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Archive for August, 2018

Workers’ organizations 
in the Russian Revolution-Amy Muldoon

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots of the rebellion

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

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

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

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

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

The February Revolution and the emergence of the factory committees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fight for the eight-hour day

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

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

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

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

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

Parties and workers’ power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics of the factory committee movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wage struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shkliarevsky writes:

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

Polarization and reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debates between comrades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution and workers’ power

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

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

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

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

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

After the October Revolution, Lenin wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The terror machine-K.P. FABIAN

Posted by admin On August - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on The terror machine-K.P. FABIAN

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda-linked militant who led a bloody campaign in Iraq. He was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who rose to be the Caliph of the ISIS, addressing worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul on July 5, 2014.
Abu Mohammad al-Adnani al-Shami, ISIS spokesman, with an Islamist flag at an undisclosed location in this video grab taken on October 2, 2013. The group announced on August 30, 2016, that Adnani was killed in Aleppo, Syria.

A historically sound account of the origin, growth and reach of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
THE general public as well as international relations scholars will benefit from this eminently readable book by Stanly Johny, who combines academic rigour with the ability and mobility of the journalist to reach out to places and persons. He wrote this book in order to answer questions such as: How did the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerge as the most potent “terror machinery” of our time in a matter of few years? What enabled the ISIS to attract many thousands more fighters than Al Qaeda? “It was from this surprise and confusion that this book was born,” says the author.

The book has two parts. The first deals with the ISIS, its origins, growth and its defeat in Iraq/Syria. The second part deals with its connection with India. In the first part, we are given a historically sound account of the origin of the group. It is a rather complex story with many unfamiliar names, but Stanly presents it coherently.

‘True Islamic emirates’
The narration starts with Al Qaeda, founded by the Saudi Arabian billionaire Osama bin Laden in 1989 following the successful anti-Soviet jehad in Afghanistan. Inspired by Sayyid Qutub, the Egyptian thinker who wielded much influence in the Islamic world, bin Laden despised the Muslim countries as “un-Islamic”. He had a programme to establish “true Islamic emirates” where the Sharia would prevail. But, that programme was not implemented. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who had installed himself in a mountainous enclave in northern Iraq, controlled by Ansar-al-Islam, a Salafi-jehadist group of Iraqi Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein’s government, was destined to carry forward the idea of establishing a Caliphate. It may be recalled that United States Secretary of State Colin Powell had incorrectly asserted in his infamous February 5, 2003, speech in the United Nations Security Council that Zarqawi was in Iraq working with Saddam’s government. The author points out that Powell was wrong not only about Zarqawi but also about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Zarqawi and bin Laden met in Afghanistan, by then ruled by the Taliban who called it “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. The meeting did not go off too well as the two interlocutors had diametrically opposite world views. Zarqawi wanted to target Shias, whereas bin Laden wanted the support of the entire ummah that included Shias. However, bin laden handed over $5,000 as seed money to Zarqawi to set up a network in Herat, close to Afghanistan’s border with Iran. By the time U.S. President George Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, Zarqawi had built up a force of 3,000.

After fighting the U.S. forces in Afghanistan for a while, Zarqawi, through Iran, came over to Iraq where he found a favourable climate as the U.S. had destroyed the Ba’athist state there. The Shias, until then suppressed under Saddam, gained power, a development that corroborated Zarqawi’s thesis that Shias needed to be put down at any cost. Zarqawi wanted to establish a foothold in “Greater Syria” with a view to establishing a Sharia-ruled state. He “welcomed” the ongoing sectarian war in Iraq.

Unlike bin Laden, who carried out attacks from his hideout without seeking to control territory, Zarqawi wanted to carve out territorial havens. Although a U.S. air strike killed Zarqawi in June 2006, the organisation that he had built up survived.

Caliph of the ISIS
The next important protagonist is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a “low-level Islamic academic” who rose to be the Caliph of the ISIS. His original name was Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri. His was a Salafist family. He was arrested by the U.S. security in Falluja when he went there to meet a friend who was on the wanted list. He was sent to a prison called Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, named after the U.S. firefighter Ronald Bucca, who died in the 9/11 rescue operation. Ibrahim led the prayers for the 24,000 inmates and gave Friday sermons. In short, Camp Bucca was “a pressure cooker for extremism”. The Americans respected Ibrahim and used him to settle quarrels among inmates. It assessed that he was not a dangerous person and released him after 10 months. That was in December 2004.

Ibrahim joined the Al Qaeda of Iraq and did propaganda work for it. In October 2006, Zarqawi’s successor, al-Masri, announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), but that announcement was not followed up by much action. Bin Laden was not pleased with the announcement either. But, Ibrahim was all for the ISI.

When al-Masri was killed in a raid by the U.S. in April 2010, Ibrahim emerged as the leader of the ISI with the support of military officers who had worked under Saddam. When bin Laden was killed by the U.S. Navy SEALs in April 2013, Ibrahim’s status as a jehadi leader was reinforced. Later, he transformed the ISI into the ISIS. That announcement was opposed by Joulani, who was heading a jehadi group called Al-Nusra, which held pockets of territory in Syria. Both Joulani and Ibrahim appealed to bin Laden’s successor, al Zawahiri, whose verdict was that Ibrahim should focus on Iraq and Joulani on Syria. Ibrahim rejected the verdict. The ISIS and Al-Nusra fought against each other and the ISIS conquered Raqqa in March 2013. By January 2014, the ISIS, which declared Raqqa as its capital and was formally expelled from the Al Qaeda family.

The author shows a good sense of history when he draws attention to the two failed attempts to establish a Wahhabi state by the Al Saud family. The still enduring Wahhabi state was finally established in Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. The author feels Saudi Arabia is the third Wahhabi state and the ISIS is the fourth in history. He points out that a crucial difference between the fourth and the third is that while the latter agreed to live in peace with its neighbours and accept the emerging international order, the former has adopted “continuous jehad” as the duty of every true Muslim.

Jehadism & the West
A remark or two might be in order at this stage. The author correctly refers to the anti-Soviet jehad in Afghanistan and bin Laden as the starting point of jehadism in our times and delves much deeper into Islamic history. It will be interesting to ask why the jehad in Afghanistan was necessary.

Obviously, because the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan. By now it is accepted by most scholars that the U.S. Special Forces were working in Afghanistan months before the Soviet military entered the scene and that Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, sent him a message congratulating him for giving the Soviets their “own Vietnam”. In short, if Carter had not maliciously drawn the Soviet military into Afghanistan we might not have had bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, and if Bush had been wise enough not to invade Iraq in 2003 even the ISIS might not have entered history.

Another point to be noted is that the ISIS became a force to reckon with only after it captured Mosul in June 2014. The U.S. under Barack Obama could have prevented the capture of Mosul, but chose not to do so as U.S. intelligence for a while considered the ISIS as a counterweight to be used against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Let us not forget that the Pentagon controlled Iraqi airspace and did know that al-Baghdadi was advancing towards Mosul from Syria.

In short, to understand the origins of jehadism, it is necessary to highlight the contribution of the West in different ways. Any account that leaves out the commissions and omissions of the West is historically unsound.

The India connection
The second part dealing with the ISIS’ India connection will no doubt be of greater interest to the public. The organisation got more foreign fighters than others in the same category mainly because it had territory. The ISIS looks at the world through a “core and periphery prism”. It does not believe in a nation state and seeks a “perpetually expanding Caliphate”. The South Asia operations are carried out from the ISIS wilayat (province) of Khorasan in Afghanistan. Dhabiq, the ISIS’ online English magazine, once carried an interview with an ISIS leader who said that they would take over Kashmir in the near future.

Indians from India and West Asia have joined the ISIS in Khorasan. It is to be noted that the ISIS got many more operatives from the economically advanced south Indian States compared with the relatively backward States in the north. A study by Brookings Institution shows that of the 142 recruits from India, Kerala accounted for 37, Telengana 21, Maharashtra 19, Karnataka 16, Uttar Pradesh 15, Madhya Pradesh six, Tamil Nadu five and Gujarat four.

The Salafist
The author tries to explain the reasons for the relatively large number of ISIS recruits from Kerala. The Salafist movement in Kerala goes back to 1922 when the Muslim Eikya Sangham (Organisation for Muslim Unity) was founded. It started exhorting its adherents to live as the Prophet and the ancestors lived. Over time, Salafism moved away from its reformist currents and embraced the “puritanical Wahhabi ideals”. The strong connections with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are also a contributing factor. What is striking is that the young who are attracted to the ISIS are educated and employed.

Stanly has met and talked to parents of the young people from India who joined the ISIS and some of those who were arrested before they could leave. The case of two brothers, Ijaz Rahman, 34, a doctor, and Shihaz Rahman, 28, a management graduate, is particularly interesting and even intriguing. At some point of time in their life they turned “extremely religious” and started giving up “luxuries”. They left to join the ISIS with their wives and Ijaz’s son. Shihaz pretended that he was taking his family to Mumbai while Ijaz claimed that he was going to Lakshadweep. Rashid, supposedly the leader of the group of 21, including six women, who left India, is a 30-year-old software engineer associated with the Islamic scholar M.M. Akbar’s Peace International School. The family members of the 21 have said that they were influenced by online propaganda. Most of them sent messages to their families that they had reached Dawlatul Islam, an expression used by the ISIS to refer to territory it controls.

In the last chapter, the author correctly argues that despite the ISIS losing territory in Iraq and Syria, its “organisational network and fighting force are far from destroyed” as evidenced from terrorist attacks carried out in different parts of the world. Further, there is no guarantee that the ISIS will not come back to the cities it has lost as it might not be possible for the government to undo the huge damage caused by the war against the ISIS and restore harmony and normalcy. The ISIS has indicated clearly that it will be “globalising” its operations.

There is a useful glossary and some documents in the annexure. The detailed footnotes are helpful. The editing could have been better. It is stated (page 73) that at its peak the ISIS was as big as the United Kingdom, “ruling over 2 million people”. The comparison with the area of the U.K. is more or less correct. But, according to Rand Corporation, at its peak the ISIS had 11 million people under it. Mosul was captured in June 2014 and not in July 2014 as stated on page 101. In a book that contains so many unfamiliar names, an index would have been useful.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is the author of Diplomacy:

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

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

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

Nikolai Sukhanov, 1984.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fight for soviet power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those Bolsheviks who, like Kamenev, were opposed to Lenin were arguing that his opposition to the provisional government was too empty, too formal—too much like just sitting there saying that it is an imperialist government. They asked: how do we get across the message that an imperialist government is bad? Let’s put across some specific demands to expose this government.71

But, as noted above, Marot argues that kontrol meant control. And for Lenin: “There can be no control without power. To control by means of resolutions etc is sheer nonsense”.72 However, for Lih the interpretation is more nuanced; along the lines of keeping a watching-brief or as he puts it: “checking up on” the provisional government.73 But, if correct, this can hardly be said to be any more vigorous than Lenin’s supposed “passive” patient explanation.

Did “patient explanation” really mean, as Lih suggests, “just sitting there saying it is an imperialist government”.74 Manifestly in practice it really meant party members going to the masses, concentrating on the need for taking the vlast (power) from below and directly confronting the fact that despite its democratic trappings the provisional government was still a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie determined to keep power in the hands of the capitalist class. Hammering this point home systematically and persistently at the grassroots in the workplace, the streets, the barracks, as well as in the soviets was far more subversive than “clever” tactical manoeuvres to catch the opposition out. For Lenin the provisional government was already debased as things stood. Any support or denunciation of it was not contingent on any further actions on its part. Moreover Kamenev’s half-baked attempts at posing transitional demands were never going to be a substitute for the real thing: “peace, bread and land”. Instead Lenin was banking on the perspective of a deteriorating state of affairs both at the front and at home and on the continued resistance of the stratum of workers who had risen to their feet in the upwards years of 1912-14 following the massacre of 500 miners in the Lena goldfields. Even prior to the April debates Lenin had argued that:

All countries are on the brink of ruin; people must realise this; there is no way out except through a socialist revolution. The government must be overthrown, but not everybody understands this correctly. So long as the provisional government has the backing of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, you cannot “simply” overthrow it. The only way it can and must be overthrown is by winning over the majority in the Soviets.75

On this point it is worth noting that even as late as mid-June at the first All-Russia Congress of Soviets there were still only 105 Bolshevik delegates out of 882.76 The pressure to accommodate to the majority must have been enormous. Patient explanation, or as Trotsky put it, “bringing the consciousness of the masses into correspondence with that situation into which the historic process had driven them”,77 was one of the elements of practical agitation by which the social base of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries operating in the soviets could be undermined.

