue was preparing communists to recognize that strategy in this conjuncture required rapidly moving from defense to offense (and back). However, Gramsci’s “war of position” did not envision such abrupt turns, but transformed the united front tactic into a long-term strategy and did not countenance a rapid shift to a “war of maneuver.” While Gramsci’s advocacy of the united front converged with Trotsky in opposing the third period, he ended up “mechanically [contrasting] the strategies for the ‘East’ and the ‘West” (p. 42), leaving the transition to the offensive as one of his more ambiguous strategic reflections.

Albamonte and Maiello argue that Trotsky viewed revolutionary strategy not as a series of scholastic questions, but as living ones for communists who needed to be trained in an orientation which could analyze both defensive and offensive moments, utilize revolutionary bastions as launching pads for the seizure of power, and prepare themselves for abrupt changes of fortune. Trotsky’s appreciation for these vital questions made him the “most Clausewitzian of Marxists.” (p. 65)

II. Capitalist Democracy and Hegemony

In the second half, Albamonte and Maiello shift from debates on the German Revolution to Trotsky and Gramsci on questions of theory and strategy of revolutionary strategy in the west—such as linking daily struggles to the conquest of power, the utilization of radical-democratic slogans, and questions of hegemony.

For Trotsky and Gramsci, questions of strategy are approached from the vantage point of Leninism. A Leninist approach does not separate, but links day-to-day struggles to the final goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat. On this basis, Leninists conceive of a defensive strategy which takes advantage of the openings and cracks in bourgeois society (ex. parliament) in order to accumulate forces (build a revolutionary party) for eventually taking the offensive. In contrast to reformists, Leninists argue that parliament can only be utilized by socialists and communists under their own banners, in order to expose and tear off its democratic mask and mobilize an extra-parliamentary movement to undermine bourgeois hegemony. The role of the united front is to create alliances with other working class forces in pursuing common objectives. The overall goal of the united front is to win the working class away from their reformist leaders and rally them for the struggle for power.

In contrast to reformists, Leninists argue that parliament can only be utilized by socialists and communists under their own banners, in order to expose and tear of its democratic mask and mobilize an extra-parliamentary movement to undermine bourgeois hegemony.
While Leninists work to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, social democrats and their allies in labor unions reinforce the rule of the bourgeoisie. “In the ‘West,’ conciliatory leaderships have the ’virtue’ of being able to hide behind the institutions of bourgeois democracy, parliamentarism, the separation of powers, the judiciary, etc. They are both sustained by and help to sustain illusions in capitalist democracy.” (p. 88-89) These reformist institutions are a “material force” which gives life to the “moral force” of illusions in bourgeois democracy that preserves the hegemony of the ruling class. In order for revolutionaries to win over the working class, the influence of these forces has to be removed.

Creating a counter-hegemonic force requires a defensive strategy which protects the institutions of the working class, but advances through bold and precise strikes. According to the military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, “The defensive form in war is not a simple shield but a shield made up of well-directed blows.” (p. 87) One example of “well-directed blows” in a Leninist strategy of defense is the use of radical-democratic slogans. On a number of occasions (ex. Lyons Theses of 1926 or the KPD in the 1930s), Gramsci and Trotsky advocated their use as a means to build the confidence of the working class and accumulate revolutionary forces.

Trotsky and Gramsci believed that when a crisis erupts and the ruling class attacks the proletariat (whether through austerity or rolling back democratic rights), this presents an opportunity for revolutionaries to win a majority to their side through the use of radical-democratic slogans and united front tactics. On the one hand, while the mass of workers are not radical, radical-democratic slogans serve as a bridge from reformist to revolutionary consciousness. On the other hand, the united front is not bound to defend democracy by various forms of bourgeois legality, but defends democracy through revolutionary means. Yet it is imperative for communists to recognize the right moment to shift from a defensive strategy and move on the attack, otherwise it transforms into its opposite and “bridges become barriers.” (p. 103)

While Trotsky and Gramsci had similar approaches to the role of reformist and union bureaucracies, they differed on their strategies on how to confront them. Gramsci’s conception of a long-term “war of position” meant he saw a united front between revolutionaries and reformists as “a permanent tactic which continues ’until the eve of the proletariat revolution.’” (p. 116) Albamonte and Maiello argue that Gramsci’s ambiguities on the role of the bureaucracy meant he underestimated its role in maintaining bourgeois hegemony. However, Trotsky developed the theoretical foundation to understand the role of the bureaucracy in buttressing hegemony. According to Trotsky, a united front did not absolve communists of the day-to-day responsibility of exposing the role of reformist bureaucrats in maintaining bourgeois hegemony. Illusions in bourgeois democracy and reformism don’t simply vanish during a crisis. For instance, in a crisis, reformist coalitions such as Popular Fronts will wind up reinforcing illusions in bourgeois democracy and open the door to the counterrevolution. Therefore, it is a strategic necessity for communists to build their own organizations in advance of a crisis and oppose the reformists and labor bureaucrats.

Contrary to some Gramsci commentators, Albamonte and Maiello argue that the task of undermining bourgeois hegemony does not take place outside of the class struggle nor can the repressive power of the capitalist state be neutralized by the working class just winning through consensual means. These are reformist dead-ends. Rather, proletariat hegemony is captured not by peaceful development within the bourgeois state, but in a revolutionary break against it. The constitution of the workers into a class passes through the development of revolutionary tendencies in all fields of struggle and combating those forces (ex. reformist and union bureaucracies) which ensure bourgeois hegemony.

III. Final Reflections

Albamonte and Maiello present a thought-provoking work on revolutionary strategy, that is deeply informed on both Marxism and military theory. They show Trotsky not as dogmatist or sectarian, but as a dynamic strategist attuned to the rapids of revolution, who asks the difficult questions of what it takes to actually win (my own appreciation of Trotsky as a revolutionary strategist can be found here and here. This should be warmly welcomed by the revolutionary left.

Although Trotsky is generally seen as a superior Marxist strategist by Albamonte and Maiello, they view Gramsci not as a closet reformist or cultural critic, but as a revolutionary communist. They take issue with those who erase the beating heart of Gramsci, saying, “Any analysis of Gramsci which does not base itself on the problems of the revolution is not taking Gramsci seriously.” (p. 150) However, their account on Gramsci being ambiguous on navigating the transition from “war of position” to “war of maneuver” can use some correction. For Gramsci, the proletariat uses the “war of position” to accumulate its force and when a crisis occurs, this changes the arena of struggle for both the working class and the capitalist class. A crisis does not automatically produce revolution or a change in consciousness. Yet the ruling class is much better organized than the forces of the revolutionary left and able to adapt more quickly to a crisis (ex. reshaping class alliances, restoring profitability, etc.). On the other hand, a crisis often leaves left-wing forces disoriented and unable to adapt themselves to the emerging situation and the possibilities which it offers, but remain bound by outmoded formulas and strategy. Rather the crisis, in comparison to “normal times” provides an opening for communists to explain their ideas to a more receptive audience, but they cannot expect a revolution to spontaneously emerge. Communists need to be actively involved in struggle—organizing and open to the possibilities of the conjuncture (something I discuss at length here).

Perhaps the biggest complaint is that 158 pages is far too little space to discuss all the sides to Gramsci and Trotsky on strategy, hegemony and revolution. There is so much more to say. Yet this book should be eagerly read by revolutionaries in preparation for the battles ahead.

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent historian living in the greater Boston area and the author of the forthcoming book, Specters of Communism: Blanqui and Marx.
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Combatants of a Greater War: A Historiography of Europe’s Second Thirty Years War: 1914-1945-Doug Enaa Greene

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I. Totalitarianism and Marxist Historiography of the European Civil War

It is an article of common sense in our “democratic” societies to view the tumultuous era of 1914-1945 as an age of totalitarianism – the emergence of all-powerful single party states, total control of everyday life, political repression and terror, state control over the economy, and cults of personality. The totalitarianism tale is a simple one – after the massive bloodletting of World War I, the rival movements of fascism and communism battled for supremacy across Europe. The culmination of this clash between rival totalitarianisms was World War II with its bloody battlefields on the Eastern Front. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe and the beginning of the Cold War, the enemy is said to have shifted from totalitarian fascism to totalitarian communism, and defeated in 1989-1991 by the forces of liberal democracy and the free market.

Western capitalist countries codified the totalitarian thesis into state ideology and a legitimate field of research, thus erasing questions concerning how both communism and fascism came to power and the interests served by their respective policies. In this view, both “class struggle and racial struggle can be declared equivalent.”[1] Despite the assumed equivalence between the two totalitarianisms, politicians could say that while the crimes and threat of fascism resides in the past, the communist threat remains ever present, ready to destroy “freedom and democracy.” For historians such as Ernst Nolte, determining the qualitative differences between the two totalitarianisms served as a way to rehabilitate Nazism. Nolte argued that excessive focus on the crimes of Nazism took away attention from the Soviet crimes of the present.

For Nolte, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the opening salvo in a global civil war without rules or boundaries.[2] According to Nolte, Bolshevik Russia declared war upon the dominant classes, whom they viewed as responsible for the war and used “Asiatic” methods such as Cheka style state terrorism — terror and labor camps to commit “class genocide” against the bourgeoisie. Nolte says that the Nazis copied the Bolshevik methods of repression — “with the sole exception of the technical process of gassing” — as a response to “Asiatic” Bolshevik terror. Thus, Nolte sees Auschwitz and the Holocaust as copies “derived from the Asiatic barbarity originally introduced into the West by Bolshevism.”[3] Nazi anti-Semitism and the genocide of the Jews was an understandable anti-communism (considering the number of Jews in leadership positions of the USSR) which was “an inverted—but every bit as tendentious—image of the extermination of a world class by the Bolsheviks”[4] While Nolte admits that Hitler was guilty of “excesses,” certainly Nazi crimes were rational in light of “class genocide” and the Ukrainian famine? Operation Barbarossa—the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941 that led to 27 million deaths—thus becomes an act of self-defense of German (and European) civilization against “Asiatic Bolshevism”?

As Nolte says:

Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an “Asiatic” deed merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an “Asiatic” deed? Was the Gulag Archipelago not primary to Auschwitz? Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius [DG: prior to] of the “racial murder” of National Socialism? Cannot Hitler’s most secret deeds be explained by the fact that he had not forgotten the rat cage? Did Auschwitz in its root causes not originate in a past that would not pass?[5]

“Combatants of a Greater War” presents no original research or interpretation, nor does it attempt to be comprehensive, but merely presents a coherent alternative historiography to the totalitarian school and Nazi apologists like Nolte, by looking primarily at the work of three Marxist-influenced historians – Arno Mayer, Domenico Losurdo, and Enzo Traverso. These three historians have offered a powerful counter-narrative of how we should understand the “European Civil War” or the “Second Thirty Years War” of 1914-1945. As opposed to viewing the start of the “European Civil War” in 1917, Mayer says it began in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI that was caused by Europe’s pre-capitalist and aristocratic elites, who had managed to resist the modernizing forces of capitalism and mass democracy. Mayer also argues that the cycle of revolution and the accompanying violence that began in 1917 can not be separated from the forces of the old regime who refused to bow to a new order and their foreign supporters: “The struggle between the ideas and forces of revolution and counterrevolution was a prime mover of the spiraling violence inherent to the… Russian revolutions.”[6] As Mayer puts it, “the Furies of revolution are fueled above all by the resistance of the forces and ideas opposed to it.”[7] The Bolshevik Revolution had unleashed “universal” social forces that threatened the old order in Europe, bringing forth the counterrevolutionary nemesis of Nazism. Mayer agrees with the totalitarian school that fascism and communism are linked because anticommunism was the “necessary determinant and bold watchword of every variety of fascism, including National Socialism, its most extreme and paradigmatic form.”[8] Fascism, as Traverso and Losurdo highlight, drew inspiration from the practices of imperialist conquest and racism. The Bolsheviks were viewed, not just by the Nazis and fascists, but also by “respectable” imperialists as agents of a Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the old order, but also white supremacy through its support of colonial revolt. The Second World War on the Eastern Front cannot be viewed as a clash between rival totalitarianisms, but as “both a military campaign to conquer boundless living space in the East and a crusade to eradicate the Soviet regime and the Bolshevik ideology.”[9] The Nazis’ radicalization of war against the Jews was linked with the radicalization of war against the USSR. For the Nazi leadership, the mass murder of Jews was a rational action to eliminate their primary foe of “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

II. The Great War
Historians generally agree that the outbreak of the First World War ended the “Long Nineteenth Century” (1789-1914) and ushered in the unprecedented violence of the Twentieth Century. However, historians are sharply divided in understanding the reasons for the outbreak of the Great War. Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (1962) views the causes of war as a series of miscalculations, mistakes and illusions on the part of the major powers. The German historian Fritz Fischer, advanced the controversial thesis that the German Empire caused WWI (echoing the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which required Germany to accept guilt for causing the war), using the crisis caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to advance pre-existing plans to annex large portions of Europe and Africa. Marxist interpretations of WWI, including those of both Traverso and Losurdo, draw their inspiration from V. I. Lenin’s Imperialism, viewing inter-imperialist rivalry as a principal cause of the war.

Many historians have looked at the different interplays of domestic and foreign policy amongst the great powers in the lead-up to and eruption of WWI.[10] Arno Mayer has advanced the thesis that it was the “primacy of domestic politics” which caused the outbreak of the First World War. According to Mayer, the failure of the “primacy of foreign politics” approach is the “disposition to detach foreign policy hermetically from domestic politics; and to disconnect foreign policy and diplomatic actors rigorously from the political and social context from which they originate and in which they operate.”[11] By 1914, all the Major Powers of Europe were in a revolutionary situation facing labor unrest, the emergence of nationalist, democratic and socialist movements that threatened the entrenched interests of the old order. The forces of the old order, “precipitated an active counterrevolutionary response…with the resolve of thereby arresting or reversing the course of history, which they claim is turning against them…”[12] Ultimately, Europe’s ancien regimes pushed for the arms race and war to

foster their political position by rallying the citizenry around the flag; and to reduce the politically unsettling cyclical fluctuations of the capitalist economies by raising armaments expenditures…[foreign policy decisions] were intimately tied to tied in with those social, economic and political strata that were battling either to maintain the domestic status quo or to steer an outright reactionary course.[13]

In other words, the cause of the First World War was a preemptive counterrevolutionary move by threatened elites hoping to forestall revolution or reform from below.

Mayer’s Persistence of the Old Regime (1981) expands on his earlier work to look at the state of the old order throughout Europe (Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy) in 1914. Mayer begins with the premise that the “World War of 1939-1945 was umbilically tied to the Great War of 1914-1918, and that these two conflicts were nothing less than the Thirty Years’ War of the general crisis of the twentieth century.”[14] Thus, the two World Wars need to be viewed as part of a single whole. The cause of war in 1914 “was an expression of the decline and fall of the old order fighting to prolong its life rather than the explosive rise of industrial capitalism bent on imposing its primacy.”[15] Despite revolutionary upheavals from 1917-23, the old order (outside of Russia) was able to recover and “aggravate Europe’s general crisis, sponsor fascism, and contribute to the resumption of total war in 1939.”[16] Lastly, the old regimes of Europe were not, according to Mayer, capitalist, but “thoroughly preindustrial and prebourgeois.”[17] Europe was ruled by aristocrats, not the bourgeoisie, agriculture and rural life and not industry and cities dominated the lives of most people. Most governments were not parliamentary democracies, but were constitutional, traditionalist, or absolutist. The “steel frame” of political society, civil and military bureaucracies were controlled by “feudal elements” that “set the terms for the implantation of manufactural and industrial capitalism. thereby making it serve their own purposes. They forced industry to fit itself into pre-existing class and ideological structures.”[18] And in the decade before WWI, the

old elites proceeded to reaffirm and tighten their political hold in order to bolster their material, social, and cultural pre-eminence. In the process they intensified the domestic and international tensions which produced the Great War that started the final act of the dissolution of Europe’s old regime. [19]

Mayer says that his work “does not offer a balanced interpretation of Europe between 1848 and 1914 . To counteract the chronic overstatement of the unfolding and ultimate triumph of modernity-even the general crisis itself, including fascism, is being credited with serving this universal design and outcome – it will concentrate on the persistence of the old order.”[20] He takes issue with historical works who posit a teleological view of progress, that winds up downgrading the “importance of preindustrial economic interests, prebourgeois elites, predemocratic authority systems, premodernist artistic idioms, and “archaic” mentalities. They have done so by treating them as expiring remnants, not to say relics, in rapidly modernizing civil and political societies.”[21] Mayer is certainly correct to criticize ideologies of progress (Marxist and non-Marxist) that view socialism as the heir and continuation of capitalist progress. Rather, the mixture of modern and premodern social forces would produce the deadly mixtures such as fascism and the Holocaust. As Traverso argues, the gas chambers should not be seen as a ““break in civilization,” [but] reveal the extermination of the Jews “to be one of the faces of civilization itself.”[22]

However, Mayer arguably goes too far in universalizing his thesis to countries where the predominance of the old aristocracy is strained—Britain and France—and exaggerates the resilience of noble power elsewhere.[23] Geoff Eley also argues that the resistance of the old regime before WWI “required striking innovations of practice and ideology that bore scant resemblance to any ‘traditional’ nobilitarian order.”[24] And while the nobility occupied major posts in European society, Neil Davidson argues, “their preponderance had already been eroded by 1914. In this perspective, the 1914–18 war, rather than its successor, sealed their fate…By the eve of World War I—the great caesura of modern European history—the nobility had to share its leadership with men of common origin.”[25] Secondly, the nobility did not serve feudal interests, but their economic interests lay with capitalism:

Never has there been a more overwhelming consensus among economists and indeed among intelligent politicians and administrators about the recipe for economic growth: economic liberalism. The remaining institutional barriers to the free movement of the factors of production, to free enterprise and to anything that could conceivably hamper its profitable operation, fell below a world-wide onslaught. What made this general raising of barriers so remarkable is that it was not confined to the states in which political liberalism was triumphant or even influential. If anything it was even more drastic in the restored absolutist monarchies and principalities of Europe than in England, France, and the Low Countries, because so much remained to be swept away there.[26]

Furthermore, Davidson (quoting Norman Stone) argues that by 1914, “with the important exception of Russia, all the major states of Europe also had “a large, educated, energetic middle class with enough money for its support to be essential to any state that wished to develop,” but it was the state that acted as the main agent of development.”[27] In Britain, the middle classes were able to influence capitalist development and state policy, gradually transforming old institutions to serve their interests.