All of this soon came to pass. By mid-summer the provisional government’s demand for increased conscription into the army coupled with mass desertions following its orders, under pressure from its fellow imperialist allies, to resume offensive military operations began to erode its support base. Within the Bolshevik Party Kamenev’s de facto “revolutionary defencism” position was also being undercut. Kamenev, if he truly was the embodiment of old Bolshevism, never really seemed to learn from this. In regard to the so-called Democratic Conference in September, an event actually called by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and dismissed by Lenin as “idiotic babbling”,78 he severely criticised Kamenev for his “constitutional” approach: “Comrade Kamenev was wrong in delivering the first speech at the conference in a purely ‘constitutional’ spirit when he raised the foolish question of confidence or non-confidence in the government.” What he should have been concentrating on was exposing the widely known truth of provisional government leader Alexander Kerensky’s “secret pacts with the Kornilov gang”.79 His wrath was also aimed at the 136 Bolshevik delegates. “The Bolsheviks should have walked out…and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions…the Bolshevik delegation ought to have gone to the factories and the barracks; that was the proper place for delegates”.80

A few weeks later, on the very eve of the October Revolution, Kamenev alongside Grigori Zinoviev publicly denounced the plans for insurrection in the Menshevik press. There is too long a trail here to suggest that his and the old Bolsheviks’ dispute with Lenin over the April Theses was merely one of mutual misunderstanding. There was a right-leaning wing and a left-leaning wing among the Bolshevik leaders. Kamenev rep.resented one, Lenin the other.

Socialism and Bolshevik propaganda

Finally, Lih sets great store in the claim that Lenin in reality played down the vision of socialism as being central in the build-up to the October Revolution. We need to be aware that at this time, during the summer months of 1917 and encompassing the dramatic events of the July Days, when sections of the Bolsheviks were drawn towards a premature insurrection, Lenin was very wary of being tactically deflected into an abstract cul de sac of arguments about the nature of socialism. He was especially concerned not to overlook exposing what he termed the plunder of the state such as the 500 percent profits being made from war supplies: “The bourgeoisie want nothing better than to answer the people’s queries about the scandalous profits of the war supplies deliverers, and about economic dislocation, with ‘learned’ arguments about the ‘utopian’ character of socialism”.81

Nevertheless Lih is content to ignore this context. He approvingly quotes the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who stated in his memoir of 1917: “Was there any socialism in this [the Bolsheviks’] platform? No, I maintain that in a direct form the Bolsheviks never harped to the masses on socialism as the object and task of a soviet government; nor did the masses in supporting the Bolsheviks, even think about socialism”.82 In endorsing Sukhanov’s view, Lih produces evidence in the form of a study of a sample of 50 leaflets issued by the Moscow organisation of the Bolsheviks between April and October 1917. Lih contends that, in the three months preceding the October Revolution, “socialism in general only gets a passing mention…in the ten or so leaflets…issued during and immediately after the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. Neither socialism nor any kind of socialist measure are mentioned anywhere”.83 Setting aside Lih’s reference to “the Bolshevik coup”, surely to a large extent all this misses the point. What was of much greater significance was that of all the political organisations the Bolsheviks alone called for “all power to the soviets” recognising them as the social force that could bring about socialism. This was a slogan that the political logic of pre-April 1917 Bolshevism, with the residue of its Kautskyan legacy still hanging over it, could never have advanced. Marot rightly contends that:

Whether they often or seldom called for it is not critical. No other political formation called for it. No other party called for workers’ power. At this point, in the summer and autumn of 1917, long after the conclusion of the April debates, the Bolsheviks were confident that if the workers came to power it would mean the overthrow of the provisional government since there could be no stable soviet workers’ state even under the most democratic bourgeois rule.84

Lih cites the 50 Moscow Bolshevik leaflets in support of his view that an orientation towards “socialism” or a socialist revolution was not a necessary pre-condition for a revolutionary overthrow of the provisional government, a view that was certainly held by Kamenev. But is this the only factor in play here? In trying to avoid the pitfalls of either being rigidly dogmatic on the one hand or prosaic on the other concerning the overall conceptual rigour of their political message, the Bolsheviks knew what every revolutionary socialist activist, before or since, knows, that if they were to reach beyond their primary circle of supporters and connect with the workers and peasants they were trying to win over, they would need to adopt a more everyday style of language in their pamphlets. After all, the largest party in Russia was also the party whose vast majority held the greatest ideological fear of seeing the revolution develop towards socialism—the (misleadingly named) petty-bourgeois populist Socialist Revolutionary Party. In his concluding speech to the April Conference of the Bolsheviks on 29 April Lenin went some way to distinguish between party “political” resolutions and party agitational and propaganda pamphlets. He summed it up as follows:

Our resolutions are not written with a view to the broad masses, but they will serve to unify the activities of our agitators and propagandists, and the reader will find in them guidance in his work. We have to speak to the millions; we must draw fresh forces from amongst the masses, we must call for more developed class-conscious workers who would popularise our theses in a way the masses would understand. We shall endeavour in our pamphlets to present our resolutions in a more popular form, and hope that our comrades will do the same thing locally. The proletariat will find in our resolutions material to guide it in its movement towards the second stage of our revolution.85

It is, of course, also perfectly possible that within this context of “patient explanation” the Moscow comrades didn’t always get it quite right.

When Lenin addressed the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets on 26 October 1917, the day after the provisional government was dispatched into the dustbin of history, he finished his report by announcing: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”.86 He did not say “we shall now proceed to complete the democratic revolution to the end”. Lih’s continual discounting of Lenin’s interventionist role in the Bolshevik Party leads him to emphasise the “inner continuity” of the party while depriving the April Theses of any lasting significance in actively sharpening the party’s revolutionary edge. Lenin was focused on active agency and the ability to exploit a chaotic situation, not simply waiting passively for the “Marxian” laws of economic determinism to clarify the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. Trotsky seems to have a far greater grasp than Lih of the relationship between the two when he writes:

The Party could fulfil its mission only after understanding it. For that Lenin was needed. Until his arrival, not one of the Bolshevik leaders dared to make a diagnosis of the revolution… His divergence from the ruling circles of the Bolsheviks meant the struggle of the future of the party against its past. If Lenin had not been artificially separated from the party by the conditions of emigration and war, the external mechanics of the crisis would not have been so dramatic, and would not have overshadowed to such a degree the inner continuity of the party development.87

Lenin was never the type of leader to allow himself to be held back by what he viewed as shibboleths or dogmatic orthodoxy even if such ideas were held by large swathes of old Bolsheviks; the thoughtful, loyal, resilient but also conservative backbone of the party. He would have been well aware that without the courage and sacrifices of these comrades there would have been no Bolshevik Party and without a party no realistic prospect of achieving a socialist revolution. But, just as importantly, he also knew that a “Leninist” party could only be successful when it substantially grasped strategically as well as theoretically the context within which it was working and changed accordingly. The key question here was did an advanced revolutionary class exist or did it not? In delivering the April Theses Lenin did not cease to be a “Leninist” or in many ways, for that matter, an old Bolshevik. What he did in Trotsky’s words: “was to throw off the worn-out shell of Bolshevism in order to summon its nucleus to a new life”.88 When Lenin delivered the April Theses we see him in practice arriving at the same conclusion as that which Trotsky had theorised ten years earlier. The theory of permanent revolution and the April Theses now dovetailed together. Lih’s assessment of old Bolshevism makes it virtually indistinguishable from Menshevism. Without the political and strategic renewal, the break in gradualness, spurred on by the April Theses—“Leaps, Leaps, Leaps” as Lenin noted in the margins of Hegel’s Science of Logic—the revolution would have been halted at its bourgeois democratic stage and then been rapidly beaten back.89

It is not the purpose of this article to delve into the debates concerning the precise meaning of Leninist or Leninism. There are already immense amounts of literature and articles covering this topic ranging from the proverbial number of angels on the head of a pin to much more thoughtful and contextual appraisals. A good example of the latter is Paul Le Blanc’s Unfinished Leninism, where the Stalinist usurpation and subsequent destruction of Lenin’s worldview are largely taken as read. For my part I am content at present to locate my use of these terms within the commentary of the Russian literary critic D S Mirsky: “Leninism is not identical with the sum of Lenin’s outlook. The Marxist precedes in him the creator of Leninism, and the vindication and re-establishment of genuine Marxism was one of his principal tasks in life”.90 As we enter the sociopathic age of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the persistent failure of neoliberalism as well as that of social-democratic reformism to confront and deal with the historic levels of inequality that global capitalism is creating has produced an intense stirring of discontent and protest. The spectre of a re-run of the 1930s or even a return to the inter-imperialist rivalry reminiscent of the years prior to 1914, but this time with nuclear weapons, is a chilling prospect. With the recent revelation that eight individuals have a combined wealth greater than that of the bottom three and a half billion of the planet’s population91 the ideals of the April Theses and the October Revolution remain unfinished business.


1 Sukhanov, 1984, p280. Nikolai Sukhanov was a Menshevik who witnessed Lenin’s return to Russia.

2 Dates in this article refer to the old style or Julian calendar which was 13 days behind the western Gregorian calendar. Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1918.

3 The soviets or workers’ councils comprised delegates elected directly from workplaces, army regiments and local communities.

4 Also known as “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”—Lenin, 1917c.

5 Lenin, 1905, pp17-28.

6 Lenin, 1902.

7 Lenin, 1905, p20.

8 Marxism on the State provided the draft for Lenin’s most insightful contribution to Marxism: The State and Revolution, written in August-September 1917.

9 Lih, 2011.

10 Lih, 2011, p199.

11 Lih, 2011, p199.

12 Trotsky, 1932.

13 Corr and Jenkins, 2014.

14 Lih, 2011, p217.

15 Marot, 2014, p151. Marot argues that for Lih “to talk about one is to talk about the other and vice-versa”—Marot, 2014, p144.

16 The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, within which the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were both factions. It was not until the 1912 Prague All-Russia Congress of the RSDLP that Bolshevism effectively crystallised as a distinct party.

17 Riddell, 2017.

18 Lih, 2011, p222.

19 Lenin, 1917a, p241.

20 Lih, 2011, p199.

21 Marot, 2014, p158.

22 Trotsky, 1931.

23 Lenin, 1917b, p308.

24 Lenin, 1917c, p21.

25 Lih, 2011, p218.

26 Marot, 2014, p163.

27 Lenin, 1917c, p21.

28 Lenin, 1917d, pp325-326.

29 Lih, 2011, p222.

30 Engels, 1884.

31 Lenin, 1917e, p149.

32 Quoted in Trotsky, 1937.

33 A G Shlyapnikov, referred to in Cliff, 1976, p98.

34 Lenin, 1915a, p435.

35 Lenin, 1917f, p65.

36 Lih, 2011, p216.

37 Marot, 2014, p162.

38 Lih, 2011, p230.

39 Lenin, 1917a, p232.

40 Lenin, 1915b, pp401-406.

41 Lih, 2011, p216.

42 Marot, 2014, p163.

43 Pravda, 8 April 1917.

44 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p319.

45 Quoted in Harding, 1978, p147.

46 Marx, 1859.

47 Marx, 1859, my emphasis.

48 Harding, 1978, p147.

49 Harding, 1978, p148.

50 Lenin, 1917a, p246.

51 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p325.

52 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p325.

53 Trotsky, 1980, p319.

54 Lenin, 1917g, pp45-51.

55 Lenin, 1917g, p46.

56 Lenin, 1917g, p46.

57 Lenin, 1917g, p47.

58 Lenin, 1917g, p45.

59 Lenin, 1917g, p47.

60 Lenin, 1917c, p23.

61 Marot, 2014, p165.

62 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

63 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

64 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

65 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

66 Lenin, 1917a, p247.

67 Lenin, 1917a, p237.

68 Lenin, 1917c, p22.

69 Rabinowitch, 1991, p36.

70 Lih, 2015, p5.

71 Lih, 2015, p5.

72 Lenin, 1917e, p153.

73 Lih, 2015, p5.

74 Lih, 2015, p5.

75 In a speech delivered at the Petrograd City Conference of the Bolsheviks on 14 April—Lenin, 1917e, p147.

76 Bunyan and Fisher, 1934, p11.

77 Trotsky, 1980, p326.

78 Lenin, 1917h, p43.

79 Lenin, 1917h, p45. By this time the “socialist” Kerensky had become prime minister and General Kornilov had become the extreme right wing commander-in-chief of the army.

80 Lenin, 1917h, p43.

81 Lenin, 1917j, p45.

82 Lih, 2011, pp234-235.

83 Lih, 2011, p238.

84 Marot, 2014, pp165-166.

85 Lenin, 1917a, p313.

86 Lenin, 1917i, introduction.

87 Trotsky, 1980, pp330-331.

88 Trotsky, 1980, p235.

89 Lenin, 1914, p123.

90 Mirsky, 1931, p192

91 Socialist Worker, 2017.


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

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Article 1917, Bolshevik Party, Lenin, Russian Revolution


Reconnecting Reform and Revolution: Socialists in the Mist- Michael Hirsch

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2018 Comments Off on Reconnecting Reform and Revolution: Socialists in the Mist- Michael Hirsch


Michael Hirsch is a New Politics board member, a New York-based labor and politics writer, and a moderator with the Portside news service. He is a member of the Lower Manhattan and Labor branches of New York DSA.


Reconnecting Reform and Revolution: Socialists in the Mist



by Michael Hirsch


Summer 2018         Vol:XVII-1     Whole #: 65 Printer-friendly version



If one thing was clear coming out of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America’s May 5 convention, it was that most delegates uniformly consider themselves socialists and aspire to build an anti-corporate resistance movement nationwide. So far, so good.


It was also clear a solid majority—including this writer—think some range of electoral activity in support of left-leaning Democratic Party electeds and aspirants is called for, though too few offer even a dollop of sympathy for insurgent independent and third-party efforts, which are no less tactical interventions that should never be proscribed. Yet when it comes to propounding a socialist program, those reds among us who have ever worked in Democratic clubs or in independent electoral efforts rarely if ever push the kinds of demands that challenge the capitalist system at its root. We hesitate at our peril.


Our reticence is explained in part because the range of the permissible is so circumscribed it becomes self-censorship. We want to appear practical and not alienate allies who agree with us on shorter-term issues. We want to avoid being caricatured as dreamers and vocal dilettantes or being called “resolutionary” socialists or worse.


Add to the fact that the leadership of most unions has no perspective beyond the next election cycle—witness their near total prostration in New York state before the vindictive, corporate-bought Andrew Cuomo and the studied indifference toward the excellent Gayle McLaughlin’s uphill fight for Golden State lieutenant governor—or even beyond a potential internal union challenge, and swimming against the current comes with a price. In fact, despite our socialist coloration, we lefties add precious little in actual mass work to programmatic arguments that could spur movements and legislation in an anti-capitalist and genuinely “social” direction.


Despite the brave words espoused by two insurgent Democrats addressing the concluding session of the DSA conference, nothing they said was radical in rooting out corporate domination of everyday life. No systemic challenge to property or social relations was even hinted at. The fault was not theirs, in my opinion. They were framing in militant terms the short-term bounds of the electorally possible when not playing to the expectations of the crowd. DSA has a higher purpose, but sadly they and we are not meeting it.


Note that everything does not depend on us. Mass movements often are sparked by rank and file leaders with only the most casual relationships to socialist groups or even theory. The old joke that spontaneity means somebody else did the organizing—a good riposte to stage-managed orthodox Leninist preaching—is true enough, but it doesn’t deny the crying need for anti-capitalist theorizing and for political programs whose winning would transcend capitalism. The much vaunted “base building” won’t come from electoral activity alone, nor will “activism” writ large without confronting the question of activism for what ends. We can’t just be the best builders of the movements, as worthy a goal as that is. We need a turn toward theory and socialist—read anti-capitalist—program.


Neither is a blanket demand for “democracy” of much utility, even in the age of a demented Trump and a regressive neoliberalism. Of course the mass of people should choose, but choose what? What are the choices? What is the left offering in the way of choice?


A turn toward theory—actually a course correction, and not initially a major one, I believe—points to the necessity of doing what contemporary mass movements miss.


Take the demand for free education from pre-K through college. It’s a good demand—who but a right-wing elitist would oppose it?—but it doesn’t in itself begin a critique of capitalist education, whether in furthering its democratic nature or in challenging curricula. What is gained if business school pedagogy remains unchanged, if economics remains the terrain of free-market ideology, if the social sciences remain compartmentalized, if vocational education is widely available but limited to business’ quotidian needs, and if schooling is largely hermetically sealed from creative work in all but the arts and experimental colleges?


Or take the crisis in housing. Sure, we can rightly abrade electeds for not vigorously supporting rent control, and we can get outraged at the rise of luxury housing treated as a trading commodity that leads to hundreds of thousands of vacant lux apartments in cities waiting for high income buyers even as homelessness swells. But at a mass statewide housing rally in New York in mid-June demanding rent-stabilization and just-cause eviction laws, and lambasting the state’s laggard governor as a witting tool of his real-estate funders, just one speaker made the sage intersectional connection between the housing crisis and related social ills, noting how precarious housing is a health care issue, too.


In New York City, we can and should blast the City Council for limiting its oversight to housing authority headaches after the fact and for favoring land use, zoning, and public-private development schemes as the sharp edges of housing policy, but we leave buried the old socialist chestnut of nationalizing large private holdings. Our housing crisis stems from corporate control. Who if not us will address that programmatically?


Then there are the depredations of the financial sectors. Who among lefties in Democratic Party spheres is raising nationalization of the banks, with or without workers’ control, as a viable, rational, necessary, and winnable program? Who is militating against crimes of the finance, insurance, and real estate sector that will cause the next financial bubble’s bursting? Not yet at least are comrades itching to do Democratic Party electoral work ostensibly as socialists.


The same weakness persists in the righteous demand of Medicare for All, a policy that is itself a vast improvement over single-payer, but only the beginning of wisdom. Of course Medicare for All would be a body blow to the insurance industry and bring accessible, quality care to many more millions. That’s reason enough to support it, not to mention its capacity to engage millions more in a struggle to win it. But in itself it will do nothing to democratize medicine or collapse the insane specializations that plague the disabled and older, retired Americans for whom primary care physicians are only traffic cops on the road to a plethora of specialists. Much of leisure time is barely leisurely for many seniors, who are on a first-name basis with as many as a dozen of their widely scattered healers. Without de-emphasizing the demand of Medicare for All, a vital and winnable reform, socialized medicine and reducing private practices to the bare mimimum should be part of our radical credo, too.


Here’s the problem: It’s as if our socialist politics is religiously understood but inapplicable to politics except as the most moderate of ethical reforms. It’s as though we self-described socialists are Marxists in faith but not so much in fact. At our best we are radicals capable in many admirable cases of critiquing the system sharply enough in thought and on the page but moving against it only hesitantly and under heavy restraint, explained as realpolitik and excused in some extreme cases as transactional politics, or what is in reality “too little, too late.”


We say among ourselves—at least those of us honest enough to say it and not afraid of being branding as sectarians—that Bernie Sanders is barely a socialist. We know that although his domestic politics are a breath of fresh air in a fetid clime (though his foreign policy planks are not much removed from the Clintonesque), they are at best rehashed New Deal liberalism, yet some sections of the left are already thinking of how to integrate their work with a possible Bernie boomlet in 2020. That preparatory move may even be tactically wise, facilitating outreach, and so on, but it also abrogates any possibility of these Bernie-entranced boosters acting as articulators of an anti-capitalist point of view, except over coffee. We indeed have things in common with Our Revolution, the staff-dominated Sanders operation, but our many differences can’t be submerged.


Note that in my calling for a course correction toward theorizing our politics to develop a rigorous socialist program for the twenty-first century, I’m not advocating taking the exit ramp to terminal program mongering, the disease of small sects. I am suggesting that if we socialists don’t look at how a systemic critique of capital can be hammered into a popular political program encompassing what Occupy and Podemos did so well—at least symbolically—as one that offers a real-action critique of the depredations of vampire capitalism and that instrumentally connects reform to revolution—Andre Gorz’s radical reform, if you will—then all our work, whether as inside or outside of the Democratic Party or a mix of both—will be just window dressing.


This means putting more of an emphasis on developing program, both to complement organizing work and to spur basic education. I’m talking about an internal education effort by DSA and other left organizations that goes beyond trainings to developing critical theory. A lot of discussion at the aforementioned New York DSA convention seemed to be battling shadows. Some comrades chastised others for being insufficiently Marxist by tamping down class-struggle ideas and mistakenly heralding reform as of prime value in and of itself. Others treated Marxist categories as so much empty rhetoric that got in the way of real organizing and was blind to the needs of reform, something eminently winnable and capable of a mass following.


In a less confrontational moment, I believe comrades would agree—or should agree—that “reform” and “revolution” are not counterpoised, and that the revolutionary pantheon from Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukacs, Alexandra Kollontai, Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Michael Harrington (at least the young Michael Harrington)  would all agree. Like the arc of the universe, the list is long, but it bends toward justice.


We can even learn from the ventures of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, who, while no revolutionary either in theory or inclination, can be credited with contributing to the objective conditions for a nationwide upsurge by building a mass extra-parliamentary movement as a catalyst for, and an adjunct to, a future left Labour government.


Where to begin? We needn’t reinvent the wheel. Reintegrating Rosa Luxemburg’s pioneering work is no stretch, either. Her writing is largely in print, and the second volume of her projected multi-volume collected works has just been realized, which is fortuitous, given that January 2019 will mark the hundredth anniversary of her murder by the proto-fascist Freikorps under the direction of the governing right Social Democrats.


The sublime socialist makes clear that the two concepts “reform” and “revolution” are joined at the hip, something all wings of the socialist left tend to forget. The tragedy of social democracy for Luxemburg was the Second International’s disengaging of reform from revolution in practice if not in theory, resulting in the horror of all but three member parties supporting their own national bourgeoisies’ murderous land grab efforts in the catastrophic World War I. If “revolution” absent reform is fools’ gold, which it is, “reform” absent an anti-capitalist end is species extinction.


As Marx and Engels put it in the  Communist Manifesto, the outcome of class struggle was “either a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or the common ruin of the contending classes.” Pick one!


Luxemburg put it another way: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”


True that! We twenty-first century reds must do better.











How the Nicaraguan Revolution was lost-Review by Todd Chretien

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


The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis

By Dan La Botz

Haymarket Books, 2018 · 408 pages · $28.00

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



ISIS and counter-revolution: towards a Marxist analysis-Anne Alexander

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2018 Comments Off on ISIS and counter-revolution: towards a Marxist analysis-Anne Alexander






Four years after the Arab revolutions of 2011 the hopes that the uprisings kindled seem to have been all but extinguished. Libya, Syria and Iraq present grim variations on the theme of “failed states”.1 Meanwhile, a United States-led military coalition of Western powers and their Arab allies is back in action in northern Iraq and Syria, justifying their intervention with the same “humanitarian” rhetoric that provided cover for the catastrophic occupation of Iraq after 2003. In Egypt the dictatorship has resurrected itself in a more violent and bloody form than even the worst days of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, killing over 1,000 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in a single day on 14 August 2013, jailing over 40,000 political prisoners during the following year and creating a new cult of personality around Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. The iron grip of repression on Bahrain has not eased since the crushing of the uprising there in 2011.


Looming over all this, at least in the vision of the region that emerges from the Western media, is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now also known simply as the Islamic State (IS) or by its Arabic acronym, Da’ash. This violent, sectarian jihadi group seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014, routing the Iraqi army. It has captivated the Western media with well-publicised atrocities including the beheading of captured British and US citizens and systematic brutality against women, religious minorities and Muslims from other backgrounds to their own. As they have advanced across western and northern Iraq, ISIS fighters have carried out massacres and ethnic cleansing, including mass killings of members of the Yazidi religion, Shia prisoners in Iraqi jails and men from the Albu Nimr tribe, to mention only a handful of examples.2


Why is ISIS so mesmerising? It is tempting to reduce the impact of the group to the internet pornography of its violence and hope that by looking the other way it will exhaust itself and burn out. But this leaves too many questions unanswered. Is it a neo-Wahhabist state modelled on the emirates built two centuries ago by the ancestors of the Saudi ruling family and the Islamist preachers who were their allies? A gang of foreign mercenaries led by an over-ambitious communal warlord? The political and military glue holding together a new alignment of the “Sunni elite” in Iraq? Or a transnational network of alienated jihadists? Does its rise reflect the “Sunni-Shia faultline”? What about the Kurds? What role have the US, the Gulf states and Iran played in its rise?


This article represents a preliminary effort to set an agenda for answering some of these questions. It focuses on three primary tasks: first to sketch out a general theoretical framework for the analysis of ISIS from a Marxist perspective, and then to explore the specific Iraqi context in which ISIS first set down roots in more detail, followed by an analysis of the interaction between the defeat of the Syrian Revolution and the consolidation of Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule in Iraq after 2008. The focus on Iraq reflects the key role played by the current Iraqi leadership of ISIS. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has led the group since 2010, is said to be from Samarra’a, the crucible of the 2006-7 sectarian civil war, although at the time he was apparently in US detention at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, and only released in 2009.3


Finally, the article locates ISIS within the context of the crisis of reformist Islamist movements in the wake of the 2011 revolutions. The general and specific levels of this analysis are deeply connected. The catastrophe that has engulfed Iraq reflects the working out of processes at global and regional levels, but the scale of that catastrophe has in turn intensified those same processes. The weakening of US hegemony as the concrete outcome of military defeat in Iraq lies behind the relative rise of regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has set in motion a fractal process creating the conditions for the consolidation of new proto-states such as the Kurdish entity in northern Iraq.4 Will ISIS itself fall into this pattern? Its leaders have made a wager with history that they can stabilise not just a new state, but a new kind of state—the first outpost of a transnational caliphate. There are many reasons to question their judgement, just as there are many reasons to oppose the strategy adopted by the US and its allies for “dealing with ISIS” through bombing. Only the revival of forms of social and political struggle that connect the poor and oppressed of the region across differences of religious belief, language or culture can provide a real alternative to both.