Hobsbawm views the retrenchment of the old order before WWI not as a reaction of the nobility, but of a bourgeois rejection of liberalism and progress, embracing and promoting reactionary beliefs of Nietzsche and Social Darwinism. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie balanced their commitment to “progress,” reform and liberalism with a belief in order. While scientific, economic and technological progress remained unquestioned, after the 1870s, those same forces unleashed explosive forces that threatened bourgeois domination. As Hobsbawm put it:

Democracy produced socialism, the fatal swamping of genius by mediocrity, strength by weakness – a note also struck, in a more pedestrian and positivistic key, by the eugenists. In that case was it not essential to reconsider all these values and ideals and the system of ideas of which they formed a part, for in any case the ‘revaluation of all values’ was taking place? Such reflections multiplied as the old century drew to its end.[28]

As bourgeois society moved closer to World War I, many members of the bourgeois class turned their backs on the same values that had brought them power and wealth, embracing reactionary and conservative beliefs in dictatorship and nationalism, in the face of the mass politics of democracy and socialism. A belief in progress was replaced by a belief in the irrational. Industrialization gave rise to a new working class and increased class conflict threatened to tear apart the nation. What was once safe and secure—so-called “traditional life” — had been uprooted by the industrial revolution. The “harmony” of traditional society was breaking down and thus needed to be remade. According to Robert Paxton: “Fear of the collapse of community solidarity intensified in Europe toward the end of the 19th century, under the impact of urban sprawl, industrial conflict and immigration.”[29] If society was breaking down, there had to be a cause and a solution to it. There had to be someone or something responsible for the spread of Enlightenment ideas and their destruction of the traditional community. This culprit was found in the “Other”: the “discovery [in the 19th-century] of the role of bacteria in contagion… made it possible to imagine whole new categories of internal enemy.”[30] In the aftermath of WWI, fascism would seize on this need to purify the nation of “disease” that threatened destruction: communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, and Jews.

Ironically, as the bourgeoisie lost their faith in progress, Marxism remained

the only ideology of serious caliber which remained firmly committed to the nineteenth century belief in science, reason and progress… which was unaffected by disillusion about the present because it looked forward to the future triumph of precisely those ‘masses’ whose rise created so much uneasiness among middle-class thinkers.[31]

For both the bourgeoisie and the socialist left, ideologies of progress would be shattered by the outbreak of World War I, beginning a 30 year period of unprecedented death and destruction throughout Europe. During the preceding century European wars were either of brief duration or were localized in the Balkans, leading to the belief that institutions were being humanized and an end to war among “civilized peoples” was at hand. In the colonies though, violence was something that could be used “freely displayed without limits or rules.”[32] Suddenly, World War I came, the first total war of the “democratic age and the society of the masses” of “anonymous mass slaughter, industrialized massacre, bombed towns, and ravaged countrysides.”[33] This was an unprecedented upheaval and cataclysm of the mass death of soldiers for a few yards of ground, and the death of the “heroic” ideal of warfare.

According to Traverso, World War I was fought by “Taylorist armies” which combined the “principles of authority, hierarchy, and discipline and the instrumental rationality of modern industrial society and provided a foretaste of the forms of domination founded on the mobilization of the masses that were to climax under the Fascist regimes.”[34] Total warfare obliterated the “distinctions between military and civilians”[35] and revealed modernity to be a “denaturalization of violence, a violence confiscated and monopolized by anonymous, mechanical apparatus.”[36]

Not only were masses of soldiers expendable, but Traverso says the war “was accompanied by the de-humanization of the enemy, an idea that was diffused by military propaganda, the press, and scholarly literature too.”[37] This propaganda combined racist nationalist propaganda that abandoned “rational argument on the score of causes and justifications for the conflict, and instead appealed to a sense of belonging to a community under threat, calling for total, blind allegiance.”[38] The War brought the same violence visited on colonial peoples back to the heart of Europe. And it provided one of the necessary elements in the formation of fascism with

warfare’s intrusion into politics, the nationalization of the masses, the brutalization of the language and methods of conflict, the birth of a new generation of political militants shaped by their experiences at the front, the formation of violently nationalistic and racist movements led by an elite of angry plebeians convinced that arms were called for if democracy was to be replaced: all these were features of the face of the Europe that emerged from four years of war.[39]

While political theorists such as Carl Schmitt and others blame the Bolsheviks for having unleashed international civil war by “constructing the figure of the ‘absolute enemy’, on whom a war without rules or limits is declared, ending in massacre.”[40] The Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini said the First World War was not “a war between nations, we are witnessing a global civil war.”[41] The Bolsheviks did not cause the soldiers in the trenches to be pitted against their officers, whom they blamed as leading them to die en masse for kings and capitalists. Before the World War, it was accepted as an article of faith that “the countries of the West all prided themselves on belonging to an exclusive family—in fact, a race (or family of races) destined to subjugate ‘inferior races.’”[42] However, it was the Bolsheviks who “appealed to the slaves of the colonies to break their chains and wage wars of national liberation against the imperial domination of the great powers.”[43] As Losurdo reminds us, the leaders of warring powers whether Churchill or the Kaiser hailed the war as righteous and US President Woodrow Wilson declared it to be “a holy war – the holiest in all history.”[44] In contrast, “it was the Marxist tradition [of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Bukharin] that first highlighted its genocidal tendencies”[45] of modern capitalism and imperialism made all too real in the trenches of Europe.

It was their unapologetic condemnation of colonialism and the bankruptcy of imperialism that was the true crime of Bolshevism, who were “renegades from the white race.”[46] To the ruling classes of Europe, the source of this new revolutionary “plague” was a barbarism “alien to Europe and authentic civilization: he was the Jew.” It was the rootless and intellectual Jewish cabal that conspired to destroy western civilization with their “‘messianism’ and ‘hopes for the millenarian kingdom, for the redemption of evil in this world’.”[47] And in the aftermath of the war, as revolution stalked Europe, to combat the Jews was to combat communism in defense of the white race, tradition, the nation and private property.

III. Revolution
For conservative historians and theorists of totalitarianism, there is no more hated event than the Russian Revolution (and by extension the French Revolution). For Francois Furet, the Russian Revolution was a coup carried out by intellectual fanatics with the ‘insane goal’ of “social engineering.” As Losurdo says, “There has never been a revolution that its opponents have not sought to de-legitimize by downgrading it to a coup d’etat or conspiracy.”[48] The Russian Revolution is condemned because it violated the natural economic and social order, which is (not so) strangely compatible with neo-liberal capitalism.[49] For the totalitarian school, revolutions are driven by paranoia and utopian ideals that compel them to imagine enemy threats and resort to violence on a massive scale and extermination of suspected enemies. There was no positive goal to the French or Bolshevik Revolutions, just a frenzy of gratuitous violence, unconnected with social or economic forces. As Richard Pipes said, “[The Red] Terror is rooted in the Jacobin ideas of Lenin…[with the main goal as the] physical extermination of the “bourgeoisie.””[50] The only revolutions to be celebrated are “bloodless” revolutions for liberal capitalism, private property and parliamentary democracy like the American Revolution, which “never intended to bring about major changes in the colonies’ moral, social, or economic values or institutions.”[51]

This right-wing framework views all revolutionary violence as identical, seeing the “Jacobin Terror by the light of the Bolshevik Terror at the same time that they asserted that the rule of fear and blood of 1793–94 had been the dress rehearsal and portent for that of 1917–89.”[52] The same source of the violence can be detected in all revolutions – motivated by an ideological “virus” of Marx or Rousseau (devoid of any social dimension) – that can only lead to Terror and Genocide. In a sense, Marx was the direct precursor to the Gulag because human nature is unchangeable. Secondly, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany “were deemed to be fundamentally if not wholly identical: both were variants of the same totalitarianism, whose philosophic roots reached back to the Jacobin moment.”[53] Once the basic identity between the two has been established, then it is a short step to concluding that Hitler took lessons from Bolshevism and for the “rehabilitation and justification of the anti-Communist warrant of Fascism and National Socialism…”[54] The end result of this gambit is to view all revolutions as misguided ventures at best, but more generally, murderous totalitarian experiments that could only fail in the end.

Mayer argues, to the contrary, that revolutionary violence cannot be divorced from its social and political context. But instead, “it is a violent, fundamental, and abrupt change of incumbent elites, status and class relations, institutions, values, symbols and myths.”[55] A revolution is where one class replaces another – there is a fundamental shift in the nature of power and the installation of a new order. The beginning of a revolutionary regime is a rupture that gives “revolutionary leaders with the opportunity to articulate an unsteady synthesis of millenarian, eschatological, and Manichaean precepts.”[56] Suddenly, women are liberated, persecuted groups are given rights, artistic and cultural avante gardes are given free expression. A day of reckoning is at hand with the exploiters and a new world is in birth.

A revolution is not simply a coup, revolt or a rebellion. Revolts are driven to “preserve or reclaim established rights and institutions rather than radically recast or overturn them.”[57] And while both revolts and revolutions both move against the ruling elite, rebels have “a limited horizon, is ill-organized and is short-lived, its leaders being unwilling to or unable to merge or coordinate their objectives or operations.”[58] Yet the most fundamental difference between a revolt and a revolution is that the former is “endemic and territorial, revolutions are epidemic and cosmic. Indeed, ‘any genuine revolution is a world revolution,’ its principles being ‘universal.'”[59] It is no accident that the Bolsheviks saw their revolution, not only as the Russian Revolution, but also as the prelude to the world communist revolution that would continue into Germany and elsewhere. For Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian Revolution was for European workers, colonial slaves, and persecuted Jews. The Bolshevik Revolution would bring the downfall of all exploitation and oppression.

Yet revolutions, whether in Russia or France, face intense disorder and breakdown at the moment of their foundations and can not survive without “resorting to swift, extraordinary, and, if need be, cruel violence.”[60] This new sovereign power ultimately relies upon the sword to defend itself from the forces of the old order that desire its overthrow.

And terror is a part of the foundational violence of all true revolutionary regimes – by wiping out the enemy within, especially those tied to the old regime. As Mayer observed, “not to do so is to sign the death warrant of a nascent political foundation. Besides, the primal terror leaves a residue of latent fear which is an essential principle and instrument of everyday rule.”[61] The Bolsheviks, upon their ascension to power, faced a country on the verge of economic and social breakdown, peasant revolts, the invasion of 14 foreign armies, and monarchist White Armies. The Red Terror was the expression of an emergency government fighting for its life in a war against an enemy who had proven that they would show no mercy if victorious. And if there be any doubt, the Bolsheviks could remember the fate of the Paris Commune of 1871, the Spartacist Revolt and Hungarian Soviet of 1919 and the Finnish Reds. Terror is not so much used on ideological grounds, but “its success is measured by criteria of political efficiency, informed by virtue, and not by ideological standards.”[62]

Violence is not primarily the result of revolutionary “fanaticism,” rather, “The struggle between the ideas and forces of revolution and counterrevolution was a prime mover of the spiraling violence inherent to the French and Russian revolutions.”[63] Historians like Furet or Pipes forget that the Tsar, capitalists and landlords did not go quietly into that good night, but took up arms, waged a White Terror, and conducted pogroms against the Jews, whom they considered carriers of the revolutionary “plague.” If the defenders of the old regime refused to bow to the revolution peacefully, then they would be made to yield by force. As Mayer says: “there is no revolution without violence and terror; without civil and foreign war; without iconoclasm and religious conflict; and without collision between city and country.”[64]

Yet the clash between revolution and counterrevolution releases centrifugal forces of its own as old hatreds, feuds and religious conflict polarize, which are further exacerbated by civil war and foreign intervention. And this violence was extraordinarily fierce and merciless. The Furies of revolution are “fueled primarily by the inevitable and unexceptional resistance of the forces and ideas opposed to it, at home and abroad.”[65] The Furies of revolution can take on a life of their own as violence takes on a life of its own, as manifested by terror or purges of the class enemy. In the case of the French Revolution, its Furies found expression in the Jacobin Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, while the Russian Revolution, isolated by 1921, but faced foreign military threats, and saw domestic fratricidal violence during the Great Terror of the 1930s.

However, the Bolshevik revolution gave birth to a new revolutionary politics in the shape of the vanguard party capable of intervening between subjective and objective factors. It was the party’s task to organize and lead the masses, to take advantage of a revolutionary situation, and to focus on the conquest of power. And it was this strategy that was able to succeed in Russia in 1917 and make communism into a world historical force that terrified the old order of Europe and the emergent fascist counter-revolution.

IV. Counter-revolution
The end of World War I and the radical wave that shook Europe from 1918-23 appeared to confirm Bolshevik hopes that their revolution was the beginning of a world revolution. While the Bolsheviks inspired revolutionary movements in Germany, Spain, Hungary, Italy, the Baltic States and Bulgaria, nowhere was the Russian example repeated. The working class movement remained dominated by reformist social democracy, which settled for the creation of constitutional republics and pre-emptive reforms that maintained the bourgeois order. Nowhere did social democracy take advantage of the revolutionary openings that revealed themselves in the aftermath of World War I. In Austria, social democracy refused to risk a seizure of power, maintaining a defensive posture that ultimately led to their defeat in 1934 following a short-lived civil war; abdicating leadership of a working class movement in Italy in 1919-20; and, most notoriously, in Germany the SPD used the army and right-wing death squads to murder the revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and put down the workers’ councils. The defeat of leftist insurgencies brought forth repression and White Terror.

For reactionaries, conservatives, and the ruling classes, it was now clear that the Bolshevik “contagion” was not an isolated event. For the elites of war-torn Europe, there was division over how to deal with social, political and cultural changes that had been aggravated by war and upheaval. According to Mayer, “sober-minded conservatives favored gradual reform as the best antidote to social unrest. Reactionaries, many of whom craved a return to a mythical and romanticized past, advocated standing firm and had fewer scruples about using repressive violence.”[66] Although local elites remained wary of mass politics, they entered into alliances (not without friction) with the emergent fascist movements with their visions of national renewal, dictatorship and their love for regenerative violence. As Mayer notes, counter-revolution “remains lame and ineffectual unless it connects with the anti-revolution, which is a matter of the masses. Evidently counter-revolution, not unlike revolution, can be made only with the masses, which is not to say that either the one or the other is made for them.”[67]

As part of the counter-revolutionary crusade, the right resurrected anti-Semitism. However, this anti-Semitism grafted on political and racial traits to long-standing Christian Europe’s Jewish hatred, seeing Jews as a carrier for communism. As Traverso puts it, political anti-Semitism was not limited to the fascist right, but was a vision shared by conservatives and liberals:

The vision of Bolshevism as a kind of virus, a contagious disease the bacilli of which were the revolutionary Jews of central and eastern Europe, who were rootless and cosmopolitan and lurked unseen in the anonymous metropolis of the modern industrialized world, hostile to the very idea of nation and traditional order, was extremely common in conservative culture. The specter of ‘Jewish Bolshevism ‘ haunted the nightmares of the ruling elites, liberal and nationalist alike, confronted by the revolutionary uprisings of 1917-21.[68]

In Russia, Germany and Hungary, the counter-revolutionary movement fostered the specter of anti-Semitism. In the case of Russia, half of the world’s Jews lived within the Pale of Settlement—their rights severely restricted and subject to pogroms encouraged by the Imperial Court. All the major revolutionary parties condemned Tsarist Autocracy’s virulent anti-Semitism. It was only natural that Jews would align with the revolutionaries and join the struggle against the Tsar. Jewish participation can be gauged in the disproportionate number of arrests they suffered: “29.1 percent of those arrested for political crimes between 1901 and 1903 were Jews (2,269 individuals), and in 1905 Jews accounted for 53 percent of the total political arrests.”[69] However, what distinguished the Jews in revolutionary movements was not their numbers, but their prominence. At the beginning of 1917, the Jewish Bund (a moderate socialist party) counted 33,000 members, while the Bolsheviks with 23,000 members had only 1,000 Jews (or less than 5 percent). However, Jews were over-represented on the Bolshevik central committee such as Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Iakov Sverdlov, and Leon Trotsky. By 1918-1920, the number of Jews on the central committee (the standing administrative body of the Bolshevik Party) was roughly 20 percent.[70]

Large numbers of Jews did not join the Bolsheviks until after the outbreak of the Civil War. Whatever else separated the White Armies of Wrangel, Denikin, Yudenich, and Kolchak, they were united in their vision of restoring “Russia Great, United, and Indivisible” and saw the Jews as the cause of Bolshevism who needed to be brought to heel. To this end, the Whites ordered or encouraged mass pogroms against the Jews which numbered between 60,000 and 150,000.[71] In contrast, the Soviet Republic emancipated Jews. Although anti-Semitic acts were committed by the Red Army, these were not official policy and condemned at the highest levels of government.[72] By the Soviet Republic emancipated Jews and despite anti-Semitic acts committed by the Red Army, these were not official policy and condemned by the highest levels of government.[73] As a recent study of Lenin remarks:

the Bolsheviks had the courage to take up the fight on theoretical, political and military levels against the racist, anti-Semitic tide that later steeped the twentieth century in blood, which was a historical achievement on their part. One of the quoted historians must be right when he says that the pogroms were in one sense a forerunner of the Holocaust, because the Whites physically exterminated Jews en masse, without thought for age, sex or social status. In another sense, Lenin was perhaps the first to realize the significance of the link between anti-Semitism and anti-Communism in the ideology of the Whites and the terrorist practices of the civil war.[74]

The White Generals, and counter-revolutionaries across Europe, were seeped in the conspiratorial mindset of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Tsarist forgery that blamed the Jews as the hidden hand behind the revolutionary movement. The conspiracy has the goal of seizing control of the state and society for its own nefarious ends. The Jews proved to be a convenient scapegoat since they represented a vulnerable minority “endowed with a historically well-established mythos and persona suitable for rigid stereotypical representation and projection.”[75] The conspiracy has the goal of seizing control of the state and society for their own nefarious ends. The Jews proved to be a convenient scapegoat since they were a vulnerable minority which was “endowed with a historically well-established mythos and persona suitable for rigid stereotypical representation and projection.”[76]

However, the White counter-revolution was defeated in Russia, but their anticommunism and anti-Semitic politics took root abroad. As Mayer says,

It developed and came of age throughout Europe in the form of Fascism. Not that anti-communism was the ultimate source and reason of fascism, but it most certainly was a necessary determinant and bold watchword of every variety of fascism, including national socialism, its most extreme and paradigmatic form.[77]

Although anti-Semitism was central to the Nazi world-view, “it was neither its foundation nor its principal or sole intention.”[78] Nazi Jewish hatred was mixed with social Darwinism, colonial expansionism, and anti-communism that formed a distinct and novel political practice.