Neoliberalism, sectarianism and imperialism


The 40 year long process of the adoption of neoliberalism by ruling classes across the region is the reference point onto which the other phenomena we are discussing here can be mapped. While there is not space here to explore the development of neoliberalism in the Middle East in detail, three key points are of particular importance to the analysis proposed here.5 First, neoliberalism did not entail the withdrawal of the state from the economy. On the contrary, as Sameh Naguib notes, the adoption of neoliberal policies created “an even more intimate relation between the state and capital”.6 Profitable state-run industries and services were earmarked for privatisation while others faced neglect and eventual closure, but this process created new amalgams of the state and private capital, where “privatisation” often meant the sale of public assets to the sons and daughters of officials from the ruling party.7


There were also real changes in welfare and public services as neoliberal policies transferred a greater proportion of their costs onto the poor, while facilitating their transformation into machines for making profits. Those who could not afford to pay big business for healthcare and education turned to other “private” providers: religious institutions and charities. Ironically, the political beneficiaries of this process were often the Islamist opposition movements that combined providing charitable services for the poor and lower-middle class with calls for greater personal piety and cultural resistance to the “secular state”.8


While it is tempting to see this long sweep of social change as creating a smooth transition to the new economic and political order, in reality the process intensified the uneven and combined development of the region. Unevenness increased both within economies at national level,9 and also between them. It also accentuated the frictions caused by the combination of features from different phases of capitalist development.10 For lack of space, we will simply highlight two specific axes of unevenness that have proved particularly important.


The first is the friction caused by uneven development within national economies, with some areas and sectors being more rapidly integrated into global markets and flows of investment than others. The rapid progress of the Syrian Revolution of 2011, through the most impoverished provinces and the city suburbs that had become home to the tens of thousands who abandoned Syria’s agricultural heartlands in the face of a devastating drought between 2008 and 2010, is one example.11 The three poorest regions of the country, Deir Ezzor, Hassaka and Raqqa,12 are also those that have been the cradle of ISIS’s consolidation in Syria.


The second, and equally important, example is the growing weight of Gulf capital on both a Middle Eastern and a global scale. As Adam Hanieh demonstrates, conglomerates spanning circuits of productive, commodity and financial capital accumulation have begun to play a crucial role in the wider region: investing in production and services, and using loans, diplomacy and threats to drive through neoliberal policies bent on opening new markets.13 This unevenness made the Gulf states into more powerful regional actors than they had been in the past, capable of shaping the outcomes of revolution in Egypt and Syria by backing military-led counter-revolution in one case, and working for the hegemony of Islamist armed factions over the military struggle in the other.


Neoliberalism did not entirely sweep away the political and social relations of the previous phase of capitalism, but rather combined with them in new and unstable amalgams. Eleven years after the US invasion the World Bank lamented in its 2012 “Iraqi Investment Climate Assessment” that Iraq’s economy was still dominated by the state: “the private sector today has limited role or presence, and incentives for its expansion are absent”.14 This does not mean that the application of neoliberal principles to the economy had no effect: they profoundly reshaped Iraqi politics and society. This process first hollowed out the state behind its Ba’athist facade under sanctions during the 1990s, then partially smashed it and reconstituted a new authoritarian system run by sectarian parties and militias after 2003.


The second anchor for our analysis is Karl Marx’s approach to understanding where ideas come from. Whether we are examining religious belief in general, particular sectarian ideologies or the political perspectives of specific Islamist movements, a Marxist analysis has to depart from the widely-held premise that these ideas have a life of their own, separate from material reality. In the case of the Middle East, many mainstream analysts go further, claiming that the religious beliefs of the people living there determine material reality, so that the region can only be understood through the prism of its “ancient hatreds”.15 It is no accident that the ideas expressed by ISIS’s fighters are frequently described using metaphors drawn from biology or epidemiology. Alastair Crooke, in a widely-read article, presents ISIS as a “mutation” of the “Wahhabist gene”, in other words of the transplantation of the ideology developed by Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the 18th century Arabian preacher, and his followers in the course of his movement’s long alliance with the Al Saud dynasty.16


The problem with such approaches is not that they are always wrong in substance: Crooke is certainly correct that the “Wahhabism” disseminated by Saudi official policy has been taken up by groups that risk becoming a threat to the Saudi regime itself. But by making ideas, rather than human action, the motive force of history, they obscure the ways that society changes. As Chris Harman explains, “Humans cannot act independently of their circumstances. But this does not mean they can be reduced to them. They are continually involved in ‘negating’ the material objective world around them, in reacting upon it in such a way as to transform both it and themselves”.17


The actual history of Iraq tells a very different story from the simplistic picture presented in the media. Religious, linguistic, ethnic and tribal communities are not, and have never been, a simple mosaic of discrete pieces. In Iraq, for example, marriage between Sunni and Shia Muslims was relatively common during the mid-20th century. Sunni and Shia Islam cross the linguistic divisions between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, while there are tribal confederations with Sunni and Shia members.18 Moreover, all of these “communities” are divided by social class—the landowners, businesspeople and senior state officials who claim to represent the whole, of course, have very different interests to the majority.


However, although these horizontal social cleavages, particularly those based on social relations formed in the course of production, give a “truer” picture of Iraqi society than the vertical divisions based on religious belief or tribal affiliation, 20 years of war, sanctions and occupation have created a new material basis for sectarian consciousness. Clerics who can increase the appeal of their sermons by giving families access to the mosque’s electricity generator, or tribal leaders whose connections with government officials provide access to jobs and patronage for their supporters, create social relations that help to knit together different social classes despite their contradictory “real” relationships. The strength or weakness of these social relations cannot be measured in isolation from the strength or weakness of other social relations. In a society shattered by civil war, where millions have fled their homes, the offer of a job fighting for a tribal leader or a sectarian militia may make the difference between life or death for individuals and their families. In contexts such as these there will be few opportunities for workers to test out class solidarity in practice.


Likewise, the starting point for understanding Islamist movements cannot simply be the ideas that they articulate, but rather their social content: in other words, the relationship between their members and leaders and class divisions in society. Mass Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, usually contain enormous social contradictions within their structures, with the class interests of the leadership often at variance with the aspirations of members from the working class, urban poor or lower middle class.19 ISIS is, and always has been, of a very different character as a movement. It is an elitist, military organisation which, as we will explore in more detail below, is rooted in the competition between armed sectarian factions in US-occupied Iraq.


This does not mean that the organisation is incapable of benefiting from the contradictory aspirations of people from different social classes for political or social change, and the defeat or marginalisation of other forces that appeared to advance these hopes. For example, ISIS has thrived by appearing to offer Sunnis in Iraq protection from their systematic oppression at the hands of the sectarian Shia Islamist parties at the helm of the Iraqi state. However, the entirely sectarian agenda of ISIS, combined with its military structure and rejection of any programme for political or social change that ordinary people could make their own, means that revolutionary socialists cannot take the same perspective towards the organisation that we do in relation to Hamas, Hizbollah or other armed Islamist forces.20 Unlike these organisations, which have at times provided a deflected route towards the expression of real social and political grievances for ordinary people, ISIS’s politics represent a dead end.


The third anchor for our framework is a Marxist analysis of imperialism in the region, and specifically of the catastrophic impact of US intervention in Iraq. As Alex Callinicos has discussed at length in this journal and elsewhere, the failure of this “vainglorious project” has had profound consequences at both global and regional levels.21 As noted above, US imperial overstretch in Iraq, combined with the workings of neoliberalism at a regional level, created a fractal process of centres with fraying peripheries across several dimensions. The relative loosening of US hegemony gave regional powers more room to manoeuvre against each other, just as it created spaces in which new and unpredictable actors such as ISIS could arise. Yet further imperialist interventions to “correct” the problems spawned by previous interventions—whether by bombing raids or deploying “boots on the ground”—will either bolster ISIS’s claims to be defending the people under its rule or set the scene for the rise of successor movements. Although there is no space to explore properly the relationship between imperialism in the Middle East and the rise of racism and Islamophobia in Europe and the US, these processes are intimately connected, feeding in turn into the alienation afflicting some of ISIS’s foreign recruits.


The final pivotal point on which our analysis rests is an understanding of the role of human agency in determining the outcome of impersonal and long-term “processes”. In one sense, this is an issue about connecting together different scales of analysis. One of the great strengths of revolutionary Marxism is its ability to connect together individual and collective action with abstractions that help us understand better how society works. Marxist analysis offers a unique perspective because it grasps the kind of agency that provides a real alternative to ISIS: the active intervention of the mass of ordinary people across the region in the struggle for the demands of bread, freedom and social justice, which became the watchwords of the 2011 revolutions.


Iraq after 2003: “consociationalism” and neoliberalism embed sectarianism in society


The US occupation of Iraq in 2003 set in motion processes that transformed the Iraqi state and society, leading directly (although not inevitably) to the resurgence of ISIS in 2014. US officials strove to create a “consociational democracy”, where power would be shared between representatives of different religious and national communities according to a quota system. The consociational approach to governing Iraq reacted with the extreme neoliberalism espoused by figures such as Paul Bremer, appointed to run the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the invasion, to produce a toxic combination in a society shattered by sanctions, war and occupation. US officials expected confidently that they would be able to keep the mechanisms set in motion in 2003 working in their favour, nudging the balance of sectarian power in the “right” direction from time to time as necessary. In reality, the system they created quickly ran out of their control, and could only be temporarily corrected by an enormous infusion of money and troops during the “surge” of 2007-8.


It is important to put the developments after 2003 in the correct context. Iraqi society before 2003 was certainly not free of sectarianism. The Ba’athist regime had long used sectarianism and encouraged ethnic conflicts in its efforts to maintain power. For example, its propaganda portrayed all Shia opposition groups as a “fifth column” working for neighbouring Iran, and it settled Arab citizens in largely-Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in order to assert control over the oil-rich northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. However, the impact of sectarianism on society was blunted by a number of factors, including the mixing of Iraqis from different religious backgrounds in state employment. The capital city, Baghdad, retained a large Kurdish population, even at the height of Saddam Hussein’s brutal war against the Kurdish insurgency in the north,22 and, despite the efforts of some Shia Islamist forces to persuade them otherwise, the majority of Iraqi Shia conscript soldiers did not break ranks and side with their Iranian co-religionists during the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, the legacy of the great political struggles of the 1940s to the 1960s, dominated by competition between secular currents such as the Communist Party and the Ba’ath Party itself in the context of high levels of strikes and social protests, was still influential among an older generation of activists.23


However, the defeat of Iraqi forces in 1991, and the impoverishment of Iraqi society as a result of the sanctions regime that was imposed immediately afterwards created much more fertile ground for sectarianism to take root in society. Reeling from the impact of the uprising that began in the South, the Ba’athist regime desperately sought allies who could exercise military and political power on behalf of the state. Saddam Hussein created an Office of Tribal Affairs in order to manage relationships with tribal leaders who had been empowered by the weakening of central government. He also presented himself as a great Sunni leader, mobilising faith campaigns and courting the Sunni religious establishment. At the same time the weakening of state institutions under the crushing pressure of international sanctions created spaces into which religious institutions expanded their activities, providing welfare, education and health services to an increasingly desperate population.24


From the very beginning, even before they had set foot in Baghdad, US officials decided to deal with Iraq as a country composed of competing, distinct communities. This view of Iraqi society seems to have been based on the rough estimates of the percentages of Arab Shia, Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs reflected in a map of Iraq that circulated widely among US officials in 2003.25 Sectarian “balance”—and therefore its corollary, sectarian competition—was enshrined in America’s Iraq from the start.26


The practice of muhasasa, or the use of a sectarian quota system for appointments, was implemented by political parties whose survival was bound up with entrenching sectarianism. As Toby Dodge explains, it is a system “that has, in effect, privatised the Iraqi state. The system has allowed the Iraqi political elite to strip state assets for personal gain and to fund the parties they represent”.27


A key reason why this process quickly spiralled out of control was its interaction with the neoliberal assault on Iraq’s remaining infrastructure. Paul Bremer rushed through laws forcing open the public sector, the welfare system and health services to privatisation.28 However, although US corporations initially made a quick buck from the contracting process, it was not international investors who were the main beneficiaries of the partial dismemberment of the Iraqi state, but rather local strongmen, leaders of militias and sectarian parties who were able to turn many of its institutions into highly profitable protection rackets.29


The initial political winners of this process were the Shia Islamist parties closest to the US, such as the Da’wa Party and its rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). They led the efforts to mobilise Shia support for the occupation on a sectarian basis, in an attempt to undercut the success of other Shia Islamist forces such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which opposed the US. Kurdish allies of the US also benefited, with the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani, becoming Iraqi president in 2005. The PUK and the other major Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, meanwhile consolidated their grip on the Kurdish-majority regions of northern Iraq, which had attained de facto independence during the 1990s under the protection of the US no-fly zone.30


The rising calls for Shia communal solidarity from the Shia Islamist parties allied with the US reflected the danger that a combined Sunni-Shia insurgency represented to the new political establishment. Even if their attacks were not coordinated with each other, the mere fact that the occupation was under combined attack from fighters in “Sunni” Fallujah and “Shia” Sadr City and Najaf threatened to disrupt the mechanisms by which the US and their allies were attempting to govern Iraq. Opinion polls in March and May 2004 commissioned by major US newspapers and even by the Coalition Provisional Authority itself showed that 80 percent of Iraqis in both Sunni and Shia majority areas thought of US troops as occupiers, and 81 percent wanted them to leave, despite the fact that Sunni areas had borne the brunt of repression.31