Anti-Semitism not only wedded easily to anti-communism, but also with traditional elitist disdain for the working and “dangerous classes” who were racialized. For the counter-revolution, the working class was not a legitimate opponent, but an alien element who needed to be repressed as a matter of public hygiene to restore order. This view of race and the war of extermination that informed the fascist and, especially the Nazi, counter-revolution was not the product of “totalitarian” communism or Marxism, but as Losurdo observed, “go back, directly or indirectly, to the colonial tradition.”[79] “Judeo-Bolshevism” in its advocacy of universal equality and causing class conflict that undermined the national community was a movement of sub-humans that would destroy civilization. According to Traverso, the Nazi leadership saw “the Russian Revolution as a ‘revolution of Untermenschen,’ a gigantic uprising aimed against Western civilization.”[80]

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, politics in Europe was militarized and polarized as “the methods, and practices of trench warfare were transferred into civil society, brutalizing its language and forms of struggle.”[81] Just as the Bolsheviks had revolutionized socialism to make it a potent and active force of struggle, fascism had revolutionized the counter-revolution in opposition. Yet the two forces were diametrically opposed. As Mayer observed,

Counter-revolutions, whatever their variety, are less historically creative than revolutions. The ideologies of counter-revolutionary movements and regimes are solidly anchored in venerated principles, values, attitudes, and habits, both secular and religious, of established societies; their social carriers come from strata that have already climbed beyond the first rungs of the social, professional, and income ladder; their programs call for the purification rather than the transformation or overthrow of existing institutions; and their political allies are recruited from incumbent power and ruling elites.[82]

The goal of the Nazi and fascist ‘revolutions’ was not to overthrow capitalism or to turn back the clock. Rather, the goal was to seize political power in order to realize a totalizing vision of ethnic or national rebirth. Fascism would avoid the problems of modernization that had brought about “the spread of rationalism, liberalism, secularization, individualism and capitalism.”[83] This modernization had dislocated traditional values and threatened the national fabric. By contrast, the fascist state would act as a garden state which, using modern means, would “cultivate and breed healthy varieties of human beings.”[84] The fascist state thus not only sought to create a nation of healthy human beings, but to purge society of ‘weeds.’ These new human beings would be pure and loyal community devoted to serving the Volk and the Nation in its pursuit of greatness and conquest.

Both communists on the left and fascists on the right were locked in armed struggle with each other and the liberal and parliamentary order. Despite their shared opposition to the bourgeois order, their values were utterly opposed—communists desired the end of private property and international revolution while fascists sought national rebirth and imperial domination. As Traverso stated:

Revolution and counter-revolution, Communism and Fascism, confronted one another in mortal struggle, but sharing an awareness of belonging to an armed century, a century of war that has put an end to the age of peace, liberalism, parliamentarism, progress. Both conceived politics as an armed conflict and the state as an instrument of war; liberal democracy seemed to them a memory of a bygone age… The Bolshevik critique of social democracy and the fascist critique of liberalism shared the same awareness of an irreversible caesura with the past. Their values radically opposed, but both believed in a new society engendered by war and revolution.[85]

During the 1920s and 30s, fascists and like-minded reactionaries came to power across Europe—notably in Italy, Germany and Spain. Despite the promises of fascist “revolution,” their rise to power came with the active collaboration from sectors of the ruling class in government, military, industry or large landowners. In Germany, the ruling power bloc had lost popular support and legitimacy, and needed to restore profitability and labor discipline. It took the rise of the Nazis to reconstitute a new power bloc, which provided a popular base and crushed the labor movement and the far left. The German economy was geared toward war as military spending jumped from 2% of national income in 1932 to 32% in 1938. While Hitler sought revenge against France and Britain for the Versailles Treaty, his main enemy remained “Judeo-Bolshevism” in the Soviet Union.[86]

V. Midnight in the Century
a. Nazi Germany[87]

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they banned the communists and socialists. Paxton writes: “Soon, demoralized by the defeat of their unions and parties, workers were atomized, deprived of their usual places of sociability, and afraid to confide in anyone.”[88] The Nazis created their own state-controlled union, which legally subordinated the working classes to the class interests of the reconstituted bourgeois regime. Instead of nationalizing the means of production on behalf of workers, Hitler delivered millions of slave-laborers into the hands of the bourgeoisie.[89] And in order to keep the proletariat under the jackboot, the Nazis had to remake the state: “Over time the Nazi prerogative state steadily encroached upon the normative state and contaminated its work, so that even within it the perception of national emergency allowed the regime to override individual rights and due process.”[90]

With the rise of the Nazis to power, democratic liberties were abolished, and the left and the organized working class was crushed, atomized and imprisoned. So what did National “Socialism” in power mean for the workers? For the working class, real wages dropped under Nazism and profits for the ruling class sharply rose. Despite the drop in unemployment from 6 to 2 million from 1933 to 1935[91], according to Ernest Mandel:

Before the Second World War, therefore the real wages of the German worker under National Socialism had already fallen by more than 10% as compared with the pre-crisis period, despite the considerable increase in production (in 1938 it was 25% above the 1929 level) and the rise in the average productivity of labor (in 1938 it was approximately 10% higher than in 1929) achieved under Nazi rule. It is little wonder that under such conditions the mass of profits shot upwards: from RM 15.4 million in 1929 and RM 8 billion in 1932 to RM 20 billion in 1938 (these figures refer to all forms of profit, including commercial and bank profits and undistributed company profits).[92]

To achieve the restoration of German capitalism the masses of workers had to be pacified, which required a vast secret police apparatus and the extermination of anyone considered a threat to the new “national harmony.” At the same time, the state engaged in financing public works, such as railway and autobahn construction. While certain branches of industry and banking were wary of exchange, fiscal, tariff, and price controls the Nazis employed, “it was understood that business would readily accept state regulation in exchange for the economic and social benefits of rearmament.”[93]

While the Weimar Republic had been a state of factions that had split the forces of the Volk and left it open to doom. Nazism would end all that by bring the Volk together. Nazism would rejuvenate the Volk by casting off those viewed as a danger. And that danger was seen as “International Jewry.” Throughout the 1930s, there was a steady escalation of measures against the Jews, both “legal” (ex. the 1935 Nuremberg Laws) and extra-legal (ex. Kristallnacht).

b. Soviet Union[94]

The defeat of the European revolution had left the Soviet Republic isolated and the effects of the Civil War had left the country in ruins. None of these events had gone as Lenin and the Bolsheviks had foreseen or hoped. Not only had revolutionary outbreaks been defeated or contained everywhere outside of Russia, but by the 1920s, the USSR was a ruined and devastated country with a declassed working class, a hostile peasantry, and a merged party and state that were increasingly separated from the masses. International revolution was on the immediate agenda and Russia had to deal with prolonged isolation. The great powers fostered a containment policy to halt any further spread of the “Bolshevik contagion.” A combination of the Entente policy of “cordon sanitaire” – supporting the newly-independent Eastern European countries as buffer states against the further spread of communism – and the effects of the civil war “fostered a defiant siege mentality, and justified continuing emergency rule.”[95]

According to Isaac Deutscher, as the power of the soviets broke down, the Bolshevik Party had the “usurper’s role thrust upon it,” but he asks

What could or should the party have done under these circumstances? Should it have thrown up its hands and surrendered power? A revolutionary government which has waged a cruel and devastating civil war does not abdicate on the day after its victory and does not surrender to its defeated enemies and to their revenge even if it discovers that it cannot rule in accordance with its own ideas and that it no longer enjoys the support it commanded when it entered the civil war.[96]

Indeed, the Bolsheviks had “substituted” themselves for the proletariat because it no longer existed as a cohesive social force.

Following the victorious conclusion of the civil war and the Kronstadt naval revolt, the Bolsheviks changed course and implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP was instituted in order to provide breathing space for the Bolsheviks and to restore production. The NEP relaxed state control over the economy – allowing for the creation of small businesses and private trade, ended requisitions and permitted the development of a money economy. By 1927, the NEP had restored Soviet industry and agriculture to its pre-war levels, but it also led to the growth of the class of rich peasants and the private traders known as the NEP-men.

While the soviets had lost their influence and the social base for the Bolsheviks had disappeared, the most politically conscious and courageous workers had entered the party, government and the army. Yet according to Isaac Deutscher, they “did not in fact belong to the working class any longer. With the passage of time many of them became estranged from the workers and assimilated with the bureaucratic environment.”[97] At the same time, the Bolshevik Party expanded enormously. From 23,000 members in 1917, it had grown to 700,000 in 1922, but it now was filled not just with dedicated revolutionary militants, but also Tsarist bureaucrats since it fell to the Party to run the government, industry, and the army. In order to administer the Soviet state and economy, the party needed expand to its apparatus. Thus, “in the month of August 1922, there was a count of 15,325 full-time officials of the party, 5,000 of whom were employed at the level of districts or factories.”[98] Many communists, Lenin among them, soon realized that alien elements had entered the Bolshevik Party and that many communists were becoming infected with bureaucratism, careerism, and national chauvinism.[99]

While Trotsky appealed to internationalism, his call did not fall on receptive ears, since Deutscher says, for “many rank and file Bolsheviks world revolution had become a lamentable myth by 1924, while the building of socialism in Russia was the exacting and exhilarating experience of their generation.”[100] Feelings of Russian nationalism, dormant since the revolution began to revive in society. The party fanned the nationalist flames, including reliance on anti-Semitic slurs, against Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Deutscher says of this episode:

Official agitators ceased to distinguish between Trotskyists and Zinovievists, incited the rank and file against both, and hinted darkly that it was no matter of chance that the leaders of both were Jews-this was, they Suggested, a struggle between native and genuine Russian socialism and aliens who sought to pervert it….The distrust of the ‘alien’ was, after all, only a reflex of that Russian self-centeredness, of which socialism in one country was the ideological abstract….Jews were, in fact, conspicuous among the Opposition although they were there together with the flower of the non-Jewish intelligentsia and workers. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev; Sokolnikov, Radek, were all Jews… The Bolsheviks of Jewish origin were least of all inclined to idealize rural Russia in her primitivism and barbarity and to drag along at a ‘snail’s pace’ the native peasant cart. They were in a sense the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ on whom Stalin was to turn his wrath openly in his old age. Not for them was the ideal of socialism in a single country.[101]

Despite all the verbal tributes to Leninist internationalism, Stalin became the chief mouthpiece of this new nationalist sentiment. “He elevated the sacred egoism of the Russian revolution to a supreme principle — this was the real meaning of his idea of ‘socialism in one country.’”[102] The adoption of building “socialism in one country” was dictated by the sheer backwardness of the USSR compared to the great powers, by developing a modern industrial socialist society, not only to withstand the dangers of capitalist encirclement, but delivering the people from backwardness by creating a higher standard of living and a radiant future which would allow Russia to serve as a beacon to humanity. The policy would also provide the ideological counterpart to the Party’s authority.[103]

As Deutscher explains:

Socialism in one country also stirred the people’s national pride, while Trotsky’s pleas for internationalism suggested to the simple-minded that he held that Russia could not rely on herself and so he maintained that her salvation would ultimately have to come from a revolutionized West. This could not but hurt the self-confidence of a people that had achieved the greatest of revolutions-a self-confidence which, despite all the miseries of daily life, was real enough even though it was curiously blended with political apathy.[104]

The forced campaign of Soviet industrialization and collectivization was thus part of the need to not only institute a new social system, but also to defend it, even in the absence of world revolution. Due to the fear of war and foreign intervention, democratic freedoms and many of the basic needs of the Soviet people (ex. consumer goods) were subjected to the greater need of self-defense and heavy industry (needed to fuel the militarization of the Soviet state against outside influence and internal dissent). The cordon sanitaire also fostered a conspiratorial mindset that saw plots, wrecking, and spies everywhere – which culminated in the mass purges of the 1930s. An unfortunate outcome of this outlook was that the USSR often placed their own national interests above those of the world revolution and many foreign communists found themselves embracing “sacred egoism” of the USSR by subordinating their own revolutionary activities to the conservative dictates of Soviet foreign policy.

One of the cornerstones of the Five Year Plan was the collectivization of agriculture and securing a reliable base for agriculture. From a country composed overwhelmingly of small peasant farms in the mid-1920s, by 1936 at least 90 percent of the peasantry lived on collective farms and 94 percent of crops were cultivated there, a shift achieved through a combination of government persuasion, tax incentives, and force. However, many peasants lacked experience with livestock, which when combined with poor planning, bad weather, and a lack of modern farm equipment, ultimately meant that socialized agriculture did not show its superiority over individual production for many years. Furthermore, many peasants, particularly the rich kulaks resisted collectivization and grain procurement by slaughtering their livestock and refusing to farm. In 1932-3, a combination of mismanagement by the government, overzealous party activists, kulak resistance, and poor weather had brought about a famine that disrupted the food supply and cost at least three to four million lives.[105]

According to Losurdo, the violence of the collectivization campaign is not an example of “class genocide,” but rather was a “civil war ruthlessly waged on both sides.”[106] The Soviet countryside responded to Stalin’s “revolution from above” by rekindling the atmosphere of the Russian Civil War, which was not only reflected in splits at the highest levels of government, but also “took the form of a ‘nationalist’ and ‘separatist movement’ intersecting with ‘banditry with a political substratum’.[107] While the violence of collectivization was horrible, the methods of “primitive socialist accumulation” bore resemblance to those of the “original accumulation of capitalism” in Europe.

Yet Losurdo remarks that even at its height, the violence of collectivization was not a genocide, but

what comes to mind in some ways is colonial warfare. Given that the revolution from above invested a countryside inhabited by national minorities, the moral de-specification characteristic of revolutionary ideology could sometimes intersect with forms of naturalistic de-specification.[108]

The violence was also accompanied by “initiatives that tended in different, contrasting directions” such as soldiers helping with agricultural work, policies encouraging the free expression of the Ukrainian language, culture and customs.[109] Thus, the Soviet policies in the Ukraine can not be compared “with Hitler’s explicit pronouncements on the need to rear a caste of slaves in the colonies, reducing their education to a minimum…”[110] Losurdo concludes by stating that Soviet of collectivization campaign led to “pitiless repression” which “objectively struck ‘backward’ and ‘barbaric’ populations in the first instance facilitated transition from moral de-specification to the naturalistic variety on occasion.”[111] However, this ideology of total war derived not from the logic of revolutionary ideology, but “In reality, as well as from the exigencies of total war and ideological fanaticism, the ferocity of the repression also derived from the pre-revolutionary colonial tradition.”[112] While the Nazis saw the Jews as a virus to be eliminated or stripped of their identity, this was not the case with the Soviet government’s treatment of the Ukrainians who’s “de-specification” was mixed in with campaigns against the kulaks which “[were] queried and retracted in a notable number of cases.”[113]

While Losurdo says intense violence of Stalin’s Russia during collectivization was not compatible with those of fascism or the bourgeois democracies, this does not mean that it was a socialist measure. By 1929, the bureaucracy had already expropriated the proletariat elements in Soviet society. Collectivization under Stalin formed the content of the bureaucratic counter-revolution, with so-called ultra-left turn masking fundamentally right-ward tendency of voluntarism of “socialism in one country” of trying to overcome international and material limits by sheer will. In 1932, Trotsky argued for a retreat from forced collectivization:

The economic foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat can be considered fully assured only from that moment when the state is not forced to resort to administrative measures of compulsion against the majority of the peasantry in order to obtain agricultural products; that is, when in return for machines, tools, and objects for personal use, the peasants voluntarily supply the state with the necessary quantity of grain and raw material. Only on this basis – along with other necessary conditions, nationally and internationally – can collectivization acquire a true socialist character.[114]

Industrialization and collectivization needed to be accompanied with the general improvement of the well-being of the workers and peasants. Trotsky argued that socialist construction in the countryside would take a prolonged period, which would finally be solved by an international revolution, and not by bureaucratic fiat.

Losurdo says that the collectivization campaign did not involve the biological liquidation of the kulaks similar to colonial conquests, but it did involve the racialization of the enemy among the peasantry – who in many cases were exterminated, not simply re-educated. In this sense, Stalin’s collectivization did resemble colonialism (with forms of slave labor that did more to accumulate capital in the long run than to liberate people from toil), which brings Stalin closer to the same kinds of counter-revolution Losurdo is so keen on rendering distinct from Stalinism.