It was a military as much as political problem, demonstrated by the fact that in 2004 Shia troops refused orders to march on Fallujah with the US to quell resistance there.32 Yet the US and its allies were successful in derailing the beginnings of a cross-sectarian alignment between insurgents in majority Sunni and Shia areas. They isolated and stormed key areas in western Iraq that were centres of military resistance, in particular Fallujah. However, this was complemented by a strategy to bolster the idea of a common “Shia” interest in securing power in the emerging structures of the post-Ba’athist state. The intervention of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key figure in the Shia clerical establishment, was critically important in this respect. Al-Sistani spoke strongly in favour of participation in the 2005 parliamentary elections, making it extremely difficult for anti-US Shia leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr to support calls from Sunni insurgents for a boycott.33


The rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the sahwa, and the surge


Over the course of 2004-5 the potential for building political and military alliances against the US that cut across sectarian divisions ebbed away. One major factor was the consolidation of a sectarian consensus among the major Shia Islamist parties, who agreed broadly on a goal of seizing control of the apparatus of the state (and the inability of anti-US Shia forces such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army to challenge this consensus). Another important factor was the US strategy of smashing military resistance by full-scale assaults on Fallujah and other towns in Anbar province. In combination, these events created the space in which Sunni sectarian jihadist groups, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), were able to grow. AQI was founded by Jordanian Islamist Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004, following a declaration that his small group of Islamist fighters had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organisation. AQI’s appeal in western Iraq was largely bound up with the fact that the group’s fighters won a reputation for effectiveness against US troops, yet their leaders focused on igniting a sectarian civil war by carrying out mass bombings of Shia shrines and sites of pilgrimage.34 Meanwhile, the armed wings of various Shia factions, including ISCI’s Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, were working as anti-Sunni death squads within the police and security forces, killing and torturing hundreds of Iraqis every month.35 The bombing of the Shia al-Askari mosque in Samarra’a in February 2006 triggered a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, transforming previously mixed neighbourhoods into segregated enclaves and forcing those on the “wrong” side of the sectarian divide to flee.36


The temporary alliance between jihadist groups and other anti-US fighters in western Iraq presented a huge military and political problem for the US. Success in set-piece battles such as the assaults on Fallujah produced conditions for a perpetual insurgency. In 2006 they appeared to have made a breakthrough by breaking the tactical alliance between the jihadi forces and other armed groups from Anbar Province. It is worth outlining the “Awakening” (sahwa in Arabic) in some detail. It began as a localised military partnership between US forces and a number of Anbari tribal leaders. US forces provided training, payment and arms to Anbari volunteers who joined them in the fight against AQI.37 The alliance was initially promoted by second or third rank tribal leaders, whose ascendancy through the Sahwa eclipsed more prominent tribal leaders who had fled into exile because of the high levels of violence.38 Some sources hint that AQI posed a social challenge to the authority of these tribal leaders and attracted some of those who were marginalised within the tribal hierarchy.39


The alignment between AQI and other Anbari insurgent groups was in large part based on their assessment that US forces represented the primary threat to local people’s security. The city of Fallujah’s experience with the US occupation and the Iraqi government was extremely bitter, for example, the city was besieged and then stormed by US troops twice in 2004:


The 2004 offensive destroyed 70 percent of the city’s infrastructure including 36,000 buildings, 8,400 shops, three pipelines for water purification and two electricity stations. When civilians returned, US forces tracked them with fingerprints and iris scanners. Each had to show a US-issued personal biometric ID card when entering or exiting the city.40


AQI quickly squandered their credibility, however, by launching brutal campaigns of murder and intimidation to enforce their authority over their allies and the areas under their control. Their sectarian tactics also caused repulsion among many Anbaris, who certainly felt alienated and marginalised by the growing sectarianism of the Iraqi state, but were not engaged in a tit for tat sectarian civil war.41 Narratives from the US Army’s official oral history of the Awakening (which is over 300 pages long) make clear the intensive work US officers put in to “win hearts and minds”. An interview with “Miriam”, the wife of an Iraqi police officer, describes the work of “Captain Stephanie”, the US officer who worked with her and other women in a local NGO:


Stephanie distributes products. We call her “Santa” or “Mamma Claus.” Stephanie helped people love security. She helped women get jobs. She put rules on who should be hired: target unemployed college graduates to maximise employment… At the time, it was raging with insurgency. There were no rations available, except through Stephanie. She brought in a truckload of food and supplies—1,500 shares.42


The “Sons of Iraq” programme beyond Anbar was an attempt to transfer the Awakening to other Sunni majority areas. US forces recruited 100,000 largely Sunni volunteers across Iraq, paying them around $300 per month. As the security situation improved, US commanders promised that SoI volunteers would eventually be offered jobs in the regular Iraqi security forces or in the civil service. In 2009 the programme was officially handed over to the Iraqi government, despite the fact that Nouri al-Maliki’s regime “viewed thousands of armed Sunnis as a strategic threat”, and thus disbanded the SoI units, in some cases accompanied by extra-judicial executions or exile.43


The Awakening and the Sons of Iraq programme were part of a wider US strategy of a “surge” in troops that swelled the number of US soldiers in Iraq to 166,000 by 2007. It was these “boots on the ground” and the massive financial commitment accompanying them that made the Awakening a temporary success. As David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq during this period, tacitly admits in a lengthy and hubristic article published in October 2013, a key change in tactics by US forces after 2007 was essentially the reconquest of Baghdad neighbourhood by neighbourhood, establishing local, small-scale bases for US troops who had previously been concentrated in large bases away from the local population.44


Yet a closer look underlines why that success was ultimately shallow and short-lived. The Awakening was not in itself a break with the strategy of sectarian divide and rule. It simply represented US efforts to “redress” the sectarian balance in favour of Sunni Arab social and political elites in western Iraq, after fighters from the region had demonstrated that they could not be cowed by other means. The lubricating factors were money, jobs and weapons, while AQI’s brutal methods aided the US by alienating their potential supporters. The Awakening did nothing to challenge the sectarianisation of the state: on the contrary it contributed to its further fragmentation by creating another body of armed men who were almost exclusively from one specific religious group.


Al-Maliki’s ascendancy and the failure of the sectarian state


In many ways, the years following the “victory” of the US surge in 2008 repeated a dismally familiar pattern from the 2003-6 period. Sunni political elites from western Iraq attempted to negotiate a place for themselves within the sectarianised state apparatus. Their hopes had been raised by cooperation with the US and they approached their Shia Islamist rivals such as Nouri al-Maliki of the Da’wa Party with renewed confidence. The parliamentary elections of 2010 at first appeared to augur well for a “rebalancing” of political and sectarian factions within the state: the Al-Iraqiyya electoral bloc won the most seats, with Maliki’s State of Law bloc coming second. Al-Iraqiyya was a cross-sectarian alliance of parties led by former Ba’athist Iyad Allawi, which included a number of groups with strong roots in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq.


Maliki’s reaction to this unexpected defeat was to undo the results and impose a State of Law government under his leadership. His supporters in the judiciary issued rulings that undermined Al-Iraqiyya’s claim to form the next government. In December 2011 he had bodyguards working for the Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, arrested and, based on their confessions, ordered Hashemi’s trial on charges of organising terrorism and sectarian death squads, leading to a death sentence in absentia for the most senior Sunni politician in the Iraqi state. Other major Sunni politicians, such as finance minister Rafi’a al-Issawi, were targeted. The arrest of al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism charges in December 2012 triggered a widespread protest movement across western Iraq.


Meanwhile, in the background, Maliki pursued a ruthless campaign to assert his personal control over Iraq’s sprawling armed forces. Not content with using a pattern of sectarian appointment-making to ensure that Shia commanders predominated in the upper levels of the military, Maliki created an entirely new command structure through regional Operations Commands which answered to him personally through the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC). Finally, he bolstered Shia sectarian militias and death squads, such as the Asa’ib Ahl-al-Haq, a splinter from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and which is thought to operate at least partially under Maliki’s command. Maliki’s control over the Iraqi Army and his use of sectarian paramilitary groups intermeshed through the OCINC, which purged army officers who had taken action against the Shia militias.45


It is important to understand the specific characteristics of Maliki’s regime, as they help to explain the swiftness of the Iraqi army’s collapse at Mosul. He systematically used sectarian rhetoric to bolster his own power and undermine his rivals, and organised and enabled sectarian violence and discrimination. But Maliki’s power was also highly personalised, relying on networks of cronies in the army and the institutions of the state, including the Iraqi army commanders who apparently fled Mosul even before their troops.46 Thus behind the imposing authoritarian facade, which brooked no criticism, rivalry or dissent, it was also fragile, incompetent and increasingly dysfunctional.


The initial response in Sunni areas of Iraq to Maliki’s offensive was not, in fact, to relaunch military action against the central government forces. Quite the contrary. Maliki’s repression and attacks on Sunni politicians triggered a widespread popular protest movement that experimented with tactics reminiscent of the street protests and occupations of the Arab revolutions of 2011. The protest movement seems to have mobilised wide social layers in the cities of western Iraq such as Ramadi and Fallujah, catching established politicians by surprise. In its early stages tens of thousands took part; their slogans demanded an end to sectarian discrimination against Sunnis and challenged Maliki’s use of repression under the banner of “fighting terrorism”. They found at least a rhetorical echo from other Iraqi political figures, including Moqtada al-Sadr, who issued a series of supportive statements, but declined to offer any more than verbal backing for the movement. A violent raid on one of the protest camps at Hawija by the Iraqi security forces on 23 April 2013, which killed 50 people, was the final turning point on the road that led to the rapid resurgence of AQI, triggering a wave of sectarian bombings in response.47


This cycle of events took place, however, in a world that had significantly changed since 2007. As discussed above, the counter-revolutionary backlash against the uprisings of 2011 included a significant rise in sectarian rhetoric across the region (with the regimes of the Gulf playing a critical role in both directly filling the airwaves and social media with anti-Shia sectarian bile and enabling others to do so). The question of sectarianism at a regional level was not of course confined to rhetoric but had by 2012-13 taken the form of interventions by regional powers into the spiralling conflict in Syria, with Sunni Islamist forces armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf States confronting Hizbollah’s Shia Islamists backed by Iran alongside Assad’s troops. The Assad regime had taken the decision early on to mobilise sectarian militias, such as the shabiha, largely drawn from members of the ruling family’s Alawite sect, but as its attempts to defeat the revolution faltered, its strategy became more and more focused on transforming the battle into a sectarian civil war pitting the Alawite elite and other minorities against the Sunni majority and pulling in regional support from Iran on that basis. This process eventually marginalised and defeated the armed revolutionary factions and local committees that had led the uprising at the beginning.


The Syrian Revolution’s transformation into civil war also had profound consequences for the revival of AQI in Iraq. It created new spaces where the jihadi fighters could operate beyond the reach of any state and accelerated the process of erasing the Syrian/Iraqi border that had been in train for several decades. This in turn intensified the mutual interactions between jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. The flows of fighters, arms and battle experience went in two directions across this now vast region, with Syria functioning as a hinterland for Iraqi jihadists, who were able to simultaneously create an effective military presence within the Syrian conflict and relaunch themselves back into Iraq as a result.48


But by far the biggest change was in the relative strength of the US as an actor in the struggles over the carcass of the Iraqi state, and more broadly over the resources of the Middle East. After 2011 the US not only did not have the “boots on the ground” that contributed to “victory” in the surge, but was in no position to turn the clock back and reconquer Iraq for the third time in the space of a decade. This was not simply the result of the military and political failures outlined above, but reflected the impact of the global economic crisis on the US after 2008. The occupation of Iraq cost an estimated $1 trillion dollars and the lives of 4,500 US soldiers.49 In a world racked by the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, US officials no longer had the blank cheque they had been given to spend their way to victory when neoconservative dreams of a “New American Century” seemed a realistic prospect.


From prison-breaks to state power?


In 2010 AQI appeared to have been crushed. Within two years, however, the organisation had begun to revive, and by September 2013 the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think-tank, announced that it was “resurgent”: capable of operating across Iraq to unleash a wave of its signature car bombings which were beginning to push casualty rates back up to war-time levels last reached in 2008.50 January 2014 saw AQI (now renamed ISIS after announcing a merger with the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda) take full control of its first city, Raqqa in the north east of Syria, after heavy fighting with other jihadi forces, including its own erstwhile sister organisation in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).51 Six months later ISIS seemed unstoppable as Mosul fell to its forces on 10 June.


This dizzying upward curve of military and political success conceals startling transitions and poses challenges that it is very unlikely that ISIS in its current form will overcome easily, if at all. The most serious of these challenges are connected with ISIS’s claim to statehood. The group’s audacity in imposing jihadi governance on major population centres in Syria and Iraq demands that it transform itself from guerrilla network to conventional army. At the same time it has to move from running a protection racket—collecting “taxes” from frightened shopkeepers—to collecting real taxes and ensuring the delivery of basic services for hundreds of thousands of people. There are many reasons to doubt that this will be easy for a small, elitist, military organisation reliant on spectacular acts of violence to ensure compliance with its will.