The political trials that took place in the late 20s and early 30s, despite their groundless nature of conspiracies and wreckers linked to foreign powers, took place during “revolution from above” as tensions were growing acute. The Great Terror of the late 1930s was the culmination of the violence and terror that began with civil war. In explaining the terror, Mayer observes that “Stalin was, in the first place, concerned with maintaining and reinforcing the regime’s whip hand over the elite…. the great trials struck at the top, not the bottom, of the pyramid.”[115] Stalin and the Soviet leadership saw any potential opposition as an existential threat “because they presumed it to be bound up with escalating international perils. No doubt Stalin conflated the threat to his personal leadership with the threat to the Soviet regime and Russian state.”[116] Mayer states that the Great Terror was not an example of a planned extermination campaign or an omnipotent dictatorship, but

was at once cause and effect of a polity and society with multiple and severe strains between rival governing factions, between Thermidoreans and true believers, and between an overstrained center and refractory periphery. The resulting distempers were magnified by the deficiencies of the party-state’s administrative structures and cadres: far and wide the ouster or withdrawal of the old elites had left a vacuum inviting bureaucratic conceit and arbitrariness by unfitted officials of untried local security agencies and judicial organs. To the extent that the Great Terror was the ultimate ratio of an unbending but insecure regime, its “implementation was chaotic, uncontrolled, and manipulated by nearly all the[party-state’s] dignitaries.” In sum, the Stalinshchina was anything but a logical system with a coherent purpose: it unfolded and raged in an “atmosphere of panic… reminiscent of the European witch hunts, lynchings in the American South, or McCarthyism.[117]

The USSR, by building “socialism in one country,” did develop modern industry, a planned economy and collectivize agriculture (all at great cost), but the regime grew more conservative as time passed – rolling back gains in culture, women’s liberation and promoting Russian nationalism. Soviet socialism grew more focused on developing the productive forces, with more and bigger factories and larger steel outputs, as opposed to uprooting age old oppressions. However, the USSR was itself succumbing to its own version of the ideology of progress as they developed a centralized planned economy with its nearly singular focus on building the productive forces (as part of the march of history). Furthermore, the leadership of the party and state became divorced from the masses and bureaucratized. According to Soviet Marxism-Leninism, by the mid-1930s, there were no antagonistic contradictions under socialism, but any dissension was caused by enemy agents who needed to be eliminated.

c. Engagement[118]

However, the internal violence of the Soviet Union could not be separated from international politics. According to Mayer, the different policies adopted by the USSR “its hardening or relaxation—would depend in no small measure on external relations, notably on its ability to relax or end the quarantine in favor of peaceful coexistence.”[119] The fatal relationship between the USSR and Nazi Germany extended outward and affected the foreign and domestic politics in most European states. And unless this interaction is understood, “there is no explaining the twisted diplomacy of appeasement, the cunning Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the unholy Grand Alliance.”[120]

The defeat of German Communism, then the strongest party outside of the USSR, at the hands of the Nazis in 1933 (compounded by their own mistakes and strategy) necessitated a change in strategy for the Communist International from “denouncing social democrats for being social fascists to summoning them to a united or popular front against fascism.”[121] While the mistakes of the Comintern have been (rightfully) criticized, Mayer states, “they realized their error and changed course much more rapidly than others.”[122] Despite the change in course, the Comintern never really shed their belief that “fascism was no more than a pliable instrument in the hands of the capitalist class, and that its ineffectiveness would become apparent in no time.”[123] However, communists were not the only group to misunderstand fascism or who pursued failed strategies. The same could be said of conservatives, reactionaries, liberals and social democrats. As Losurdo notes, the Comintern’s embrace of the popular front “reduced activity for African emancipation to a farce.”[124] Anti-colonial leaders such as George Padmore criticized Stalin not “as Hitler’s twin brother, but because he refused to recognize in the latter the twin brother of the leaders of British and French imperialism.”[125] The Comintern’s downgrading of the anti-colonial struggle against “democratic imperialism” became something difficult to fathom for millions living under its yoke since the USSR believed “the Third Reich took the lead of the colonial (and enslaving) counter-revolution.”[126]

Ultimately, the communist change of course did not help them to form popular fronts (which included not only socialists, but also the “liberal” and “anti-fascist” bourgeoisie) or convince Britain and France to join them in a collective security pact against the fascist powers. The clearest example of the failure of the turn in Soviet and Comintern policy was displayed during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Popular Front, elected in February 1936, during a period of rising social tensions between the far left and the far right, faced a military coup in July led by Francisco Franco – aided overtly by Hitler and Mussolini and tacitly by the bourgeois democracies.

However, the initial plan of the Nationalists to seize control of Spain failed and they held less than half of the country and were faced by an armed populace eager to make a revolution. Instead, the military coup provided the catalyst for the very revolution it hoped to prevent. It was the armed workers who secured Madrid, Barcelona and other vital regions for the Republic.[127] Nationalist territory was split into two halves, separated by hundreds of miles. The Army of Africa, the best troops in Spain were stationed in Morocco with no way to reach the mainland (the bulk of the navy remained loyal).[128] If the Army of Africa was unable to reach the mainland, the bulk of Nationalist forces would be isolated.

It was the German airlift (mostly Junker 52s) and naval assistance (these ships were vastly superior to antiquated Republican vessels) that allowed for Franco to move his elite troops and weapons to the mainland.[129] Once the Army of Africa crossed over to the mainland, they were able to make mincemeat of Republican forces (thanks also to foreign aid).[130]

What the Republic needed to defeat the rising, once the Nationalists had landed the Army of Africa on the mainland, was arms. The Nationalists had the bulk of the military on their side and some of the best units (Army of Africa) along with significant foreign aid.[131] The Republic needed aid from the outside for their army, but it was not forthcoming. Great Britain and France (by in large) did not provide weapons to the Republic. The French closed their border (except for a few brief instances) to weapons that had been purchased by the Republic. It was only the Soviet Union[132] (and Mexico to a lesser extent) who provided arms to the Republic, although they often had trouble arriving in Spain.[133] Britain and France did not just deny the Republic arms, they also colluded with the Nationalists in securing safety for German/Italian supplies and stopping Republican arms shipments.[134] Britain and France were also involved in the Non-Intervention Committee, that was supposed to keep foreign weapons from reaching Spain. However, in patrolling the Spanish coast, the German and Italian navies also participated (the two biggest violators of non-intervention).[135]

The Spanish Civil War had now become an International War between irreconcilable ideologies. For the Nazis, the Spanish Civil War was “confirmation of their recent forewarnings about the boundless Bolshevik threat.”[136] The Soviets also recognized that they had a stake in Spain and beginning in October 1936, the USSR began sending tanks, planes, weapons, ammunition, advisers, and – through the Comintern – tens of thousands of volunteers from more than 50 countries. Soviet advisers, diplomats and Comintern representatives had to navigate the Republican political landscape and deal with a fractured society, along with being caught up with the mania of the purges then taking hold in Russia (and that they carried over into Spain when dealing with the POUM).[137] Despite this, they were able to play a major role, along with the newly reorganizing Republican army, at the crucial battle of Madrid.

In the end, only the Soviet Union aided the Republic with weapons for the duration of the war, but their supply did not match that of the Nationalists. As Stanley Payne says, “there is no doubt that Italo-German aid to Franco greatly exceeded in quality and effect, and also somewhat in sheer quantity and effect, the assistance from the Soviet Union and elsewhere for the Popular Front regime. The number of German military personnel in Spain was evidently at least twice as great as that of Soviet personnel, and the 70,000 Italian troops in Spain at the high point…in the late winter and spring of 1937 exceeded the total number of volunteers in the International Brigades.”[138] The Germans and Italians were aided in their efforts not only by shorter supply lines, but also by the willing collusion of Britain and France. The USSR was hampered not only by a much longer supply route, where they were likely to be attacked, and that their overall strategy (and that of the PCE) of reaching rapprochement with the western powers was doomed to fail.

The Spanish Communist Party (PCE), in line with Soviet policy, believed that without a centralized army, an economy geared for war, and the support of both the USSR and the west that the Republic was likely to fall. And the goals of the PCE, along with their means appealed to many disparate social and political forces in the Republic. At times, the PCE was willing to engage in fratricidal violence with forces to their left in order to enforce their vision. And the battles around Madrid showed the fighting capability of the Republic. Even the late offensive at the Ebro showed that with adequate supply that the Republic could still resist. And in order to accomplish their goals, the PCE was willing to roll back the revolution not only order to secure foreign aid but to help restore a working government that could organize the defense.

However, the PCE and the USSR made a fatal calculation in courting western aid by rolling back the revolution. The Western powers did not want even a reformist Spanish Republic to win, but saw their class interests more closely reflected in the Nationalists who were staunch defenders of capitalism. This was reflected not only in the two-faced neutrality policy of the Non-Intervention Committee which the bourgeois democracies used to deny aid to all sides in Spain. This starved the Republic of arms, but the German and Italians violated the embargo anyway.[139] And the USSR also hoped that if the PCE and the Republic pushed a moderate course, that this would convince Britain and France to join them in a collective security pact against the fascist powers. And this was also a miscalculation since the Western powers were colluding with the Nazis and arguing for them to go East. As Bolloten argues,

although British historians have on the whole avoided coming to grips with the thesis that Britain’s aim was to turn Nazi aggression eastward, where the two totalitarian powers would exhaust themselves – a thesis which, in view of the fear of communism, has at least the merit of logicality – and have stressed other reasons for the policy of appeasement, evidence is overwhelming, despite the supervised release and even the disappearance of official documents from the records, that there were powerful currents in high level political and social circles that hoped that Germany would serve as a counterweight to Russia against the spread of communism.[140]

Despite the USSR and the Comintern yielding to realpolitik, the possibilities for an anti-fascist alliance faded, as evidenced during the Spanish Civil War and Munich. Britain and France were more concerned with the threat of the Soviet Union than the threat of Nazi Germany. Stalin sought to prevent war in the east, signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. Suddenly, representatives of the great historical rivals – USSR and Germany were shaking hands and seemingly burying the ideological hatchet. As Losurdo states, however distasteful the Non-Aggression Pact, when compared to the Western powers, “the Soviet Union strives not as the first but as the last for an agreement with the Third Reich.”[141]

Although, both the Soviet Union and Comintern were willing to sacrifice principles for pragmatism, had a record of their own crimes and blunders, for millions across Europe, they represented an alternative to moribund capitalism and the real threat of fascism. As Traverso observed, for intellectuals in the militarized atmosphere of 1930s Europe, there was “a deep metamorphosis in the world of culture: the transition from intellectual to fighter.”[142] For liberals who were aghast at the anti-fascist apologists for the USSR, they forget that “no mass mobilization against the Nazi menace would have occurred under the leadership of the old liberal elites.”[143] Instead, liberals were all too willing to collude with fascism as a bulwark of order and property. By contrast, the struggle against fascism

needed a hope, a message of universal emancipation, which it seemed at this time could only be offered by the country of the October Revolution. If a totalitarian dictatorship like that of Stalin became the embodiment of these values in the eyes of millions of men and women, this is precisely because its origins and its nature were completely different from those of fascism.[144]

d. Totalitarianism

The totalitarian school stresses the similarities between the USSR and Nazi Germany in their desire for total control and how both subordinated the law to ‘higher’ imperatives of race or class.”[145] However, theories of totalitarianism obscure a fundamental difference between the two regimes and obfuscate the history of the twentieth century. For fascists, their “anticapitalist and antibourgeois animus,” (enshrined in their party programs) remained a dead letter. Always and everywhere, the main targets of fascist violence were socialists and communists. And as we have seen, the installation of fascism in power meant breaking unions, lower wages, and the expansion of the military. All of these objectives were celebrated by the industries that had no problem collaborating with fascism—they welcomed it into power and they profited from it. And it is no accident that capitalists and conservatives across Europe saw Mussolini and Hitler as saviors of private property from “Bolshevism.” And in every occupied country during WWII, it was conservatives and capitalists who were the first to collaborate with fascism, while socialists and communists were the first to resist.

Despite fascist aping in both style and program, those of their communist enemies, the “revolutionary content of fascism was a “pseudo-doctrine.” Fascism, unlike communism, did not change the forms of property, but “integrated the old economic, administrative and military elites into their system of power.”[146] By contrast, in the USSR the bourgeoisie and its state apparatus had been completely abolished by the Bolsheviks. Declared aims also differed fundamentally. Stalin proclaimed universal equality, while Hitler sought supremacy for the Aryan “master race.” While Stalin’s Purges killed in arbitrary manner those perceived as “enemies of the people” and imprisoned many in the harsh conditions of the gulag, this was not comparable to the Nazi racism that killed enemies for simply being alive. As Slavoj Zizek observed (quoting Marcuse), “the thin difference between the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi annihilation camp was also, at that historical moment, the difference between civilization and barbarism.”[147]

For fascists, their programs were “far more militant in rhetoric, style and conduct than in political, social or economic substance.”[148] There was no fascist revolution, but a preemptive counterrevolution to stabilize bourgeois society that took the shape of heroic vitalism and regenerative violence against ‘impure’ elements. We cannot help but agree with Walter Benjamin that

fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves… The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.[149]

VI. World War
a. The Modern Crusade

By the time the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, they were already masters of Europe, occupying most of the continent. Hitler saw his true enemy as lying in the Soviet Union and conceived of their conquest and subjugation as “both a military campaign to conquer boundless living space in the east and a crusade to eradicate the Soviet regime and the Bolshevik ideology.”[150] From this point onward, the primary theater of the Second World War would be on the Eastern Front in a ferocious campaign where no quarter was given since none was expected. The Nazis conceived of their war as racial and colonial war between fundamentally opposed ideologies. According to Traverso, the Nazi model of warfare was the

colonial wars of the 19th century…[for] the appropriation of ‘living space,’ a colossal plundering of the conquered territories, a process of enslavement of the indigenous peoples and, according to a Social Darwinist model, the destruction of ‘inferior races.’…In a completely different historical context, they were inspired by the same fanaticism and crusading spirit that characterized the Nazi war against the USSR.[151]

The Second World War was not just a total or an imperialist war like its predecessor, but several different wars were waged: the USSR vs. Nazi Germany, and lastly a “war of national liberation waged in the countries occupied by the Axis powers, and within this context, a civil war of the Resistance against the collaborationist regimes.”[152]

For Hitler and the Nazi leadership, the war in the East was an ideological and racial holy war “fixing on the Jews for slaughter as the most hated and accessible member of the “common enemy” “Judeobolshevism”—which they constantly invoked.”[153] Jews were alien to the new German Empire and “a race fatally doomed to generate the bacillus of social decomposition and subversion in its various forms and, in particular, its most extreme form – namely, ‘eastern,’ barbaric Bolshevism. In conditions of total war, this dual de-specification left very little room for escape.[154] The war in the East would wipe out the pestilence of communism and its Jewish carriers and secure “living space” for Germany just as the British had in colonizing India or the US in wiping out the indigenous.[155]

However, the Germans were not the only army which invaded the USSR, but were joined by soldiers from allied states and right-wing volunteers from occupied Europe. As Mayer observed, Nazi propaganda “claimed to march not so much to protect the Third Reich or any other nation from imminent military attack as to save European culture and civilization from the perils of bolshevism. Berlin professed that “Germany’s fight against Moscow was in the nature of a crusade of the European nations against bolshevism.”[156] Volunteers flocked to join the Nazi crusade from Italy, Romania, Hungary, Vichy France, Finland and Slovakia. For the collaborators, the war in the East “revealed the real meaning of the present war…would contribute not only to the defeat of “the most perverse force the world has known” but also to the “rebirth” of their own country, both at home and abroad.”[157] Christian Churches blessed the swastika in their righteous war against “godless communism.”

The crusading spirit was manifest above all amongst the soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Omer Bartov’s pioneering research reveals that the Wehrmacht was permeated with Nazi ideology of fighting a genocidal war against their perceived racial enemy in Russia. For one thing, the background of German soldiers predisposed them to accept the Nazi worldview. Many of the soldiers of the Wehrmacht had “spent the formative years of their youth under National Socialism.”[158] The Nazi worldview that these soldiers grew up with was shaped in the Hitler Youth that was “a highly disciplined and devoted body of followers united by a single cause and led by a quasi-divine leader.”[159] Bartov shows that when war came with the USSR, these young soldiers put their youthful indoctrination into frightful practice.

Bartov explains how the Nazi values of civilian life were further drilled into the minds of German youth when they entered the Wehrmacht. The army’s “propaganda made a conscious and concerted effort to associate Hitler with God, to present ‘his mission’ as emanating from a divine will.”[160] To take a few examples of this ideological reinforcement, the Army used educational officers that were viewed “as highly important for the morale and motivation of the troops.”[161] The educational officers were supported by the Wehrmacht commanders not just because of morale, but because they shared Hitler’s vision. For instance, General von Manstein proclaimed that a German soldier “must show understanding for the harsh atonement of Judaism, the spiritual carrier of the Bolshevik terror.”[162] Even the army newspapers proclaimed the need for German soldiers to “sacrifice ourselves to this Fuhrer and strive to be worthy of the historical epoch molded by a heaven-storming will.”[163] Bartov makes clear that the Wehrmacht was officially committed to fighting a racial war in the East.

Although Wehrmacht was officially committed to Hitler’s vision in the East, that doesn’t mean that the regular soldiers necessarily believed it. Bartov shows that regular soldiers had internalized the Nazi worldview by drawing on army surveys, intelligent reports and private letters. For instance, American and German surveys of Wehrmacht troops mirror each other in their conclusions. A German intelligence report of 1943 stated that “the ‘Fuhrer myth’ remained relatively strong… [among] ordinary soldiers.”[164] An American report of POWs “revealed that more than two-thirds of the soldiers expressed ‘belief’ in the Fuhrer in August and late November 1944.”[165] Both the Americans and the German surveys show that even as the war was going against the Nazis, the troops remained true believers.

Bartov’s strongest piece of evidence that the regular German soldier was committed to the Nazi crusade is their private correspondence. The soldiers’ letters stress two important themes, such as “the dehumanization of the enemy on political and racial grounds.”[166] Secondly, the soldiers believed in the “deification of the Fuhrer as the only hope for Germany’s salvation.”[167] Bartov’s use of the letters demonstrates that the soldiers understood that they were not fighting a traditional war in Russia but “to fight to free the world from this Communist disease.”[168] Far from being unaffected by Nazi propaganda, soldiers’ letters show they were given the task of the “destruction of eternal Jewry”[169] The German troops also held onto belief in Hitler, even as the war turned against the Reich. To the very end, Wehrmacht soldiers fought so hard because “belief in the Fuhrer and victory is unshakeable.”[170] In 1945, as Germany was losing, the soldiers fought relentlessly against the Red Army. They had internalized the racial conceptions of the Nazis, believing that “the black and yellow races will destroy and devour Europe.”[171] Bartov’s use of private letters shows that the Wehrmacht soldiers had become Hitler’s Army.

Bartov also uses the memoirs of soldiers to show that they maintained the Nazi perception of the war in the east after 1945. For example, in 1952 General Guderian claimed that invading the USSR “was a noble struggle whose goal was to defend ‘European civilization.’”[172] A German pilot named Hans-Ulrich Rudel wrote in the postwar period that during Operation Barbarossa, Germany “needed to be bulwark of Europe against the East.”[173] Both these men were writing after the fall of Hitler, when Nazism was not the official worldview of Germany. However, they still see the Eastern Front as a quest to defend Germany and Europe against the savagery of the East, not as a genocidal campaign. The memoirs show that Nazi ideas remained permeated in the minds of Barbarossa veterans.

The war against Russia was not conducted by an apolitical army fighting a traditional campaign. As Omer Bartov shows in Hitler’s Army from using letters, internal reports and army papers, the Wehrmacht was permeated with Nazi ideology from the highest levels to the rank-and-file. The regular soldiers, who saw the Soviets as their racial enemy to be annihilated, internalized this ideology. The hold of Nazi ideology even extended into the postwar reflections of soldiers who tried to rationalize the war in the East.

The Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941 changed the character of the war throughout occupied Europe. During the period of the Non-Aggression Pact, communist parties had been driven underground, but had largely refrained from engaging in open resistance. This strained communist relations with non-communist resistance forces. When the Wehrmacht rolled across the Soviet frontier, all the doubt, confusion and hesitation was replaced with a singleness of purpose. Communists threw themselves into the resistance, causing the Nazis to tighten the screws. Nazi repression drove large sections of the population into active resistance. As Mandel observed,

as the antifascist resistance grew in strength, so did the propensity of the local ruling class for collaboration with the Nazis. By 1943 the social rather than the national divide became permanent and the war acquired a revolutionary dynamic directed not only against the return of the old order but also against any more reform of it.[174]

In Italy, fighting the Nazis also meant challenging the system that spawned them. As Claudio Pavone observed of the partisans, “Sure, he was fighting the Nazi – fascist enemy, but in his blazing red shirt be was considered, and rightly so, the combatant of a ‘greater war,’ that of all the oppressed against the oppressors, of poverty against wealth, of justice against injustice.”[175] In France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Albania, communist parties emerged from the war armed, supported by millions and either in power or serious contenders for it. In occupied Europe, the situation was one of civil war where no quarter was to be given between the communist-led resistance against fascism which symbolized not only national capitulation and capitalist oppression, but came “ to denote a kind of human being with negative connotations from every public and private view.”[176]

The Communist Parties were uniquely suited for underground work and partisan warfare. As Eric Hobsbawm observed, it was

not only because Lenin’s ‘vanguard party’ structure was designed to produce a force of disciplined and selfless cadres whose very purpose was efficient action, but because extreme situations, such as illegality, repression and war, were precisely what these bodies of ‘professional revolutionaries’ had been designed for. Indeed, they ‘alone had foreseen the possibility of resistance war.'[177]

By contrast, other left political forces were geared toward electoral and illegal work, not towards the revolutionary seizure of power. Hobsbawm identifies two other factors that allowed the communist parties to achieve hegemony and to mobilize masses of men and women. The first was international and the second was “ the passionate, quasi-millennial conviction with which they dedicated their lives to the cause.”[178] For instance, amongst the communist fighters in France could be counted Spanish Republicans, German anti-fascist exiles, Eastern European immigrants, and Jews. Even the political adversaries of the communists had to admit their dedication.

However, the communist strategy of resistance walked a delicate balance between whether to emphasize national liberation or social revolution. The Grand Alliance of the Allies (USSR, UK and USA) dictated the first priority was winning the war and to that end, that local resistance forces should form “national fronts” to bring together the broadest spectrum of forces to oppose the Nazis.[179] However, the dynamics of resistance compelled mass mobilization and challenged the old order. In Yugoslavia and Albania, the local parties translated their strength in arms into power (to the dismay of the USSR). The Greeks remained torn between whether to take power on their own or to accept Soviet policy that welcomed the return of a right-wing monarchy, ultimately leading them to defeat in the civil war of 1946-1949.[180] Even in France, where the communist party slavishly followed the Soviet line, the dilemma of the character of fighting the war was an open question. The Gaullists saw “the purpose of resistance was basically to facilitate [Allied] military activity to liberate France and Europe” and restore the country to antebellum status quo, while on the other hand, the metropolitan resistance (including communists such as Andre Marty and Charles Tillon) were “dedicated to a strategy of immediate action leading to national insurrection, which would make the liberation of France not just a transfer of power between Petainists and Gaullists but a revolution in terms of both a mass movement and of the radical transformation of society, including the nationalization of key industries.”[181]

In this civil war between communism and fascism, the two sides were clearly drawn. As British SOE agent Basil Davidson observed in explaining communist leadership of the anti-fascist resistance:

In Greece and Yugoslavia, and to varying degree in all occupied countries, large and serious resistance came and could only come under left-wing leadership and inspiration. Whole ruling classes had collapsed in defeat or moved into compromise with the Nazis. With notable exceptions, the beaten generals followed their governments and kings in exile, went into retirement, or took service with the Nazi occupiers. Some believed they could conciliate the conquerors; others despaired of any rescue; not a few shared the beliefs and aims of the Nazis. Preaching the unification of a nazified Europe, Hitler was able to win fighting volunteers from every occupied country.

Again, with exceptions, the right-wing sold out and the center simply vanished from the scene. Here and there patriotic officers tried to stand against this collapse, and called for resistance in the name of king and conservatism. Yet the people to whom they called proved reluctant or quite unwilling to follow them. Plenty of ordinary folk were ready to risk their lives, but only, as it soon transpired, if they were not risking them for king and conservatism. In these countries of bitter pre-war dictatorships, it further transpired, the self-sacrifice and vision required to begin an effective resistance, and then rally others to the same cause, were found only among radicals and revolutionaries. Exceptions there were; but such was the general rule. And again, in practice, this leadership was found above all among the men and women of harried and clandestine communist parties whose remnants were all still unbowed by persecution.[182]

b. Destruction of the Jews

The Holocaust (or Judeocide as Mayer prefers to call it)[183] was the culmination of Nazism’s ideological, colonialist and racial war against the Soviet Union. According to Mayer, the extermination of the Jews was not (as the intentionalist school claims)[184] planned before the war, but as the campaign on the Eastern Front “began to stall, Hitler and his generals never really faltered. Instead, inherently incapable of contemplating and seeking a negotiated settlement, they intensified the built-in brutality of their military and ideological warfare.”[185] As we have seen, Mayer makes the argument that Nazi ideology and its antisemitism were a precondition to the Holocaust, but without the total war of Barbarossa, “the inconceivable could not have become conceivable, let alone possible and practicable.”[186]

Mayer’s interpretation challenges orthodox Marxist accounts that look for some economic rationale for the Nazis to exterminate the Jews. For these Marxists, often influenced by Comintern theories that fascism is “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital”[187] adhere to a strict base/superstructure model, tend towards economic reductionism and a teleological view of “progress” and history which is unable to conceive of the irrational, the contingent or to view ideology as relatively autonomous. For Mayer, the Holocaust was an example of the “relative autonomy and irrepressible force of the Nazi Weltanschauung, which had a fixed canon and ritual… anti-Semitism occupied neither a prominent nor an unchanging place in this ideological constellation. It could recede or drop from view, only to resurface under new conditions, with different emphases, and for different purposes.”[188] The economic “irrationality” of concentration camps, working to death, mass genocide of large segments of “potential” workers may seem to go against the logic of winning the war. And while it is true that some German industrialists wanted to put the Jews to work, it was both an expression of the spiraling radicalization of a war to the death and, according to Nazi ideology, wiping out the Jews (even if it meant a decline in production) was to annihilate the source of the “Bolshevik plague” and thereby, wholly “rational.”[189]

Traverso also takes issue with the orthodox Marxist account of the Holocaust. For him, Marxism in the aftermath of WWII was “characterized by its silence on the subject of Auschwitz.”[190] According to Traverso, the defeat of Nazi Germany at the hands of the Red Army meant a return to the ideology of progress. Just like Mayer, Traverso rejects economic reductionist explanations that look to explain the Holocaust that rely upon the “class interests of big German capital,” stating that to do so only caricaturizes Marxist theories of fascism.[191] Traverso, who hails from the Trotskyist tradition, also takes issue with the interpretation offered by his mentor Ernest Mandel, that the Holocaust was the result of Nazi Germany pushing to an extreme the violent, destructive nature of modern technology and racist tendencies inherent within modern capitalism.[192] While Traverso agrees that Mandel is correct to note the connection between capitalist modernity and racism which produced a volatile mix of rationality and irrationality that caused the Holocaust, he says Mandel “had difficulty in admitting that this genocide was determined ‘in the final analysis’ by ideology, despite the material interests (and military priorities) of German imperialism.”[193]

For Traverso, (who can be said to follow in the steps of Walter Benjamin) the Holocaust is the “paradigm of twentieth-century barbarism” and proof that “economic and industrial progress is not incompatible with human and social retrogression.”[194] Auschwitz shows that modernity, which has its emancipatory side, also brings with it destructive forces, showing the ambiguity of both modernity and the Enlightenment tradition. In line with Walter Benjamin, Traverso views progress as a “storm” and that our whole civilization and culture bears the marks of barbarism.[195] It is imperative for Marxist theorists to understand the Holocaust, otherwise this casts “major doubt about the relevance of its answers to the challenges of the twentieth century.”[196] Marxism after the Holocaust thus has to dispose of the idea of progress and that socialism is the “inevitable outcome” of history. Rather, history must be rethought from the point of view of the defeated and through the prism of catastrophe (in line with Benjamin). And socialism should be defined as a different civilization, not as “founded on the paradigm of the blind development of the forces of production and the domination of nature by technology.”[197] In other words, socialism must be conceived of as a break with history – an end to bourgeois civilization and the inequities of class society.

However, Traverso does not believe that the Holocaust is so unique that it stands outside of history, but recognized that even the most violent breaks in history have origins.[198] For Traverso, the Holocaust can not be separated from the wider European Civil War which produced the lethal synthesis of Nazism with its “anticommunism, imperialist expansionism and anti-Semitic racism.”[199] However, its uniqueness consists not in the greater Nazi inhumanity towards the Jews nor the numbers compared to colonialism. After all, as Aimé Césaire long ago observed, the same destructive forces of Nazism had long “been applied only to non-European peoples”[200] by the Great Powers as part of their “civilizing mission” in the colonies which the Nazis eagerly took up. To forget the imperialist and colonial roots of the Holocaust, as Losurdo observes means that the crimes of the Third Reich can be compared to those of the USSR, which ultimately mystifies them.[201] Rather, the uniqueness of the Holocaust

does not consist in the concentration camp system, however, but rather in racial extermination: Auschwitz was the product of the fusion of racial biology with modern technology. This was a genuine civilizational break, which tore up the fabric of elementary human solidarity which human existence on the planet had until then been based on.[202]

Traverso says that the last century with its bloodshed puts “a large question mark over Marx’s forecast about the historical role of the proletariat as the social subject of the liberation of the whole of humanity.”[203] In its place, Traverso says we should draw on the spirit of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in envisioning how we think through an emancipatory project in line with Benjamin’s dictum that the proletariat should “nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs” and that revolt is “consciousness of exploding the continuum of history.”[204] For Traverso, the struggle against exploitation and injustice is a basic ethical imperative of Marxists since, like the partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto, “people do not revolt only when they have a chance of winning; they revolt because they cannot accept an insult to human dignity.”[205] Marxism must restore its utopian dimension and reject the ideologies of progress and the teleology of “inevitable victory,” but instead appreciate the linkage of “catastrophe with deliverance” that links the violence of our society with the wager of a possible liberation.[206]

Traverso’s rejection of deterministic and orthodox forms of Marxism and the ideology of progress is certainly commendable. But in its place, he offers only a vague and almost voluntaristic ‘ethical imperative’ to heroic action as the agent of change. In the end, neither Mayer nor Traverso’s accounts of the Holocaust offer the easy answers and assurance of socialist victory found in orthodox Marxism. However, Traverso appears to accept a great deal of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument in the Dialectical of Enlightenment that the roots of the Holocaust were provided by the Enlightenment’s legacy of instrumental reason, scientific progress and the domination of humanity over nature that was later transformed into domination over people. This in turn leads Traverso to practically throwing away the universalist heritage of the Enlightenment. Contrary to Traverso, Nazism and the Holocaust were not a product of the Enlightenment, but its negation. Fascism saw ideas of universalism, materialism, emancipation, secularism, republicanism, democracy, reason and Marxism as products of a “Jewish” plot that they wanted to annihilate. Otherwise, how can we make sense of the ferocious Nazi attacks on Hegel, the Enlightenment thinker par excellence? While it was true that many Enlightenment thinkers were elitist, sexist and anti-Semitic, those same thinkers supplied the intellectual and philosophical tools that can criticize their own shortcomings in favor of rationalism, universal rights and equality. The Enlightenment does not support fascism and genocide, but once purged of its bourgeois shortcomings, it provides a philosophical foundation for human emancipation – reaching its culmination in Marxism and communism.

VII. Conclusion
The three authors—Mayer, Traverso, and Losurdo—despite their differences, provide a welcome alternative approach to how we understand the “European Civil War” or the “Second Thirty Years War.” In contrast to the totalitarian school, that Nazism and communism, far from being two sides of the same coin, were separated by their ultimate aims and the social classes they represented. These two forces were locked in mortal war where only one or the other could prevail. If we are to forget this and succumb to totalitarian interpretation than the violence and politics of first half of the twentieth century becomes inexplicable. Those who compare Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union forget that there is a distinct difference between those who started the Holocaust and those who ended it.


[1] Quoted in Reinhard Kuhnl, “From DeNazification to the ‘Histroiker-Debatte’: Reckoning with the Past in the Federal Republic of Germany,” in Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945, ed. Michael N. Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989), 280.

[2] Domenico Losurdo, War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 2015), 82.

[3] Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence (New York: New Press, 2003), 8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ernst Nolte, “The Past That Will Not Pass: A Speech That Could Be Written but Not Delivered,” German History in Documents and Images. http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/Chapter14Doc11Intro.pdf

[6] Arno J. Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 45.

[7] Ibid. 23.

[8] Ibid. 67.

[9] Arno J. Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The ‘Final Solution’ in History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 11.

[10] See contributions to The Outbreak of World War I, ed. Holger H. Herwig (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).

[11] Arno J. Mayer, “The Primacy of Domestic Politics,” in The Outbreak of World War I, ed. Holger H. Herwig (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 43.

[12] Ibid. 47.

[13] Ibid. 44.

[14] Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 3.

[15] Ibid. 4.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 12.

[19] Ibid. 15.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid. 5.

[22] Traverso 2003, 2.

[23] Geoff Eley, review of The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War, by Arno Mayer, Journal of Modern History 54, no. 1 (March 1982): 97.

[24] Ibid. 98.

[25] Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 377.

[26] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 35-6.

[27] Davidson 2012, 378.

[28] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 259.

[29] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 35.

[30] Ibid. 36.

[31] Hobsbawm 1987, 259. For more on the relationship between Marxism and the “ideology of progress,” see my “Walter Benjamin, Blanqui and the Politics of the Apocalypse,” Red Wedge Magazine. http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/online-issue/benjamin-blanqui-and-the-apocalypse0

[32] Enzo Traverso, “European Intellectuals and the First World War: Trauma and New Cleavages,” in Cataclysm 1914, ed. Alexander Anievas (Boston: Brill Books, 2014), 202.

[33] Traverso 2003, 77.

[34] Ibid. 99.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Enzo Traverso, “Inside the European Cataclysm,” Solidarity. https://solidarity-us.org/node/4422

[37] Traverso 2003, 92.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid. 96.

[40] Losurdo 2015, 20.

[41] Quoted in Ibid. 82.

[42] Ibid. 147. Losurdo also traces the hidden history of the linkage between liberalism, race and colonialism in his work Liberalism: A Counter-History (New York: Verso, 2011).

[43] Losurdo 2015, 103.

[44] Ibid. 120.

[45] Ibid. 168.

[46] Ibid. 293.

[47] Ibid. 194.

[48] Ibid. 81.

[49] Ibid. 22.

[50] Enzo Traverso, “The New Anti-Communism: Rereading the Twentieth Century,” in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism, ed. Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys (New York: Verso, 2007), 148-9.

[51] Mayer 2000, 26.

[52] Ibid. xiv.

[53] Ibid. xv.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Arno J. Mayer, Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870-1956: An Analytic Framework (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1971), 47.

[56] Mayer 2000, 31.

[57] Ibid. 30.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid. 31.

[60] Ibid. 4.

[61] Ibid. 99.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid. 45.

[64] Ibid. 116.

[65] Ibid. 4.

[66] Mayer 1988, 6.

[67] Mayer 2000, 52.

[68] Traverso 2003, 101-2.

[69] Tamas Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Monthly Review Books, 2015), 262.

[70] Mayer 2000, 509-10.

[71] Ibid. 525.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Krausz 2015, 269-272.

[74] Ibid. 27.

[75] Mayer 2000, 486.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid. 67.

[78] Mayer 1988, 90.

[79] Losurdo 2015, 287.

[80] Enzo Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914–1945 (New York: Verso, 2016), 27.

[81] Ibid. 53.

[82] Mayer 1971, 115.

[83] Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 45.

[84] Ibid. 183.

[85] Traverso 2016, 226-8.

[86] Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 159.

[87] This section drew on my “The Bourgeois Origins of Fascist Repression: On Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism,” Socialism and Democracy. http://sdonline.org/47/the-bourgeois-origins-of-fascist-repression-on-robert-paxton%E2%80%99s-the-anatomy-of-fascism/

[88] Paxton 2004, 137.

[89] Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 91.

[90] Paxton 2004, 121.

[91] Mayer 1988, 144.

[92] Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (New York: New Left Books, 1976), 160.

[93] Ibid.

[94] This section borrows heavily from my forthcoming The Chimes at Midnight: Trotskyism in the USSR 1926-1938.

[95] Mayer 2000, 66.

[96] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921-1929 (New York: Verso Books, 2003a), 9.

[97] Ibid. 5.

[98] Pierre Broué, “The History of the Bolshevik Party (CP) of the USSR: Chapter VII. The Crisis of 1921: The Beginnings of the N.E.P. and the Rise of the Apparatus,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/broue/1971/ussr/ch07.htm

[99] For background on Lenin’s last struggles within the USSR in regards to the growing bureaucracy see Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005); Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (New York: Verso, 2005), 32-43.

[100] Isaac Deutscher, Russia After Stalin (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), 31.

[101] Deutscher 2003a, 216-218.

[102] Deutscher 1953, 31.

[103] Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 8-11.

[104] Deutscher 2003a, 241.

[105] Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1994), 139.

[106] Losurdo 2015, 200.

[107] Ibid. 201.

[108]Ibid. 202.

[109] Ibid. 203-5.

[110] Ibid. 204.

[111] Ibid. 205.

[112] Ibid.

[113] Ibid. 206.

[114] Leon Trotsky, “The Soviet Economy in Danger,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/10/sovecon.htm

[115] Mayer 2000, 662.

[116] Ibid. 661.

[117] Ibid. 661-2.

[118] Portions of this section are drawn from my “The POUM: Those who would?” LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/4229

[119] Mayer 2000, 66.

[120] Ibid. 67.

[121] Mayer 1971, 14.

[122] Ibid. 14-5.

[123] Ibid. 15.

[124] Domenico Losurdo, “Stalin and Hitler: Twin Brothers or Mortal Enemies?” Crisis and Critique 3.1 (2016): 34.

[125] Ibid.

[126] Ibid.

[127] Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 208-19 and 221-5.