One of the major contrasts between ISIS and other armed Islamist movements that have achieved some degree of state authority in areas under their control, such as Hizbollah or Hamas, is illustrated by the means through which AQI began to revive within Iraq during 2012. In contrast to Hizbollah, which complemented its military struggle with Israel by organising welfare services for decades before it first entered a coalition government, AQI seems to have rebuilt itself in 2012 through a coordinated series of jail-breaks. The “Breaking the Walls Campaign” did exactly what its title suggests: AQI fighters smashed their way into prisons across Iraq to restore experienced jihadis to their ranks, culminating in an attack on Abu Ghraib prison on 21 July 2013 which released 500 or more prisoners.52


Meanwhile, AQI’s fighters were also operating in Syria alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s branch there. Again AQI’s military experience was instrumental in creating opportunities for the organisation to grow in Syria, where it began to compete with JN and ultimately with Al Qaeda’s overall leadership in Afghanistan. Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, AQI’s leader since 2010, announced the merger of the Islamic State of Iraq (as AQI had renamed itself in 2006) and Jabhat al-Nusra on 8 April 2013.53 This provoked a furious response from JN’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, who rejected the merger, and earned al-Baghdadi a reprimand from Al Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri, who instructed the Syrian and Iraqi branches to restrict their work to their respective states.54


Yet events were unfolding in Iraq that would dramatically accelerate ISIS’s development, allowing it to eclipse its parent organisation. Within days of Baghdadi’s announcement of the merger with JN the Iraqi army had stormed a camp set up by Sunni protesters in Hawija, Kirkuk governorate, killing dozens.55 This bloody end to the “Sunni spring” protests that had rocked western Iraq for months presaged the polarisation of the movement between those who began to look to armed solutions and those who were prepared to compromise with Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. The moment was ripe for intervention by ISIS, which launched a series of sectarian attacks, while Iraqi government forces raided Sunni neighbourhoods, carrying out mass arrests during “anti-terrorist” operations in Anbar and Diyala provinces.56


At this stage ISIS was still a resurgent guerrilla group, shunning urban areas and keeping its distance from the protest camps. It is unlikely that any of ISIS’s fighters were involved in the clash with the Iraqi army at Hawija, as the military forces most closely aligned with the political demands raised by the protesters were the neo-Ba’athist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiya (JRTN).57 Nor did ISIS at this stage appear to have recovered enough credibility to be able to work with local armed groups in defending their areas. This was to change dramatically within a few months as ISIS began asserting formal control over urban areas in both Iraq and Syria, and in some cases attempting to build or run government institutions. This assertion of formal control does not mean that ISIS came into cities only to conquer them: the group’s seizure of Mosul was preceded by ISIS penetration of the city over the course of several years.58


In Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, ISIS fighters took the opportunity afforded by a new upsurge of protest against yet another provocative arrest of a leading Sunni politician, Ahmed al-Alwani, on terrorism charges by Nouri al-Maliki on 28 December 2013. Protesters poured into the streets in both towns. ISIS fighters appeared alongside them, planting their black flag on municipal buildings in Fallujah as well as surrounding Ramadi and seizing part of the main highway to Baghdad.59 They faced different responses from the local political and military leaderships in the two cities. Ramadi’s political leaders, who were largely supportive of the Iraqi Islamic Party and prepared to cooperate with the government in Baghdad, rejected ISIS and called on local residents to work with Iraqi government forces to expel them. In Fallujah, however, political and military leaders attempted to negotiate an ISIS withdrawal through mediation with a newly-established military council of their own, rather than leaving the Iraqi army to bombard and attempt to recapture the city.60


Nouri al-Maliki’s government did nothing to allay Fallujah residents’ fears that the history of the 2004 assaults on the city would repeat itself. With elections on the horizon, he made the call for Shia unity behind the crushing of rebellion in Fallujah a key campaign issue while the Iraqi army increased its shelling of the besieged town. The city’s military council was thus forced into a “Faustian bargain” with ISIS, cooperating with them against the Iraqi army, but attempting to restrict their role in running the now almost empty city.61


ISIS experience in ruling Raqqa began with rebel groups taking over the city as Syrian government control collapsed in March 2013 and key tribal leaders switched allegiance from the Assad regime.62 ISIS then emerged victorious from a long and bloody power struggle with other jihadi groups to assert its authority over the town in January 2014. There are indications that ISIS focused its military assets in Syria on the battle for Raqqa in order to secure the city.63 Until the capture of Mosul in June 2014 Raqqa represented ISIS’s most developed attempt at building or running government institutions. In a detailed study, largely using social media sources, Gabriel Garroum Pla lists an array of different state institutions in Raqqa claimed as institutions of its new state by ISIS, including schools, bakeries, media institutions and courts. ISIS social media accounts claimed that an office of Consumer Protection checks for counterfeit medicines, the Awqaf Department (Religious Endowments) collects taxes and rents from shops, while the Unified Collection Office takes payments for electricity, water and phone bills. These services were provided within a system of rule which also includes spectacular displays of public violence, such as regular public executions and the crucifixion of victims’ bodies, the public burning of illicit material such as alcohol or cigarettes, and the institution of “Dignity” checkpoints where citizens are interrogated about their personal observance of ISIS’s version of Sunni ritual.64


Reports from Mosul are sparse, but interviews with residents in October and November 2014 suggest that ISIS was attempting to implement a similar system of rule to that instituted in Raqqa. “Mays”, a teacher, speaks of changes to the curriculum, with ISIS decrees banning subjects such as art and physical education and imposing strict dress codes on pupils. “Faisal” describes severe water and electricity shortages, while “Nizar’ recounts how the homes formerly belonging to the city’s Christian population had been given to ISIS members.65 Other anonymous reports via social media paint a similar picture of acute water shortages in a city overcrowded with refugees from elsewhere in Iraq, skyrocketing fuel prices, and pervasive fear of ISIS reprisals against dissenters.66


The shift from conducting guerrilla operations to running daily life in major cities has the potential to open up enormous contradictions for ISIS. Raqqa is Syria’s sixth-largest city and had a population of 220,000 in 2004, while Mosul is the second-largest in Iraq with a population of between 1.5 and 2 million. At one level, intensifying social contradictions in the cities under their control will confront ISIS with the same dilemmas that any ruler faces: how to balance coercion and consent in order to stop those they rule discovering their power to overturn the system which oppresses them. This is where ISIS’s trademark brutality can be a liability as much as an asset: fear and horror have their uses in the short term but are difficult to maintain indefinitely.


At a military level, ISIS’s bid for statehood also poses severe challenges. The transition from underground guerrilla network to a more conventional armed force, with territory to lose, requires knitting together new command structures, providing different weapons and training, and mastering different kinds of tactics. ISIS fighters have so far seemed capable of making use of captured US equipment,67 but rapid success can equally rapidly come undone as supply lines stretch and fighters have to divert resources to deal with restive populations. However, there is nothing certain about ISIS’s rule imploding under the weight of its own contradictions, as it it did in Iraq in 2006. Other factors which come into play here include the impact of Western intervention. Alongside news of discontent and misery in territories under its rule, there are also frequent reports of how US bombing pushes other armed groups to ally with ISIS for self-protection. Fighters from the Free Syrian Army and Islamist factions in Syria were reported to be seeking alliances with ISIS in late November as US bombing intensified.68


Counter-revolution and the crisis of reformist Islamism


The final context for the rise of ISIS is the crisis of reformist Islamism in the wake of the revolutions of 2011 and the counter-revolutions that followed. The popular uprisings which rolled across the region in early 2011 were fraught with promise and danger for the major Islamist organisations such as Ennahda in Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. The success of the street protests and strikes in shaking loose the structures of power appeared to offer a historic opportunity for their leaders to negotiate new openings for themselves within the state, far exceeding the modest gains they had made through years of patient electoral work. Yet the major reformist Islamist organisations69 that did win elections and form governments, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, found themselves trapped between the still-mobilised movement from below on the one hand, and the resurgent structures of the old regime on the other. Unable to contain continued social and political protests and restore the “normality” that prospective investors and large swathes of the middle class craved, and equally unable effectively to confront the core of the “military-bureaucratic machine” of the state, they lurched from triumph to tragedy in the space of a year. The overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi by the Egyptian military on 3 July 2013 was then followed by the mass murder of his supporters at protest sit-ins in Cairo and Giza and a counter-revolutionary offensive aimed at wiping out all trace of the 2011 Revolution. This offensive was not therefore aimed solely at the Brotherhood, but rather at the whole loose coalition of forces that had assembled in the uprising against Mubarak: left and liberal activists, striking workers, Islamists outside the Brotherhood who identified with the revolution’s basic demands of bread, freedom and social justice.


At a regional level, the primary backing for Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s counter-revolution came from the states that represent the capitals of the Gulf. They chose to reinstate Mubarak’s old order rather than work through Islamist reformists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Here the unevenness in regional development operated to intensify counter-revolution. Without the confidence that the massive financial resources of Saudi Arabia, UAE (and more recently Qatar) were behind him, would Sisi have had the audacity to commit crimes of the same magnitude? Note here that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi rulers made decisions based strictly on their judgement of who would be the safest pair of hands to restore conditions for a return on their investment, not their presumed ideological affinity with Islamist currents.70 In Syria, counter-revolution came from two directions: a “secular” authoritarian regime which was in reality prosecuting a sectarian civil war as its basic survival strategy, and later the gradual rise of ISIS itself which overcame other factions opposed to Assad in order to impose its rule over rebel-held areas, as described above.


The defeat of reformist Islamist currents by revived authoritarian regimes, or their eclipse by other forces was always likely to lead to a resurgence of specifically jihadi alternatives. The history of Egyptian Islamism is littered with examples of this pendulum-like movement. Sayyid Qutb, whose ideas about the permissibility of rebellion against tyranny have inspired generations of jihadists, was a disillusioned reformist who turned towards vanguardist terrorism because the consolidation of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule in Egypt convinced him that neither the existing state nor a popular movement from below could be trusted to deliver the kind of society he wanted to see.


The catastrophic defeat of reformist Islamist movements on a regional scale has intersected with the specific dynamics of Iraqi society, projecting ISIS to a wider audience, and allowing it to vie with Al Qaeda’s historic leadership for the allegiance of those looking for successful, powerful organisations that appear to be able to challenge imperialism and dictatorship. ISIS is also attractive in the context of that defeat because it offers false explanations and constructs new narratives of victimhood, providing other targets for their rage and disappointment: Shias, Christians, “immodest women”. Other dynamics of frustration and alienation are most likely at work on ISIS’s recruits from Europe: anger at rising levels of racism and Islamophobia in the context of endless imperial interventions in the Middle East.


This does not mean, however, that we can expect to see ISIS-type spectacles across the Middle East. As this article has outlined, the specific dynamics of Iraq since 2003 have interacted with the defeat of the Syrian Revolution to produce a zone of intense competition between regional powers, and new political and military actors, such as ISIS itself, in the Jazeera region, that lies between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Kurdistan, and its hinterland. These conditions are not present across most of the region, and more importantly, much of the rest of the region has a far richer experience of the kinds of struggle from below that are the real alternative to ISIS.


This is why it is also crucial to grasp the significance of 2011 as a rupture with the past. The revolutionary crisis was at once the detonation of the accumulated tensions between the social and political aspects of the transition from state capitalism to neoliberalism (if we can use such short-hand terms for a messy and complex reality) and the potential negation of the entire process. It is important here to distinguish between the idea of 2011 as creating the possibility of a reversal of neoliberalism, in other words the restoration of the state capitalist regimes that the region’s nationalist and Stalinist left craves, and the potential for opening a route to a different kind of society altogether.


Of course, even at the dizzying heights of the revolutionary wave, as regimes across the region were reeling under the impact of the greatest popular uprisings the world had seen for decades, there would have still been a very long way to travel before potential became reality. Yet the key point here is that the revolutions of 2011 made other futures beside neoliberalism possible. Moreover, and this above all is the reason why the revolutions potentially negated the trajectory of the previous decades, it was the agency of millions of ordinary people that detonated the revolutionary crisis in the first place. They marched in the streets, went on strike, occupied their workplaces, organised popular committees, broke open the regimes’ torture chambers and took up arms on a scale few had imagined was possible. There was nothing inevitable about the explosion of revolution in 2011. This rupture was not simply a natural consequence of shifting tectonic plates or the realignment of the stars: it was created by struggle from below.


And it is no accident that such struggles were, from the first, profoundly anti-sectarian, both in form and content. Anti-sectarian banners, slogans and chants dominated Tahrir Square in Egypt during the uprising against Mubarak, and were the watchwords of the early stages of the Bahraini and Syrian uprisings. The revolutionary wave also triggered a mass movement against sectarianism in Lebanon for the first time in decades. This was not a temporary aberration, but was an expression of the class content of the revolutions: the real horizontal cleavages that unite workers and the poor across the region in the face of neoliberalism and imperialism.




1: Sameh Naguib, Phil Marfleet, John Rose and Alex Callinicos gave very helpful comments on the draft of this article. Special thanks are also due to all the participants at the SWP educational on “Analysing ISIS” on 22 November 2014, as the article was rewritten in the light of the intense and fruitful discussion there.


2: Chulov, 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2014a; Human Rights Watch, 2014b.


3: Cockburn, 2014, pp28-29.


4: The emergence of a Kurdish statelet in Iraq’s northern provinces was triggered by the weakening of the Ba’athist state in the 1990s, but the inability of the US occupation to re-empower Baghdad’s authority over the region has created the conditions for its consolidation.


5: See chapters 1-2 of Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, for a more detailed discussion of the development of neoliberalism in Egypt, and Achcar, 2013, and Hanieh, 2013, for regional perspectives on the process.


6: Naguib, 2011, p5.


7: Haddad, 2011.


8: Harman, 1994.


9: For more on this question see Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, chapter 2.


10: Leon Trotsky, in his analysis of Russia’s economy at the beginning of the 20th century, argued that the uneven and combined nature of that development created an “explosive amalgam” of contradictory social and political relations which, when ignited by the sparks of protests and strikes, triggered a much deeper revolutionary process than any had foreseen (Trotsky, 1992). Trotsky’s argument centred on the combination of social and political relations across two distinct modes of production: feudalism and capitalism. When we are using the term here, we are referring to the combination of social and political relations from different phases of capitalism—Choonara, 2011.


11: Maunder, 2012.


12: Go to www.ruralpovertyportal.org/country/home/tags/syria for more details on rural poverty in Syria before the revolution.


13: Hanieh, 2013.


14: Cordesman and Khazai, 2014, p227.


15: Burleigh, 2014; Conant, 2014.


16: Crooke, 2014. See Al-Rasheed, 2010, pp13-68, for an overview of the role played by Wahhabism in the process of state formation in Arabia.


17: Harman, 1986, p11.


18: Batatu, 2004; Zangana and Ramadani, 2006, p60.


19: Harman, 1994; Naguib, 2006.


20: See articles by Philip Marfleet and Bassem Chit in this journal for more on the recent development of Hamas and Hizbollah, and Assaf, 2013b, and Harman, 2006, for further background.


21: Callinicos, 2014a; Callinicos, 2014b, p19; Callinicos, 2009.


22: Zangana and Ramadani, 2006.


23: Alexander, 2003, and Batatu, 2004.


24: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a.


25: International Crisis Group, 2013, p4.


26: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a, and Zangana and Ramadani, 2006.


27: Dodge, 2014, p17.


28: See Dodge, 2010; Herring and Rangwala, 2006, pp222-236, for more on this process.


29: See Herring and Rangwala, 2006, pp236-241, for more on the role of US transnational corporations in Iraqi “reconstruction”, and Dodge, 2014, for its later impact.


30: There is not space in this article to deal properly with the impact of the Kurdish question on Iraq. For a historical perspective on the Kurdish question see McDowall, 2003, and for the role of Kurdish parties in post-2003 developments see Herring and Rangwala, 2006.


31: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a, p27.


32: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a.


33: Alexander and Assaf, 2005b.


34: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a.


35: Buncombe and Cockburn, 2006.


36: Damluji, 2010, pp75-76.


37: Montgomery and McWilliams, 2009.


38: Al-Jabouri and Jensen, 2011.


39: International Crisis Group, 2014.


40: International Crisis Group, 2014, p9.


41: International Crisis Group, 2014.


42: Montgomery and McWilliams, 2009, p43.


43: Dermer, 2014.


44: Petraeus, 2013.


45: Sullivan, 2013.


46: Dodge, 2014; Sullivan, 2013.


47: International Crisis Group, 2013, and Assaf, 2013a.


48: Cockburn, 2014.


49: Chulov, Hawramy and Ackerman, 2014.


50: Lewis, 2013.


51: Pla, 2014, p27.


52: Lewis, 2013, p7.


53: Lewis, 2013, p9.


54: Atassi, 2013.


55: Human Rights Watch, 2013.


56: International Crisis Group, 2013, pi; Lewis, 2013, p21.


57: Lewis, 2013, p19.


58: Abbas, 2014.


59: International Crisis Group, 2014, p6.


60: Al-Jazeera Arabic, 2014.


61: International Crisis Group, 2014; Al-Hayat, 2014.


62: Holliday, 2013.


63: Lewis, 2013, p17.


64: Pla, 2014, p35 and pp27-28.


65: BBC News Online, 2014.


66: Beauchamp, 2014.


67: Chulov and Lewis, 2014.


68: Mahmood, 2014.


69: “Reformist” is used here to indicate where these organisations sit within a broad spectrum of responses to the state by Islamist currents, ranging from guerrilla warfare aimed at overthrowing the existing regime to withdrawal from society in order to found a conservative utopia, and is not meant to imply that these Islamist organisations can be equated with social democratic organisations. See Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, chapter 1, for more on this point.


70: See my review of Gilbert Achcar’s and Adam Hanieh’s recent books for more on this point (Alexander, 2014).




Abbas, Mushreq, 2014, “Can Islamic State Keep Control of Mosul?”Al–Monitor (November 14), www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/iraq-mosul-islamic-state-occupy-lose.html


Achcar, Gilbert, 2013, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Saqi).


Alexander, Anne, 2003, “Daring for Victory: Iraq in Revolution 1946-1959”, International Socialism 99 (summer), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj99/alexander.htm


Alexander, Anne, 2014, “Capital and Resistance in the Middle East”, International Socialism 143 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=986


Alexander, Anne, and Simon Assaf, 2005a, “Iraq: The Rise of the Resistance”, International Socialism 105 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=52


Alexander, Anne, and Simon Assaf, 2005b, “The Elections and the Resistance in Iraq”, International Socialism 106 (spring), www.isj.org.uk/?id=89


Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny, 2014, Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed Books).


Al-Hayat, 2014, “Al-Fallujah Bi-Wadar Naza’a Bayn Musalahi Al-Asha’ir Wa Da’ash”. Al–Hayat (3 May, in Arabic), http://alhayat.com/Articles/2110546/


Al-Jabouri, Najim, and Sterling Jensen, 2011, “The Iraqi and AQI Roles in the Sunni Awakening”, Prism, volume 2, number 1, http://cco.dodlive.mil/files/2014/02/Prism_3-18_Al-Jabouri_Jensen.pdf


Al-Jazeera Arabic, 2014, “Sitara ‘Al-Majlis Al-Askari Li-Thuwar Al-Asha’ir’ Fi Al-Falluja”, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtpqPkMdcJ4&feature=youtube_gdata_player


Al-Rasheed, Madawi, 2010, A History of Saudi Arabia, 2nd edition (Cambridge University Press).


Assaf, Simon, 2013a, “Once again, Fallujah”, Socialist Review (February), http://socialistreview.org.uk/377/once-again-fallujah


Assaf, Simon, 2013b, “Hezbollah’s Sectarian Turn”, Socialist Review (July/August), http://socialistreview.org.uk/382/hezbollahs-sectarian-turn


Atassi, Basma, 2013, “Qaeda Chief Annuls Syrian-Iraqi Jihad Merger”, Al–Jazeera Online

(9 June), www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/06/2013699425657882.html


Batatu, Hanna, 2004, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’thists, and Free Officers (Saqi).


BBC News Online, 2014, “Islamic State: Diary of Life in Mosul” (28 November), www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29600573


Beauchamp, Zack, 2014, “’Water Is Available Two Hours a Day Only’: What an ISIS-Run City Looks like”, Vox (21 October), www.vox.com/2014/10/21/7027487/mosul-isis-iraq


Buncombe, Andrew, and Patrick Cockburn, 2006, “Iraq’s Death Squads: On the Brink of Civil War”, Independent (26 February), www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraqs-death-squads-on-the-brink-of-civil-war-467784.html


Burleigh, Michael, 2014, “The Ancient Muslim Hatreds Tearing Apart the Middle East”, Daily Mail (13 June), http://tinyurl.com/kjqn6jy


Callinicos, Alex, 2009, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Polity Press).


Callinicos, Alex, 2014a, “Nemesis in Iraq”, International Socialism 143 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=981


Callinicos, Alex, 2014b, “The Multiple Crises of Imperialism”, International Socialism 144 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=1002


Choonara, Joseph, 2011, “The Relevance of Permanent Revolution: A Reply to Neil Davidson”, International Socialism 131 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=745


Chulov, Martin, 2014, “ISIS Kills Hundreds of Iraqi Sunnis from Albu Nimr Tribe in Anbar Province”, Guardian (30 October), www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/30/mass-graves-hundreds-iraqi-sunnis-killed-isis-albu-nimr


Chulov, Martin, Fazel Hawramy, and Spencer Ackerman, 2014, “Iraq Army Capitulates to Isis Militants in Four Cities”, Guardian (12 June), www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/11/mosul-isis-gunmen-middle-east-states


Chulov, Martin, and Paul Lewis, 2014, “Isis Jihadis Using Captured Arms and Troop Carriers from US and Saudis”, Guardian (8 September), www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/08/isis-jihadis-using-arms-troop-carriers-supplied-by-us-saudi-arabia


Cockburn, Patrick, 2014, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (OR Books).


Conant, Eve, 2014, “Iraq Crisis: “Ancient Hatreds Turning Into Modern Realities”, National Geographic (18 June), http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140618-iraq-shiite-sunni-isis-militants-maliki-borders/


Cordesman, Anthony, and Sam Khazai, 2014, Iraq in Crisis (Center for Strategic and International Studies), http://csis.org/publication/iraq-crisis-1


Crooke, Alistair, 2014, “Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia”, Huffington Post (2 September), www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/isis-aim-saudi-arabia_b_5748744.html


Damluji, Mona, 2010, “’Securing Democracy in Iraq’: Sectarian Politics and Segregation in Baghdad, 2003-2007”, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, volume 21, number 2.


Dermer, Philip “PJ”, 2014, “The ‘Sons of Iraq,’ Abandoned by Their American Allies”, Wall Street Journal (1 July), http://online.wsj.com/articles/philip-dermer-the-sons-of-iraq-abandoned-by-their-american-allies-1404253303


Dodge, Toby, 2010, “The Ideological Roots of Failure: The Application of Kinetic Neo-Liberalism to Iraq”, International Affairs, volume 86, issue 6.


Dodge, Toby, 2014, “Can Iraq Be Saved?”, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy (October/November).


Haddad, Bassam, 2011, Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford University Press).


Hanieh, Adam, 2013, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket).


Harman, Chris, 1986, “Base and Superstructure”, International Socialism 32 (summer)



Harman, Chris, 1994, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, International Socialism 64 (autumn), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1994/xx/islam.htm


Harman, Chris, 2006, “Hizbollah and the War Israel Lost”, International Socialism 112 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=243


Herring, Eric, and Glen Rangwala, 2006, Iraq in Fragments: The Occupation and Its Legacy (Hurst).


Holliday, Joseph, 2013, “The Opposition Takeover in Al-Raqqa”, Institute for the Study of War: Backgrounders (15 March), www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/opposition-takeover-al-raqqa


Human Rights Watch, 2013, “Iraq: Investigate Deadly Raid on Protest” (24 April), www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/24/iraq-investigate-deadly-raid-protest


Human Rights Watch, 2014a, “Iraq: ISIS Abducting, Killing, Expelling Minorities” (19 July), www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/19/iraq-isis-abducting-killing-expelling-minorities


Human Rights Watch, 2014b, “Iraq: ISIS Executed Hundreds of Prison Inmates” (30 October), www.hrw.org/news/2014/10/30/iraq-isis-executed-hundreds-prison-inmates


International Crisis Group, 2013, “Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State”, Middle East Report, number 144 (14 August), www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/iraq-iran-gulf/iraq/144-make-or-break-iraq-s-sunnis-and-the-state.aspx


International Crisis Group, 2014, “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain”, Middle East Report, number 150 (28 April), www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/iraq-iran-gulf/iraq/150-iraq-falluja-s-faustian-bargain.aspx


Lewis, Jessica, 2013, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent”, Middle East Security Report, number 14, Institute for the Study of War (September), www.understandingwar.org/report/al-qaeda-iraq-resurgent


Mahmood, Mona, 2014, “US Air Strikes in Syria Driving Anti-Assad Groups to Support Isis”, Guardian (23 November), www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/23/us-air-strikes-syra-driving-anti-assad-groups-support-isis


Maunder, Jonathan, 2012, “The Syrian Crucible”, International Socialism 135 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=824


McDowall, David, 2003, A Modern History of the Kurds: 3rd edition (I B Tauris).


Montgomery, Colonel Gary, and Chief Warrant Officer Timothy McWilliams (eds), 2009, Al–Anbar Awakening Volume II: Iraqi Perspectives (Marine Corps University Press), www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/61/Docs/Al-AnbarAwakeningVolII%5B1%5D.pdf


Naguib, Sameh, 2006, AlIkhwan alMuslimun: Ru’iya ishtarakiyya [The Muslim Brotherhood: A Socialist View] (Cairo, Centre for Socialist Studies).


Naguib, Sameh, 2011, The Egyptian Revolution (Bookmarks).