[128] Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-9 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 64 for the Army of Africa needing German aircraft to reach the mainland. For the role of the navy and the defeat of the coup on Spanish ships, see ibid. 71-4.

[129] Hitler remarked ‘that Franco should erect a monument to the plane because it was so vital to his victory.’ Ibid. 73.

[130] For the advance to Madrid by the Army of Africa see ibid. 116-123. In August of 1936, Italy sent Franco a minimum of 27 fighters, 5 tanks, and forty machine guns. Up to September 1936, Germany and Italy sent a combined total of 129 aircraft sent to Franco. The USSR only began its supply of the Republic in October 1936. See Michael Alpert, A New International History of the Spanish Civil War (New York: Palgrave, 2004), 47 and 78. For an excellent summary of foreign aid to all sides see Thomas, 2001, 934-44.

[131] The Italians sent at least 70,000 troops and the Germans often provided some of their best fighters for the air force and outperformed Soviet fighters. Stanley G. Payne, The Franco Regime (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 156-160. It would be air cover that would prove decisive in the defeat of the Republic at the Battle of Ebro in 1938 for instance, see Beevor, 2006, 352-6.

[132] The Comintern also organized the International Brigades which brought at least 35,000 troops to aid the Republic from 53 nations. These soldiers proved invaluable during the Battle of Madrid in 1936 and stayed in Spain until late 1938. For a brief overview of the Brigades see Thomas, 2001, 940-4.

[133] Robert Colodny, Spain: The Glory and the Tragedy (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 26-36. See ibid. 48 for the hostile Mediterranean route of Soviet arms to the Republic. Also Payne, 1987, 158 for a list of Soviet aid to the Republic.

[134] Arthur H. Landis, Spain: The Unfinished Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 192-204.

[135] Francisco J. Romero Salvado, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 153.

[136] Mayer 1988, 151-3.

[137] “Stalin had sent Alexander Orlov [Soviet Secret Police agent-DEG] to the country and had given him the task of purging the revolutionary Marxist opposition to the Communists, the POUM.” Ronald Radosh and Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, ed., Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 106. For more on Soviet involvement in the suppression of the POUM following the May Days see 121-2. See also document 33 on ibid. 129-33. For a Trotskyist perspective on the repression of the POUM and the Revolution see Vadim Rogovin, 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror (Oak Park: Mehring Books,1998), 335-373.

[138] Payne, 1987, 156-7. For a fairly complete list of foreign aid to both the Republic and the Nationalists during the duration of the war see Thomas 934-44. Even though it is often claimed that the USSR scaled back their aid to the Republic after the summer of 1937, Soviet documents prove otherwise: “Although they reduced somewhat the level of aid shipped to Spain, the Soviets continued to send tanks, aircraft, artillery and tons of supplies until the very last months of the conflict.” Radosh, Habeck, Sevostianov 2001, 422 and see also 425-430.

[139] Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 172-3 and Beevor 2006, 287-292.

[140] Bolloten 1991, 178. Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel, In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion (New York: Monthly Review, 1998) argues that Munich was not appeasement by the West of Nazi aggression, but collusion with them in order to turn Germany east.

[141] Losurdo 2016, 44.

[142] Traverso 2016, 256.

[143] Ibid. 270.

[144] Ibid.

[145] Paxton 2004, 212.

[146] Traverso 2016, 236.

[147] Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes (New York: Verso, 2008), 262.

[148] Mayer 1971, 63.

[149] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 41.Paxton 2004, 218 offered the following succinct definition of fascism: Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

[150] Mayer 1988, 11.

[151] Traverso 2007, 143.

[152] Traverso 2016, 60. Traverso borrows the concept of WWII as 5 different wars from Ernest Mandel, Meaning of the Second World War (New York: Verso, 1986), 45.

[153] Mayer 1988, 31.

[154] Losurdo 2015, 199.

[155] Losurdo 2015, 288.

[156] Mayer 1988, 222.

[157] Ibid. 225.

[158] Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 108-9.

[159] Ibid. 109.

[160] Ibid. 120.

[161] Ibid. 133.

[162] Ibid. 130.

[163] Ibid. 123.

[164] Ibid. 144.

[165] Ibid. 145.

[166] Ibid. 152.

[167] Ibid. 152.

[168] Ibid. 157.

[169] Ibid. 162.

[170] Ibid. 173.

[171] Ibid. 176.

[172] Ibid. 137.

[173] Ibid. 139.

[174] Mandel 1986, 39.

[175] Claudio Pavone, A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance (New York: Verso, 2014), 430.

[176] Ibid. 313.

[177] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 166-7.

[178] Ibid. 167.

[179] Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 283-91.

[180] For more on the Greek Civil War, see my “Struggle and suffering: The 1946-49 Greek Civil War,” LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/4514

[181] Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015),115 and 290-1.

[182] Basil Davidson, Scenes from the Anti-Nazi War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 93.

[183] Mayer’s reasoning for the term Judeocide as opposed to Holocaust is as follows: “The embryonic creed of “the Holocaust,” which has also became an idea-force, has taken the reflective and transparent remembrances of survivors and woven them into a collective prescriptive “memory” unconducive to critical and contextual thinking about the Jewish calamity. A central premise is that the victimization of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany and its collaborators is absolutely unprecedented, completely sui generis, and thus beyond historical reimagining.” Mayer 1988, 16-7.

[184] Intentionalist and functionalist (or structuralist) are the two major historical schools of interpretation of the Holocaust. Intentionalist interpretations of the Holocaust argue that Hitler and the Nazis planned to kill the Jews at a relatively early date and that the policies leading to the death camps proceeded in a planned and premeditated fashion. In contrast, functionalists believe that there was a “twisted road to Auschwitz,” that arose from the inner functioning of the Nazi state from a process of cumulative radicalization. This debate is ably summarized in Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 69-133

[185] Mayer 1988, 235.

[186] Ibid. 12.

[187] Georgi Dimitrov, “The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class against Fascism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/dimitrov/works/1935/08_02.htm

[188] Mayer 1988, 259.

[189] Ibid. 352.

[190] Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Violence: Marxism After Auschwitz (London: Pluto Press, 1999), 60.

[191] Ibid. 60.

[192] Mandel 1986, 90-3.

[193] Traverso 1999, 59.

[194] Ibid. 22.

[195] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm

[196] Traverso 1999, 4.

[197] Ibid.

[198] Traverso 2003, 5.

[199] Ibid. 105.

[200] Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 36.

[201] An idea developed at length by Losurdo 2015, 287-8.

[202] Traverso 1999, 17.

[203] Ibid. 106.

[204] “On the Concept of History,” (note 195).

[205] Traverso 1999, 88-9.

[206] Ibid. 108.


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Finland’s forgotten revolution-Eric Blanc

Posted by admin On June - 7 - 2017 Comments Off on Finland’s forgotten revolution-Eric Blanc



Crowds during the general strike in Helsinki, Finland, 1905.

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Jacobin with the author’s permission — In the past century, histories of the 1917 revolution have usually focused on Petrograd and Russian socialists. But the Russian empire was predominantly made up of non-Russians — and the upheavals in the imperial periphery were often just as explosive as in the center.

Tsarism’s overthrow in February 1917 unleashed a revolutionary wave that immediately engulfed all of Russia. Perhaps the most exceptional of these insurgencies was the Finnish Revolution, which one scholar has called “Europe’s most clear-cut class war in the twentieth century.”

The Finnish Exception
The Finns were unlike any other nation under tsarist rule. Annexed from Sweden in 1809, Finland was allowed governmental autonomy, political freedom, and eventually even its own democratically elected parliament. Though the tsar attempted to limit this autonomy, political life in Helsinki resembled Berlin far more than Petrograd.

In a period when socialists elsewhere in imperial Russia were obliged to organize in underground parties and were hunted down by secret police, the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP) operated openly and legally. Like German Social Democracy, the Finns from 1899 onwards built up a massive working-class party and a dense socialist culture with its own assembly halls, working women’s groups, choirs, and sports leagues.

Politically, the Finnish workers’ movement was committed to a parliamentary-oriented strategy of patiently educating and organizing workers. Its politics were initially moderate: talk of revolution was rare and collaboration with liberals was common.

But the SDP was unique among Europe’s mass legal socialist parties in that it became more militant in the years before World War I. Had Finland not been part of the tsarist empire, it is likely that the Finnish Social Democracy would have evolved down a similarly moderate path to most Western European socialist parties, in which radicals were increasingly marginalized by parliamentary integration and bureaucratization.

But Finland’s participation in the 1905 Revolution veered the party to the left. During the November 1905 general strike, one Finnish socialist leader marveled at the popular upsurge:

We live in a wonderful period of time … Peoples who were humble and satisfied to bear the burden of slavery have suddenly thrown off their yoke. Groups who until now have been eating pine bark, now demand bread.

In the wake of the 1905 Revolution, moderate socialist MPs, union leaders, and functionaries now found themselves a minority within the SDP. Seeking to implement the orientation elaborated by German Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky, from 1906 onwards most of the party infused legal tactics and a parliamentary focus with a sharp class-struggle politics. “Class hatred is to be welcomed, as it is a virtue,” proclaimed one party publication.

Only an independent labor movement, the SDP announced, could advance workers’ interests, defend and expand Finnish autonomy from Russia, and win full political democracy. A socialist revolution would eventually be the task of the day, but until then the party should cautiously build up its strength and avoid any premature clashes with the ruling class.

This strategy of revolutionary social democracy — with its militant message and slow-but-steady methods — was spectacularly successful in Finland. By 1907, over one hundred thousand workers had joined the party, making it the largest socialist organization per capita in the world. And in July 1916 Finnish Social Democracy made history by becoming the first socialist party in any country to win a majority in parliament. Due to recent years of tsarist “Russification,” however, most state power in Finland by this time was held by the Russian administration. Only in 1917 did the SDP confront the challenges of holding a parliamentary socialist majority in a capitalist society.

The First Months
News of the February insurrection in nearby Petrograd came as a surprise to Finland. But once the rumors were confirmed, Russian soldiers stationed in Helsinki mutinied against their officers, as described by one eyewitness:

In the morning soldiers and sailors marched with red banners on the streets, partly in processions singing the Marsellaise, partly in separate crowds, giving out red ribbons and pieces of cloth. Patrols of armed rank-and-file bluejackets roamed everywhere round the city disarming all officers, who when giving the slightest resistance or refusing to take the red token were gunned down and left lying there.

Russian administrators were thrown out, Russian soldiers stationed in Finland declared their allegiance to the Petrograd Soviet, and the Finnish police force was destroyed from below. Conservative writer Henning Söderhjelm’s 1918 firsthand account of the revolution — an invaluable expression of the views of the Finnish elite — bemoaned the loss of the state’s monopoly of violence:

It was the express policy of the [Finnish SDP] to destroy the police entirely. The police force, which had been ousted by the Russian soldiers at the very beginning of the revolution, never came into being again. The “people” felt no confidence in this institution, and in its stead local corps for the maintenance of order were established a “militia,” the men of which were to belong to the Labour Party.

What should replace the old local Russian administration? Some radicals pushed for a Red Government, but they were in a minority. Like in the rest of the empire, Finland in March was swept up by a call for “national unity.” Hoping to win broad autonomy from the new Russian Provisional Government, a wing of moderate SDP leaders broke with the party’s longstanding position and joined a coalition administration with Finnish liberals. Various radical socialists denounced this move as a “betrayal” and a gross violation of the SDP’s Marxist principles — other key leaders, however, went along with the entry into government in order to prevent a split in the party.

Finland’s political honeymoon was short-lived. The new coalition government was quickly caught in the crossfire of the class struggle as unprecedented militancy erupted in Finland’s workplaces, streets, and rural areas. Some Finnish socialists focused their efforts on building armed workers’ militias. Others promoted strikes, militant trade-unionism, and shop-floor activism. Söderhjelm described the dynamic:

The proletariat no longer begged and prayed, but claimed and demanded. Never, I suppose, has the working-man, but especially the rough, felt so puffed up with power as in the year 1917 in Finland.

Finland’s elite had initially hoped that the entry of moderate socialists into coalition government would oblige the SDP to drop its class-struggle line. Söderhjelm lamented that these hopes were dashed:

Pure mob-rule developed with unexpected swiftness. … First and foremost the tactics of the Labour Party [were to blame]. … Even if the Labour Party thus observed a certain dignity in its most official conduct, it still continued its agitation policy against the bourgeoisie with unwearied zeal.

While moderate socialists in the new government, as well as their labor leader allies, sought to dampen the popular insurgency, the far left of the party consistently called for a break with the bourgeoisie. Wavering between these socialist poles stood an amorphous centrist current which gave limited support to the new administration. And though most SDP leaders generally continued to prioritize the parliamentary arena, the majority supported — or at least went along with — the surge from below.

In the face of the unexpected groundswell of resistance, Finland’s bourgeoisie became increasingly belligerent and uncompromising. Historian Maurice Carrez notes that the Finnish upper class never resigned itself to “sharing power with a political formation that it saw as the devil incarnate.”

Class Polarization
The implosion of the Finnish coalition government began in the summertime. By August, the empire’s food supply had collapsed and the specter of starvation gripped Finnish workers. Food riots broke out early in the month and the SDP’s Helsinki organization denounced the government’s refusal to take decisive measures to address the crisis. “The hungry working masses soon lost all confidence in the coalition government,” noted Otto Kuusinen, the main left theoretician of the SDP, who went on to found the Finnish Communist movement the following year.

Socialist intransigence in the struggle for national liberation further escalated class polarization. Finnish socialists fought hard to end the ongoing interference of the Russian government in their nation’s internal life. By winning independence they hoped to use their parliamentary majority — and their control of the workers’ militias — to push through an ambitious program of political and social reforms.

One socialist leader explained in July that “hitherto we have been obliged to fight on two fronts — against our own bourgeoisie, and against the Russian government. If our class war is to be successful, if we are to be able to gather all our strength on one front, against our own bourgeoisie, we need independence, for which Finland is already ripe.”

Finland’s conservatives and liberals for their own reasons also wanted to strengthen Finnish autonomy. But they were not willing to turn to revolutionary methods to achieve this goal — nor did they generally support the SDP’s push for full independence.

The clash finally came in July. In the Finnish parliament the socialist majority proposed the landmark valtalaki (Power Law) bill which unilaterally proclaimed full Finnish sovereignty. Sharply opposed by the conservative parliamentary minority, the valtalaki was approved on July 18. But the Russian Provisional Government, led by Alexander Kerensky, immediately rejected the validity of the valtalaki and threatened to occupy Finland if its verdict was not respected.

When Finnish socialists refused to back down or renounce the valtalaki, Finland’s liberals and conservatives seized the moment. Hoping to isolate the SDP and put an end to its parliamentary majority, they cynically supported and legitimized Kerensky’s decision to dissolve the democratically elected Finnish parliament. New elections to parliament were called, in which non-socialists narrowly won a majority.

The dissolution of Finland’s parliament marked a decisive turning point. Until this moment, hopes had remained high among workers and their representatives that parliament could be used as a vehicle for social emancipation. Kuusinen explained that

our bourgeoisie had no army, nor even a police force they could count upon … [t]herefore there seemed every reason to keep to the beaten track of parliamentary legality, in which, so it appeared, Social Democracy could wrest one victory after another.

But it was becoming apparent to an increasing number of workers and party leaders that the parliament had outlived its usefulness.

Socialists denounced the antidemocratic coup and lambasted the bourgeoisie for colluding with the Russian state against Finland’s national rights and democratic institutions. According to the SDP, the new parliamentary election was illegal and had been won through widespread electoral fraud. In mid-August the party ordered all its members to resign from the government. No less significantly, Finnish socialists increasingly allied themselves with the Bolsheviks, the only Russian party to support their push for independence. All sides had thrown down the gauntlet and hitherto peaceful Finland hurtled towards a revolutionary explosion.

The Fight for Power
By October, the crisis across the Russian empire had come to a boil. Finnish workers in the city and countryside angrily demanded that their leaders seize power. Violent clashes began to bubble up across Finland. Yet many in the SDP leadership continued to believe that the moment of revolution could be pushed back until the working class was better organized and armed. Others were scared of abandoning the parliamentary arena. In the words of socialist leader Kullervo Manner in late October:

We cannot avoid the revolution for very long … Faith in the value of peaceful activity is lost and the working class is beginning to trust only in its own strength … If we are mistaken about the rapid approach of revolution, I would be delighted.

After the Bolsheviks won power in late October, it seemed that Finland would be next in line. Deprived of the military support of the Russian Provisional Government, Finland’s elite was dangerously isolated. Russian soldiers — stationed in Finland by the tens of thousands — generally supported the Bolsheviks and their call for peace. “The wave of victorious Bolshevism will give our socialists water under their mill, and they are certainly able to start it turning,” observed one Finnish liberal.

The SDP ranks and the Bolsheviks in Petrograd implored Finnish socialist leaders to immediately take power. But the party leadership prevaricated. It was unclear to anybody whether the Bolshevik government could last more than a few days. Moderate socialists clung to the hope that a peaceful parliamentary solution could be found. Some radicals argued that the seizure of power was both possible and urgently necessary. Most leaders wavered between these two options.

Kuusinen recalled the party’s indecision at this critical moment: “We Social-Democrats, ‘united on the basis of the class war,’ swung first to one side and then to the other, leaning first of all strongly towards revolution, only to draw back again.”

Unable to come to an agreement on an armed uprising, the party instead called a general strike on November 14 in defense of democracy against the bourgeoisie, for workers’ urgent economic needs, and for Finnish sovereignty. The response from below was overwhelming — in fact it went much further than the relatively cautious strike appeal.

Finland ground to a halt. In various towns, local SDP organizations and Red Guards took power, occupied the strategic buildings, and arrested the bourgeois politicians.

It seemed that this insurrectionary pattern would soon be repeated in Helsinki. On November 16 the General Strike Council in the capital voted to seize power. But when moderate union and socialist leaders denounced the decision and resigned from the body, the council retreated that very day. It resolved that “since so large a minority dissented the Council cannot on this occasion begin taking power into the hands of the workers, but will continue to act to increase pressure on the bourgeoisie.” The strike was soon after called off.

Finnish historian Hannu Soikkanen has stressed that the November strike was a major missed opportunity:

There can be little doubt that this was the best moment for the workers’ organizations to seize power. The pressure from below was enormous, and the will to fight was at its greatest … The general strike convinced the bourgeoisie, with few exceptions, however, of the acute danger of the socialists. They used the time until the outbreak of the open civil war to organize themselves under a firm leadership.

Noting the SDP’s hesitancy to turn to mass action, Anthony Upton has argued that “the Finnish revolutionaries were in general the most miserable revolutionaries in history.” Such a claim might hold water were our story to end in November — but subsequent events showed that the revolutionary heart of Finland’s Social Democracy eventually prevailed.

After the general strike, frustrated workers increasingly looked for arms and turned to direct action. The bourgeoisie similarly prepared for civil war by building up its “White Guard” militia and turning to the German government for military support.

Despite the rapid breakdown of social cohesion, many socialist leaders continued to engage in fruitless parliamentary negotiations. Yet this time the SDP left wing stiffened its spine and declared that any further delay in revolutionary action would only lead to disaster. Through a long series of internal battles in December and early January, the radicals eventually won out.

In January the SDP’s revolutionary words were finally translated into deeds. To signal the start of the insurrection, party leaders on the evening of January 26 lit a red lantern in the tower of the Helsinki Workers’ Hall. Over the next days, the Social Democrats and their affiliated workers’ organizations rather easily seized power in all the large cities of Finland — the rural north, in contrast, remained in the hands of the upper class.

Finland’s insurgents issued a historic proclamation announcing that revolution was necessary since the Finnish bourgeoisie, in conjunction with foreign imperialism, had led a counterrevolutionary “coup” against workers’ conquests and democracy:

The revolutionary power in Finland from this point on belongs to the working class and its organizations. … The proletarian revolution is noble and severe … severe for the insolent enemies of the people, but ready to give its aid to the oppressed and marginalized.

Though the newly established Red Government attempted at first to chart a relatively cautious political course, Finland quickly descended into bloody civil war. The delay in seizing power had cost the Finnish working class dearly since by January most Russian troops had returned home. The bourgeoisie took advantage of the three months after the November strike to build up its troops in Finland and Germany. Ultimately, over twenty-seven thousand Finnish Reds lost their lives in the war. And after the right wing crushed the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic in April 1918, another eighty thousand workers and socialists were thrown into concentration camps.

Historians are divided over whether the Finnish revolution could have triumphed had it begun earlier and taken a more offensive political and military approach. Some argue that the ultimate deciding factor was German imperialist military intervention in March and April 1918. Kuusinen drew a similar balance sheet:

German imperialism gave ear to the lamentations of our bourgeois, and gave itself out as ready to swallow up the newly acquired independence, which, at the request of the Finnish Social Democrats, had been granted to Finland by the Soviet Republic of Russia. The national sentiment of the bourgeoisie did not suffer in the least on this account, and the yoke of a foreign imperialism had no terrors for them when it seemed that their “fatherland” was on the point of becoming the fatherland of the workers. They were willing to sacrifice the entire people to the great German bandit provided that they could keep for themselves the dishonorable position of slave drivers.

Lessons Learned
What should we make of the Finnish Revolution? Most obviously, it shows that workers’ revolution was not solely a phenomenon in central Russia. Even in peaceful, parliamentary Finland, working people became increasingly convinced that only a socialist government could offer a way out of social crisis and national oppression.

Nor were the Bolsheviks the sole party in the empire capable of leading workers to power. In many ways the experience of the Finnish SDP confirms the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky: through patient class-conscious organization and education, socialists won a majority in parliament, leading the Right to dissolve the institution, which in turn sparked a socialist-led revolution.

The party’s preference for a defensive parliamentary strategy did not ultimately prevent it from overthrowing capitalist rule and taking steps towards socialism. In contrast, the bureaucratized German Social Democracy — which had long since abandoned Kautsky’s strategy — actively upheld capitalist rule in 1918–19 and violently smashed efforts to overturn it.

Yet Finland showed not only the strengths but also the potential limitations of revolutionary social democracy: a hesitancy to abandon the parliamentary arena; an underestimation of mass action; and a tendency to bend to moderate socialists for the sake of party unity.

Eric Blanc is an activist and historian in Oakland, California. He is the author of Anti-Colonial Marxism: Oppression & Revolution in the Tsarist Borderlands.


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As a new generation of women move into struggle, Christine Thomas looks back at the life and ideas of the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, a pioneer of the struggle for socialism and women’s liberation.
Alexandra Kollontai is probably the best-known woman among Russian revolutionaries, the first woman elected as a full member of the Bolshevik central committee and the first female commissar (minister) elected after the October 1917 revolution.
To pursue the path of a revolutionary,

path of a revolutionary, she broke not just with her privileged class background but with the norms and expectations associated with the role of women in capitalist society. She would never be content just to be somebody’s wife or mother. As she wrote to her second husband, the Bolshevik sailor Dybenko, when ending their relationship: “I’m not the wife for you, for I’m a person first and a woman second… and that’s all there is to it.”
While participating in general political activity, including both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, her main concern was how to involve working-class women in the struggle to change society and how both the revolutionary party and the new society could address their specific oppression.
Her ideas, especially those regarding personal relations and sexuality, have proven controversial and been open to distortion over the years. But the themes which she pursued in her many writings and political activities have a contemporary resonance and relevance that make a study of her life and ideas a useful exercise for anyone fighting for the transformation of society and for women’s liberation.
Women’s Double Oppression
Kollontai’s political consciousness matured gradually but she describes a trip to a textile factory in 1895 as having a decisive effect on her outlook. The mostly women workers toiled for between 12 and 18 hours a day, virtually imprisoned, sleeping in factory dormitories. Their working and living environment was so polluted that most didn’t live much beyond the age of 30.
While she was visiting the factory, a worker’s baby died in the care of the young girl – a not unusual occurrence. Today in the neo-colonial world, many young women workers, especially in the Economic Action Zones, experience similar conditions.
Yet, despite having to endure such oppressive working conditions, the 1890s saw the first stirrings of militancy among women workers.
The same year that Kollontai visited the textile factory, over a thousand women came out on strike at a cigarette factory in St Petersburg. Their many grievances included opposition to sexual harassment and “coarse” behavior by the bosses. The St Petersburg police chief said that a cut in the women’s wages could be made up by “picking up some extra money on the street.” This was just one of many strikes by women workers that took place in that period.
Kollontai became involved with the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP – which in 1903 divided into two factions, the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and in 1912 became two separate parties). But it was not really until after the 1905 revolution that she first took an active interest in campaigning among women workers.
By 1905 women comprised almost 40% of the Russian workforce but were generally considered, including by revolutionaries, to be ‘backward’ in terms of their industrial and political consciousness. Women, however, took part in the revolutionary strike wave and began to make their voices heard. For example, 11,000 textile workers were involved in one of the longest ever strikes.
In her pamphlet Towards a History of the Working Women’s Movement, Kollontai wrote : “As the working woman gradually came to understand the world she was living in and the injustice of the capitalist system, she began to feel all the more bitter at the sufferings and difficulties women experience. The voices of the working-class began to ring out even more forcefully… for the specific needs of working women to be recognized.” Strike literature demanded paid maternity leave, time off to breast-feed babies, and workplace nurseries.
The 1905-07 revolution also gave an impetus to the feminist movement in Russia. Middle-class women were demanding their political rights alongside the emerging bourgeois parties. They campaigned for easy divorce, equality in legal and property rights and, of course, for the vote.
Bourgeois feminist organisations, such as the Union for Women’s Equality, claimed that they were fighting for the rights of all women regardless of class and that equality and women’s concerns could be met within the capitalist system. This contrasted with the position of the RSDLP, which maintained that women could only be liberated through a fundamental economic and social transformation, involving the abolition of private property and the establishment of a socialist society.
However, bourgeois feminist ideas began to obtain a certain echo among working-class women. The feminists established political clubs and petitioned among working women for the vote. They also set up social and charitable projects aimed at improving the lot of working-class women.
Kollontai became aware at an early stage of the dangers posed for Marxism by feminist ideology, which defined women’s emancipation in terms of legal and civil rights while ignoring or downplaying social and economic rights. Working-class women could potentially be won to organisations which appeared to be addressing their special concerns and the idea of a cross-class, united ‘sisterhood’ could, superficially, have a certain attraction.
This was especially the case as the Marxists of the time did not appear to be giving the same consideration to women’s issues. Kollontai wrote: “The working women began to sense their inferior political status in terms of their sex, and were not yet able to connect this with the general struggle of their class. They had yet to find the path that would lead proletarian women to their liberation; they still clung to the skirts of the bourgeois feminists. And feminists tried every means of establishing contact with the working women and winning them to their side” (Towards a History of the Working Women’s Movement).
Kollontai argued that it was not sufficient to state that women’s liberation would be achieved through socialism and that, therefore, working-class women’s interests were the same as men’s. It was true that it would only be by struggling alongside of working-class men to change society that women would be able to be truly liberated. However, women had issues that were of specific concern to them because of their gender as well as their class – they were doubly oppressed.
Women were employed in the least skilled jobs, were paid significantly less than men, experienced pregnancy and childbirth, and had the main responsibility for bringing up children and carrying out household chores. They were also subject to sexual harassment in the workforce, violence and abuse in the home, and were discriminated against and oppressed in society generally.
Marxists, Kollontai argued, had to address the specific problems that women faced if they were to win them to the ideas of socialism and away from the false promises of bourgeois feminism.
It was clear that women were not joining the Marxist movement in numbers commensurate with their participation in the workforce. Kollontai urged the RSDLP to develop specific propaganda aimed at working-class women and to campaign for reforms which would directly benefit them. She also advocated the establishment of a women’s bureau, under the general direction and program of the party, that could organize and supervise work among women and facilitate the recruitment and integration of working-class women within the party.
Kollontai explained her ideas, writing that: “The separation of the struggle of the female proletariat for its emancipation into a special sphere of the general class struggle, independent to a certain degree, not only does not contradict the interests of the working [class] cause but is of immeasurable benefit to the general struggle of the proletariat, as the practice has shown in those countries where such a separation has already been carried out”. This was something that Kollontai was to continue to argue for and promote for over a decade.
She felt that the party had to be seen to be responding to women’s special problems. It could not ignore the fact that women’s ‘triple burden’ of work, childcare and housework made it much more difficult for them to be involved politically. They were exhausted and had little energy or time to devote to attending political meetings or engaging in political activity.
Women were also conditioned by society to believe that political activism was not a role for them. They lacked confidence in themselves and their own abilities, which was compounded by the attitudes of men, including many in the workers’ movement, who had been influenced by the prejudices of the society in which they lived.
Marxists had to overcome these obstacles, Kollontai argued, and involve working-class women in the party; and this meant the deployment of special measures and the conscious organisation of work amongst women.
A Cross-Class Road to Liberation?
In terms of theory concerning women’s oppression, the RSDLP based itself primarily on Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism. But there were no Marxist writings which discussed the strategy that the workers’ movement should employ to involve working-class women in the struggle to change society. The RSDLP itself had hardly any literature aimed specifically at women, with the exception of a 24-page pamphlet The Women Worker, written in 1900 by Krupskaya, one of the first women members of the RSDLP.
In 1903, the RSDLP incorporated equality of the sexes into its political programme. Its demands included ten weeks maternity leave, pre- and postnatal care, and nursery facilities. But there was little systematic work being carried out to connect those demands with women in the workplace.
Many party members were not just hostile to the idea of a women’s bureau but opposed the idea of specific propaganda or campaigns particularly aimed at working women. Many equated special measures with “feminism” or “separatism,” which they argued would divide the movement; the struggle to transform society had to be a united struggle between working-class men and women.
Kollontai agreed that unity of the working-class was essential but argued that it could not be realized without addressing the specific oppression that women faced. She campaigned vigorously against those who maintained that women didn’t need “special treatment” and would automatically join the general movement. She also took issue with those (including many women members) who considered work among women as unimportant, secondary, a waste of resources or a distraction from the general class struggle.
Only through systematic, conscious, organised campaigning, she argued, could working-class women’s participation in the party match that of their participation in the workforce and therefore strengthen the struggle to transform society.
Feminism today is a very broad term embracing diverse ideological strands, and a direct comparison cannot really be made with the movement in Russia in the early 20th-century. Nevertheless, how to relate to women’s organisations which profess to represent women across class lines has been an issue that socialists and workers’ organisations have tried to grapple with throughout the history of the workers’ movement – and continues to be a relevant question today.
There have always been, and still are, issues which concern women of all classes because of their gender. In previous centuries these have included lack of political, civil and legal rights. Domestic violence, rape and abuse, sexual harassment, sexism and reproductive rights issues are all experienced by women regardless of their class, although class background can influence the strategies that women deploy to deal with these problems.
Gender oppression means that there is always the potential for movements to emerge which embrace women of different classes and different ideologies. By involving themselves in and initiating movements and campaigns around the special concerns of women, Marxists can, while fighting to defend and extend the rights of women under the current system, explain that capitalism is ultimately incapable of delivering equality or solving the gender specific problems which women face.
This opens up the possibility of convincing women of the need to become involved, alongside of working-class men, in the wider struggle to change society. Although women of all classes can experience oppression on the basis of their gender, the struggle for women’s liberation is a “class question” in the sense that women’s oppression arose with the division of society into classes and has been perpetuated by the different forms of class society, including capitalism. Only by eliminating class society and establishing socialism can the basis for ending women’s oppression be laid.
The attitude of most Marxists in Russia was to completely eschew bourgeois feminist organisations fearing that female members would be “infected” by feminist ideology and separatist ideas. Kollontai took a different approach. Although extremely hostile to the feminists, and at times rather crude in her argumentation, she understood that Marxists could not just ignore them and leave unchallenged their influence over a section of working-class women.
The tactics that she and a group of women around her used (activities carried out without party support) were not exactly subtle – attending feminist meetings and “heckling.” Not surprisingly, they would often be met with outright hostility. When Kollontai attended the first meeting of the Union for Women’s Equality in April 1905 and spoke out against the idea of a women’s movement that could speak for all women regardless of class, she was met with the reply that strangling was too good for her.
During the revolution, informal workers’ clubs were being spontaneously formed. In the spring of 1906 Kollontai, together with a small group of working-class women, campaigned for the groups to be opened up to hold women’s meetings. After a visit to Germany – where the Social Democratic Party (SPD), a mass workers’ party which then based itself on Marxism, had a functioning women’s bureau – Kollontai argued for a bureau to be established within the St Petersburg party committee. She managed to get party approval for holding a meeting of women to discuss the question but, as Kollontai relates in her autobiography, at the first meeting the hall was locked with a notice saying: ‘The meeting for women only has been called off; tomorrow there will be a meeting for men only’.
Battling against hostility, indifference and even prejudice, she did eventually get party agreement to intervene in feminist meetings and to carry out legal women’s work. The feminists planned to organize an All-Russian Women’s Congress in December 1908. The theme of the congress was to be: ‘The women’s movement must be neither bourgeois nor proletarian but one movement for all women’.
Kollontai was involved in a campaign to hold meetings of women workers to elect delegates to the congress where they could argue against the feminists and promote the needs and demands of working-class women. Thousands attended meetings, including cardboard, rubber, tobacco and footwear workers, although most delegates were from the textile factories.
Kollontai spoke at 52 meetings in St Petersburg between October and December 1908. Many were held, because of government repression, under the name of sewing circles or discussions about hygiene. Kollontai wrote her book The Social Basis of the Woman Question to politically prepare working women delegates to intervene in the congress, although unfortunately it was published too late to play that role.
The congress, which Kollontai had to leave to avoid arrest, marked the demise of the feminist movement in this period. It collapsed because of state repression but also due to its own internal contradictions, including the impossibility of reconciling the interests of working-class women with those of women from other classes. A movement which tried to organize together, for example, maids and their employers and pretend that their interests coincided, was inevitably one in which tension and conflict were inherent. This has been the experience of many women’s movements throughout history.
Exile, War, and Revolution
Because of the period of reaction which set in after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, Kollontai was forced to flee into exile to avoid arrest and did not return to Russia until the beginning of the 1917 revolution. She spent most of her time abroad in Germany, where she involved herself in the political work of the SPD, in particular speaking at workers’ meetings. She also continued to write about issues of concern to women and began to develop some of her ideas on sexuality and personal relationships. She was associating with the Mensheviks until 1915 when the attitude of the now separate parties to the first world war convinced her to join the Bolsheviks.
An important change took place in the objective situation in Russia in 1912 with renewed strike activity by many groups of workers. This included women who were heavily involved in strikes and demonstrations at that time. The main edition of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, ran a series of articles about the exploitation of women in the workforce. The number of letters from working women to the paper was increasing enormously.
In 1913 the Bolshevik central committee agreed that a “special effort” was needed to organize among women workers. The 1913 edition of Pravda for International Women’s Day had so many letters from working-class women that it couldn’t print them all. This influenced the decision to begin publication of a newspaper for women. The editorial board involved Konkordia Samoilova and Inessa Armand, who were both to play an important role in party work among women.
The first edition of Rabotnista (woman worker) sold over 12,000 copies. Seven issues appeared from February to June 1914 and they included general articles on women’s oppression, reports of factory conditions, and features on maternity insurance, childcare centers, electoral rights and “family problems.” Other Bolshevik journals such as The Textile Worker and The Metal Worker brought out special issues for International Women’s Day.
The outbreak of war in 1914 cut across these developments but by 1917 the conditions for revolution were once again maturing. An influx of women into the workforce during the war meant that they once again made up 40% of all workers. Bread rationing meant that women were queuing in bread lines after working 12-hour shifts in the factories. A police report at the time stated that “mothers of families, exhausted by endless standing in line at stores and distraught over their half starving and sick children, are today perhaps closer to revolution than [the liberal opposition leaders] and of course they are a great deal more dangerous because they are the combustible material for which only a single spark is needed to burst into flames”.
And women demonstrating on International Women’s Day (March 8) were indeed the spark which ignited the 1917 revolution. Ten thousand marched, calling on workers from the factories to join them and demanding “Peace and bread” and “Down with autocracy.”
As the revolution unfolded, Leon Trotsky commented on the women’s fearlessness in the face of the forces of the state: “The women go up to the officers more boldly than the men. Taking hold of their rifles, they besiege and almost command ‘put down your bayonets and join us’” (History of the Russian Revolution).
Returning to Russia, Kollontai threw herself into the maelstrom of political meetings and activities which the revolution unleashed. Alongside Trotsky and Zinoviev, she was one of the most popular speakers. She was also one of the few Bolsheviks to initially support Lenin’s April Theses which called for no support for the provisional government, which he argued could not bring about bread, peace or land, and for power to be transferred to the soviets, which were the democratic organisations of workers, soldiers and peasants.
The revolution also revived the feminists who demonstrated for the vote and were beginning to get a response from soldiers wives (soldatki) who were desperate and unable to feed their children. Kollontai was instrumental in organizing a demonstration of 15,000 soldatki who demanded higher support payments, bread and peace. Thousands of the most oppressed workers began to fight for their rights. Maids and restaurant workers, for example, formed their own unions and elected delegates to the soviets.
Kollontai was involved on a daily basis in supporting a strike of 4,000 laundresses in St Petersburg. They were expected to work a 14-hour day for poverty wages in horrendous working conditions. Pravda reported on the strike, appealed for finance and published a list of strike-breakers’ names. Eventually the strikers won a partial victory and Kollontai wrote in Pravda that women could no longer be described as the “backward and unaware section” of the working-class.
At the Bolshevik conference in April 1917, Kollontai argued that the party needed more systematic work among women and once again called for special party structures to organize this. In many areas groups were already being unofficially set up. Instead the party decided to revive Rabotnista and use the paper as a vehicle for organizing among working-class women. The first edition sold out immediately of its 40,000 copies and mass “Rabotnista rallies” were held around the country. These were important in convincing working-class women to support the Bolsheviks in the revolution which established a workers’ government in October that year.
The new soviet government then set about the enormous task of building a new society. Kollontai was to make an important contribution to that process in the initial period after the revolution, particularly in relation to involving working-class women and attempting to address their needs, both as women and as workers.
The Promise of Revolution
Kollontai’s autobiography gives a glimpse of the enormous difficulties that the new workers’ government confronted in beginning the tasks of constructing a new society in an economically backward and war-ravaged country.
At the end of October 1917 she was elected Commissar of Social Welfare. Of what exactly Social Welfare comprised was not very clear at first; it appeared to be a kind of mega social services incorporating the homeless, war victims, the elderly, children, etc in one catch-all department. Immediately her Commissariat was besieged by desperate people demanding immediate relief from their terrible problems. She was somehow expected to deal with these, with no proper funding for her department’s work, and in the face of active sabotage and obstruction by the former tsarist employees.
Kollontai was also involved in drawing up government legislation and decrees aimed at improving the situation of women. They were granted full civil, legal and electoral equality. The principle of equal pay for equal work was established and legislation was passed to protect women in the workplace, including exemption from jobs which would be harmful to their health and limits on the hours and shifts that they could work.
The soviet government also introduced a Marriage Law in December 1917, which replaced church marriage with civil, registered marriage. Divorce was made easier, women could choose which surname they wanted to use, and the legal concept of illegitimacy was abolished.
Kollontai was particularly concerned with the issue of maternity and protection for working mothers. Conditions in the factories were so atrocious that it was not uncommon for pregnant women to work right up until the birth of their child – some actually giving birth on the factory floor – and then return to work almost immediately because they could not afford to take any time off.
In the nine years that she was in European exile prior to the 1917 revolution, Kollontai carried out a huge survey of maternity insurance in European countries which she produced in a 600-page book entitled Society and Motherhood. She argued that childbirth and child-rearing should not be viewed as the sole burden of individual women; it was a social function which benefited the entire society and should therefore be funded by society as a whole.
Her ideas influenced soviet social policy. The government introduced 16 weeks paid maternity leave. Nursing mothers were to work no more than four days a week, have regular time off for breast-feeding, and workplace nurseries were to be established. All women, regardless of whether they were married, would be paid so that a friend could take time off work to help them with the birth of a child. These benefits were well in advance of those of every other European country. Kollontai also set about establishing (not without great difficulty) model mother and baby homes.
Socialism and the Family
In her many writings Kollontai deepened and extended Marxist ideas regarding women’s oppression, the family and personal relations. With capitalism and landlordism overthrown in Russia, these issues were no longer theoretical but demanded concrete attention by the new soviet government.
If women were to be truly liberated, Kollontai argued, they had to be freed from the constraints of the family as an institution in class society. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Frederick Engels pointed to early, pre-class societies which had existed where there was no systematic oppression of women and the basic social unit was not the family but the ‘gens’ (communal group). Social arrangements were not fixed for all time, but became transformed as the economic basis of society changed, by means of a complex and interrelated process.
The institutionalized oppression of women, he argued, arose with the emergence of class-based societies (such as slavery) in which the family replaced the communal group as the primary social unit. Economic relations were reflected within the family, where women became effectively the private property of men. In particular, men controlled women’s sexuality in order to guarantee the legitimacy of children when bequeathing property.
Capitalism adopted and shaped the institution of the family and women’s oppression to suit its economic and social needs. Women’s socially inferior position historically, for example, allowed capitalism to justify and profit from paying working-class women lower wages and employing them on worse conditions than men.
In her writings Kollontai explained how capitalist economic processes had drawn working-class women in growing numbers into the workforce, thereby weakening their economic dependence on men. This was a positive advance, increasing women’s confidence and consciousness of the need to struggle collectively. But Kollontai was under no illusions about the problems which working-class women still faced. “Labor leads women on the straight road to her economic independence, but current capitalist relations make the conditions of labor unbearable, disastrous to her; these conditions plunge her into the most abysmal poverty; they acquaint her with all the horrors of capitalist exploitation and force her everyday to know the cup of suffering, created by conditions of production that are destructive to health and life” (The Social Basis of the Woman Question).
At the same time as exploiting the labor of women in the workforce, capitalism continues to depend on the unpaid labor of women in the home. If caring for young children and household tasks were not carried out for free within the family, then capitalism would either have to provide these as public services or increase wages so that they could be bought privately – both of which would eat into the profits of the capitalist class and would therefore be resisted. Why, asked Kollontai in Communism and the Family, should only the rich be relieved of the burden of household labor such as cleaning, cooking, washing and mending?
For working-class and especially for peasant women in Russia, housework was little more than “domestic slavery”; they should have the time to engage in work outside the home, the time for leisure activities, and to participate in the running of society. However, for that to happen, housework and childcare could not just be the individual, private responsibility of women within the family but had to be socialized and provided publicly by the state.
The 1919 Programme of the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks renamed themselves), stated: “Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries etc”. Women were involved at a local level in campaigning for, setting up, and running communal services. By 1920, 90% of the population of Petrograd were eating communally but the number and quality of facilities varied greatly around the country.
Kollontai acknowledged that the socialization of “women’s work” could not be easily implemented in an underdeveloped economy that was devastated by war and civil war. In 1920 production of manufactured goods was just 12.9% of its 1913 level. Between 1919 and 1920 seven-and-a-half million Russians died from famine and epidemics alone.
This extreme situation placed severe constraints on the ability of the revolutionary government to provide decent public services. The food served in public dining rooms was often of poor quality and sometimes nonexistent. Often ‘communal houses’ were little more than overcrowded dwellings with several families forced to share inadequate cooking and toilet facilities.
Despite heroic attempts to overcome these constraints, and efforts by women themselves to establish decent services, many women understandably turned their backs on communal facilities and returned to their traditional role within the family. “The revolution has brought rights for women on paper, but in fact has only made life more burdensome for them”, wrote Kollontai in her autobiography. Nevertheless, she recognized the symbolic importance of the reforms that the soviet government was introducing. “It was, in the end, a wonderful time. We were hungry and had many sleepless nights. There were many difficulties, misfortunes and chances of defeat. The feeling that helped us was that all we produced, even if it was no more than a decree, would come to be a historic example and help others move ahead. We worked for that time and for the future.”
Organizing for Liberation
The Bolsheviks had always believed that it would not be possible to build socialism in an isolated and economically and culturally backward country like Russia. They were internationalists and looked to revolution in the advanced capitalist countries to come to their aid. Any reforms that they introduced were not just in the interests of workers and peasants in Russia but set an example to the working-class internationally. “Even if we are conquered,” wrote Kollontai, “we have done great things – we are breaking the way, abolishing old ideas.”
The workers’ government also had to take account of the existing consciousness of both women and men, especially those in the countryside (the vast majority). The peasant family was still structured on a patriarchal basis – with the male head of the family having power and control over his wife, including the right of physical chastisement. Social attitudes were extremely backward. A popular Russian saying was that “a hen’s not a bird and a woman’s not a person.”
Many peasant women opposed the idea of communal nurseries, terrified that the soviet government wanted to take their children away from them. Kollontai explained that to lay the basis for women’s liberation there had to be not just an economic transformation but a cultural and psychological revolution too. A conscious campaign had to be waged to transform the attitudes of both men and women.
Women, Kollontai argued, had to be active participants in their own liberation. In November 1918 she was involved in organizing a national women’s congress, attended by 1,147 delegates, including 100 peasant representatives, way surpassing expectations. The congress discussed a whole series of issues of concern to women, including the issue of sexist language, with the congress voting to ban the word “baba” (roughly translated as “peasant woman hag”), which was commonly used as a term of abuse.
The congress also voted for party women’s ‘commissions’ to be established at every level in order to involve women in the party and the building of the new society. Eventually in 1919 a special women’s department was established – the Zhenotdel – to conduct work among women. This was something that Kollontai had been campaigning for since 1906, although she did not become the director until after Inessa Armand’s death in 1920.
The Zhenotdel was established as civil war raged across the country. One of its first tasks therefore, was to mobilize women to defend the revolution and its gains against the forces of reaction and counter-revolution. Kollontai saw that, despite the sufferings, deprivation and horror, the civil war nonetheless provided an opportunity for women to play an active part in society, laying the basis for their future emancipation.
During the civil war women were engaged in all fields of activity, including fighting on the front line with the Red Army. Kollontai was anxious that once the war was over, women should not just go back into the isolation of the family unit. For her the Zhenotdel had a crucial role to play in raising consciousness and drawing women into the running of society, as well as representing their interests within the party and the government.
The work of the Zhenotdel was extremely diverse covering issues such as childcare, housing and public health. As a result of the pressure that it was able to exert, the soviet government in 1920 legalized abortion in state hospitals. It was also involved in fighting prostitution, a social problem that had begun to disappear immediately after the 1917 revolution but was growing due to desperate economic conditions exacerbated by the civil war.
Kollontai had written a series of articles on this issue in 1910 while in exile. Prostitution, she wrote, reduced women to “a simple instrument of pleasure”. However, she opposed any legal sanctions. Prostitutes were victims of economic and social conditions, she argued. The revolutionary government had to concentrate on providing alternatives for women, encouraging them to train for jobs and develop their self-esteem as well as providing health care for those who required it.
The Zhenotdel used various measures to involve women in the party and in the running of society. These included delegate conferences of working-class and peasant women. Women were seconded to government departments and party work. Some would get permanent jobs while others would go back to use their experiences to raise the consciousness of other women. Young, literate, working-class women who had enthusiasm and energy were employed as volunteers to do “outreach work” with other women in the countryside and remote parts of the country.
Although the Zhenotdel produced publications such as the newspaper Rabotnista (woman worker) and the theoretical journal Kommunista, most women were illiterate, so discussions, exhibitions, slide shows, etc, were more effective in reaching women, especially peasants. Agit-trains, agit-boats and even agit-tents in the desert were used to spread the word.
There were particular problems with regard to reaching Muslim women in Central Asia. Volunteers were attacked by men with wild dogs and boiling water and some were even hacked to death. Zhenotdel workers had to adapt to this dangerous situation by meeting women secretly in bathhouses.
The Zhenotdel encountered many obstacles. Women were exhausted, burdened down by work and family responsibilities, and often ignored Zhenotdel initiatives. The women’s departments were desperately short of staff at every level and still had to contend with prejudice and hostility from party members, especially in the regions. As a consequence, liaison with other departments was weakened, posing the danger of separatism as well as undermining efficiency.
Nevertheless, much of the Zhenotdel’s work was extremely effective in involving women, raising their consciousness and ensuring their concerns were addressed by the party and the government.
“A Revolution in the Human Psyche”
Economically and culturally post-revolution Russia was an extremely underdeveloped country. But a conscious campaign to change attitudes and to involve women in the running of society would also be necessary in the transitional period after a social revolution in an advanced capitalist country. Prejudice, sexism and discrimination are deeply embedded within class society. Both men and women would bring to the new society social attitudes that had been shaped by capitalism. An ideological and cultural struggle would therefore have to be waged to transform attitudes and ideas.
In several of her writings Kollontai explored the connection between social change and personal relationships. One of the slogans of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was the “personal is political.” But this was an idea that Kollontai was already grappling with at the beginning of the 20th century.
She recognized how the most intimate of personal relations are shaped by economic and social structures. Social inequality is reflected in sexual relations. Women were socialized under capitalism into believing that their identity depended on their role as a wife and mother. The “norms” of capitalist society required women to be submissive and subordinate. These were ideas that women themselves internalized throughout their lives. Men on the other hand were conditioned to believe that their role was to be dominant and in control in personal relationships.
These attitudes in turn impacted on sexual relations. Kollontai drew on her own experiences to develop her ideas. “Over and over again the man always tries to impose his ego upon us and adapt us fully to his purpose,” she wrote in her autobiography. In every relationship she struggled to maintain her own individuality and independence and this is reflected in her writings, including her novels.
It was important, she argued, that men should be interested in women as intellectual equals and not just as sexual objects. “A man would only see in me the feminine element, which he tried to mold into a willing sounding board to his ego.” She also attacked the double standard which society attached to men and women with regard to personal and sexual relationships. She had personal experience of this during her relationship with the Bolshevik sailor Dybenko, who was 17 years younger than her and from a different social class – provoking a minor scandal even within revolutionary circles.
Like Engels, Kollontai did not try to be prescriptive about what form personal relationships would take in the new society. Engels personally appeared to favor heterosexual monogamy, but in The Origin of the Family he left open what shape the family would take under socialism. “That will be settled after a new generation has grown up, a generation of men who never in all their lives have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power; and a race of women who has never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their lovers for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion… and that’s the end of it.”
Kollontai’s detractors accused her of advocating unrestricted promiscuity. In fact she was critical of the fleeting, superficial and sometimes brutal relationships that many resorted to during the dislocation and dangers of the civil war period. She maintained that a “new morality” would emerge in the process of building the new society; relationships would not necessarily be monogamous or long-lasting. Men and women (she made no reference to same-sex relationships) would stay together as long as love lasted and separate when it ended. As women would not be economically dependent on men and children would be the responsibility of society as a whole, this would not entail the same complications that occur under capitalism when relationships break down.
People would have a free choice in sexual relationships based on mutual sexual attraction. Kollontai wrote about “erotic love” which she referred to as “winged Eros” – non-possessive love based on emotional compatibility, spiritual closeness, equality and respect; a love freed from the constraints of bourgeois society.
Changing property relations would lay the basis for free relationships to develop but they would have to be accompanied by a “revolution in the human psyche.” “Without fundamental re-education of our psyche the problems of the sexes will not be solved.”
The Deep Roots of Oppression
Kollontai was not advocating that men and women should merely wait for the new society. “When one speaks of sexual morality and the working-class, one often meets with a shallow argument that “there’s no place for this until the economic base has been transformed.” As though the ideology of the class were built only after the completion of a sudden about-turn in social and economic relations…,” she wrote. The emergence of a new morality would be a complex social process which could take generations. But the basis for its development was already being laid within capitalism and the changes that were taking place to the family unit.
This can be seen today in the more developed capitalist countries where personal relations and women’s subordinate position in the family and in society generally have undoubtedly changed. Yet it is still the case that most women, even those with full-time jobs, have the main responsibility for the care of children, which places restrictions and burdens on their personal as well as their working lives.
Despite increased economic independence for women, advances in birth control, the development historically of the welfare state and access to easier divorce, the unequal, exploitative and hierarchical nature of capitalism is still reflected in personal relations. The fact that one in four women still suffer from domestic violence at some time in their lives, that sexism and the cultural oppression of women is still rife in the form of pornography and representation in advertisements etc, shows how deeply rooted women’s oppression still is and how, despite the advances that have been made, women cannot be truly liberated in any aspect of their lives under capitalism.
Kollontai’s ideas on the family and personal relations gained a certain echo among a layer of youth in the post-revolutionary period. Many experimented with new and alternative forms of relationships and households. But in a situation of economic catastrophe, an armed blockade and a civil war in which the very survival of the new society was at stake, her ideas appeared to many to be peripheral to the central task of rebuilding a war-torn and devastated country.
Kollontai herself could be faulted for not sufficiently connecting her theories on sexual and personal relations with the wider political and theoretical questions under discussion in soviet society. In those wider debates Kollontai also failed to take account of existing economic and social conditions. This was the case in 1922 when she supported the demand of the Workers’ Opposition for economic management to be transferred to the unions. Under a developed socialist economy this would be a correct demand, but in the concrete reality of the backward, dislocated and isolated soviet economy it would have spelled disaster.
A combination of economic backwardness and the failure of revolutionary movements to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries led to a degeneration of the new society and the rise of a bureaucratic elite under Stalin. Kollontai escaped the horrific purges and excesses of the 1930s by “keeping her head down” as a diplomat for the Soviet Union abroad. She maintained her silence as her comrades were murdered and many of the gains which women had secured in the post-revolutionary period were rolled back by the Stalinist regime in order to defend the bureaucracy’s own interests.
Exactly what she was thinking or experiencing at the time is unknown, although her biographers point to a feeling of impotence on her part; the feeling that nothing could be done to fight the bureaucracy; a demoralization and lack of confidence in the ability of the Left Opposition gathered around Trotsky to stem the political counter-revolution which was taking place.
The Stalinist regime went on to distort many of Kollontai’s ideas which conflicted with the bureaucracy’s aim of suppressing critical thought and reinforcing and molding the individual family unit to maintain discipline and stability and to suit its economic and social needs.
Kollontai eventually died of old age in 1952, having accommodated herself to the Stalinist regime. However, her capitulation to Stalinism in no way detracts from the importance of her ideas on women’s oppression and the struggles which she waged to involve working-class women in the fight to change society. Those of us today who are fighting for an end to women’s oppression still have much to gain from a study of Kollontai’s writings and activities.
Kollontai Bibliography
Alexandra Kollontai selected writings, Alix Holt (Allison & Busby, 1977)
The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman, Alexandra Kollontai
Alexandra Kollontai, Cathy Porter (Virago, 1980)
Bolshevik feminist – The life of Aleksandra Kollontai, Barbara Evans Clements
The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Frederick Engels
Fighting for women’s rights and socialism – Women after the Wall,

Socialist Party (from Socialism Today No.43, November 1999)

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