Petraeus, David H, 2013, “How we Won in Iraq”, Foreign Policy (29 October), www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/10/29/david_petraeus_how_we_won_the_surge_in_iraq


Pla, Gabriel Garroum, 2014, “Rebel Governance amid Civil War: A Black Flag in Raqqa” (Unpublished dissertation, MSc Politics, SOAS).


Sullivan, Marisa, 2013, “Maliki’s Authoritarian Regime” Middle East Security Report, number 14, Institute for the Study of War (April), www.understandingwar.org/report/malikis-authoritarian-regime


Trotsky, Leon, 1992 [1930], History of the Russian Revolution (Pathfinder).


Zangana, Haifa, and Sami Ramadani, 2006, “Resistance and Sectarianism in Iraq: Interviews with Haifa Zangana and Sami Ramadani”, International Socialism 109 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=159









How did socialists respond to the advent of fascism?-By John Riddell

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2018 Comments Off on How did socialists respond to the advent of fascism?-By John Riddell


The following talk was given on 21 July 2018 to a two-day seminar at York University
entitled “Historical perspectives on united fronts against fascism and the far right.”

The following talk was given on 21 July 2018 to a two-day seminar at York University

entitled “Historical perspectives on united fronts against fascism and the far right.”


By John Riddell


August 26, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist essays and commentary — The framework for our panel this morning is “Unity against the Right: A historical approach.”


There are in fact many histories of such united resistance, each with its own lineage. We could talk of how Louis Riel united Métis, First Nations, and many colonial settlers to battle for democracy and aboriginal rights. Or of how women debated how to find allies in their liberation struggle and the trade-off with partnerships with the sectors of the elite or of the subaltern masses. But I will not speak of this. I will also set aside the struggle of colonized peoples for unity against imperialism, so central to the socialist movement of the last century.


My topic relates to the origin of Fascism. It was born in Europe as an expression of the ideology of European supremacy, and my focus will thus necessarily be European as well. I’m going to speak of events of Italy a century ago, not simply because of their objective importance but because they carry great weight in our political memory and imagination.


Italy then ranked as an imperialist power, although a weak and unstable one, the product of an incomplete bourgeois revolution in which owners of large estates and the Catholic Church held great power, while the majority of Italy’s immense peasantry were landless. A sizable industrial working class was largely socialist in conviction, and the Italian Socialist Party governed more than 2,000 municipalities.


Formally a winner in the first World War, the Italian ruling class had been weakened by the impact of great human and material destruction in this conflict.  The war’s end brought economic crisis, the ruin of middle layers, a mass of discharged soldiers with no visible future, and a militant workers’ upsurge that for a moment seemed about to sweep all before it.


In September 1920 a great wave of factory occupations brought the country to the brink of revolution. However, the Socialists gave no leadership and the movement foundered, opening the gates to counterrevolution.


A wave of reaction was then sweeping across much of Europe. It brought many rightist dictatorial regimes to power, as in Hungary, where the regime executed 5,000 supposed Reds. The Hungarian regime was aristocratic in nature, a military dictatorship based on upper-class cadres. Italy was different: the reactionary movement seemed to emerge from among the masses themselves.


Commandos right and left



In Italy, after the war ended, the spearhead of reaction emerged: the Arditi, or “commandos,” a network of anti-labour mercenaries led mainly by former army officers. But the most successful such force, the Fascists, was plebeian. Its leader, Mussolini, had been a left-wing Socialist; the group, founded in 1919, posed as supporters of strikes and workers’ management and of land to the peasants. Yet their ideology was pro-capitalist, rooted in worship of the state and the nation. They acted as murderous anti-labour militia, financed by elements of the ruling class and tolerated or supported by the police and army. The Fascists backed up violence with a forceful ideology rejecting reason and fact while appealing to mysticism and religious-like idolatry of the state and the “man from destiny.”


By mid-1921 Fascism was a menacing mass movement. How did its opponents respond?

The Socialist party relied on the state to rein in the Fascists. Rejecting organized self-defense, it pressed the regime to take action against lawless Fascist gangs, while rejecting entry into government. At one point it signed a “truce” with the Fascists, which the latter quickly cast aside.(The Socialist refusal to join a bourgeois-dominated government, while consistent with Marxist principle, was out of step with the conduct of most Social Democratic parties in that period, which did often enter such governments.)

The democratic parliamentary parties did in fact pass laws and regulations aimed against the fascists. For example, guns were to be reregistered and seized if due cause for ownership was not produced. Barricades were to be erected on highways to block Fascist flying squads. However, implementation depended on police and judges mostly sympathetic to the far right. As a result, little of was done to enforce such measures.

The Italian Communist Party, which separated from the Socialists early in 1921, did not perceive the distinction between fascism and the democratic forms of capitalist rule. The Communists were for self-defense against fascists, to be sure, but without alliances and only when attacked. In practice, the Communist Party as an organization largely stood aside from the struggle.

Meanwhile, a spontaneous rank-and-file self-defense organization the Arditi del populo (People’s commandos), sprang up and won wide support. Both the communists and socialists were hostile to the new organization, ordering their members to leave its ranks. Alone, the Arditi del populo could not win against a fascist host financed and supported by the ruling class and aided by the regular army. Even so, the Arditi led and won pitched battles against the Fascists on several occasions, indicating the road by which a united working class could have got the upper hand.

At the end of 1922, the Fascists consummated their one-sided civil war with a parliamentary deal, in which they were appointed to government by the king and mainstream capitalist parties. During the half-decade that followed, the Fascist regime hardened into a totalitarian dictatorship that lasted until 1943.


Two conclusions jump out from this depressing story:

First, the Socialists were wrong to believe the bourgeois democratic state could provide effective protection from fascism.

Second, the Communists were wrong to believe that they could deal with fascism on their own.

During the years of Mussolini’s rise, however, the policy of the Communist International on alliances evolved greatly in a direction that, if applied in Italy, might well have changed the outcome. Five stages in this process should be noted:

First, in 1920, far-right generals in Germany carried out a coup against the republican government. Social-democratic trade union leaders called a general strike that swept the country, while workers in many areas took up arms and gained effective control. The coup lasted only four days. This outcome proved the power of united workers’ resistance to the far right.

After the coup collapsed, workers refused to end their strike and demanded effective protection against the far-right conspirators. The social-democratic trade-union leaders then came up with a novel proposal: a workers’ government including all workers’ parties and based on the unions. Although that government did not come to be, the idea behind it gained support and the Communist movement took note.

The next year, the Communist International (Comintern) adopted the policy that had found expression in resistance to the German putsch, calling on workers’ parties to unite in struggle against the far right and for basic demands they had in common. This policy was known as the “united front.” It was not applied in Italy. Internationally, it met with resistance from Social Democratic leaderships. Why was this policy not applied by the Italian Communists? Their failure to conform indicates that descriptions of the Comintern’s supposedly excessive “centralism” in that period are often exaggerated.

Another year passed, and the Comintern adopted the workers’ government approach broached during the great German general strike of 1920. Such a government would be sustained by the workers movement, not the state, and could serve as a transitional stage to revolution. A workers’ and peasants’ government of this general type was actually established by the October 1917 Russian revolution.

Finally, in 1923, the Comintern adopted a strategy for resisting fascism. It was elaborated and presented by Clara Zetkin, drawing on the experience above all of the German workers’ movement. Her plan consisted of four major propositions:

Workers self-defence against fascist violence: not through individual terror, but through “the power of the revolutionary organized proletarian class struggle.”

United front action against fascism “involving all working-class organizations and currents regardless of political differences.”By endorsing the Arditi del Populo, the Comintern indicated willingness to join in anti-fascist struggle with non-working-class forces. They rejected, however, the perspective of a bloc with capitalist parties for government.

An ideological campaign to reach the best of the young people influenced by fascism who, in Zetkin’s words, “are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul. We must show them a solution that does not lead backward but rather forward to communism.”

Demonstration of “absolute determination to fight to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie in order to resolve capitalism’s social crisis,” including by “cementing the alliances necessary to do so.” Zetkin insisted that the perspective of a workers’ and peasants’ government “is virtually a requirement for the struggle to defeat fascism.”

There’s something missing here: an analysis of the racist and xenophobic essence of fascist doctrine. It was the reverse side of the fascists’ worship of an aggressive nationalism, which rested on plans for conquest of south Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Africans – all viewed as inferior peoples. In German fascism, such racial stereotyping became more explicit, maturing into a project of genocide against Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma, and other peoples.


Despite this weakness, Zetkin’s report and resolution, adopted by the Comintern in June 1923, stand as the outstanding exposition of a Marxist response to fascism during its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. It theorized the lesson of the Italian Arditi del Populo experience while fusing it with a perspective for workers’ power. Alternatively, the Comintern position can be seen, as Leon Trotsky later insisted, as an application of the Bolsheviks’ united front policies in the run-up to the Russian October revolution of 1917.


Given the strategic force of this position, it may seem surprising it was applied during only two brief periods of Comintern history. Comintern anti-fascist policy proved to be unstable, going through no less than six reversals up to the International’s dissolution in 1943. Two of these turnabouts were particularly significant:

In 1928 the Comintern reverted to the sectarian stance of Italian Communists during Mussolini’s rise, refusing to seek alliances with non-Communist workers’ organizations. The Social Democrats, for their part, refused of united action with the Communists. The absence of workers’ unity in action, opened the door to Hitler’s victory.

In 1935 the Comintern switched to a policy of unity with Social Democrats while adding two significant innovations: first, unity was now to embrace progressive forces in the imperialist ruling class and, second, the project was now basically parliamentary in nature: to form a progressive coalition encompassing bourgeois forces.

In my opinion, the 1935 policy, known as “popular frontism,” brought the Comintern into broad alignment with Social Democracy as regards the strategic alternative to fascism. The goal of socialist revolution was set aside in favour of a project for defense of democratic capitalism and alliance with forces within the imperialist ruling class.


This occurred at the height of Stalin’s murderous repression of Bolshevik cadres, and this witch-hunt also infected the Comintern and its “people’s front.”


To conclude, the responses of socialists to the first 15 years of fascism fall into three categories: sectarian isolation, an alliance for progressive reform, or a united front to bring working people to power. Despite the immense transformation in social structure and global geopolitics, these divergent impulses continue to find expression today, as we feel our way toward an effective defense against fascist dangers today.


A Note on Sources

Some of the material in this text is also discussed in Fumble and late recovery: The Comintern response to Italian fascism on this website.

Clara Zetkin’s contribution to developing the Marxist position on Fascism is documented in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, Mike Taber and John Riddell, ed., Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017. For the introduction to this book, see Clara Zetkin and the struggle against fascism

Sources for this text include:

Tom Behan, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, Bookmarks: London, 2003.

Jonathan Dunnage, The Italian Police and the Rise of Fascism: A Case Study of the Province of Bologna, 1897-1925, Westport Conn: Praeger, 1997.

Georgio Galli, Storia del socialism italiano, Milan: Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2008.

Daniel Guérin, Fascism and Big Business, New York: Monad, 1973 (1939).

Rossi (Angelo Tasca), The Rise of Italian Fascism 1918-1922, New York: Howard Fertig, 1966 (1938).

Paolo Spriano, Storia del Partito comunista italiano, Turin: Einaudi, 1967.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 O’Brien, 2018.

2 O’Brien, 2018, p155.

3 Darlington and Lyddon, 2001.

4 O’Brien, 2018, p171.

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

6 O’Brien, 2018, p169.


The Third Camp in Theory and Practice: An Interview with Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison-Kent Worcester

Posted by admin On August - 26 - 2018 Comments Off on The Third Camp in Theory and Practice: An Interview with Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison-Kent Worcester



Joanne and me

[Reprinted by permission from Left History 21.2]


Joanne Landy (1941–2017) and Thomas Harrison (1948–) became socialists as teenagers and have remained involved in the democratic left ever since. They were active in the student protest movement at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, where they met and became close friends and collaborators. During the 1970s, they became increasingly interested in the issue of labor rights in Central and Eastern Europe, and they worked to link democratic and social justice struggles in the Eastern Bloc with social movements in the United States, the West, and the Third World. Until Joanne Landy’s death in October 2017, they were co-directors of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD), which was founded in 1982. Initially, the organization was called the Campaign for Peace and Democracy/East and West, but with the end of the Cold War the title was shortened.

The Campaign promoted a policy of “détente from below” and worked to advance “a new, progressive, and non-militaristic U.S. foreign policy—one that encourages democracy and social justice by promoting solidarity with activists and progressive movements throughout the world.”[1] During the Cold War, the Campaign defended independent human rights, labor, and peace activists in Soviet Bloc countries and enlisted support for them among labor, human rights and anti-war activists in the West. CPD also mounted campaigns in opposition to U.S.-supported dictatorships in Latin America like Chile and Nicaragua and organized public support for these campaigns by Eastern Bloc dissidents. In the post-Cold War period, CPD opposed U.S.-led wars in the Middle East and Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights, and supported movements for democracy and social justice in Greece, Mexico, and the Middle East, including Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria, while opposing Russian intervention in Syria, Ukraine, and Georgia.[2]

As young radicals, Landy and Harrison gravitated to the “third camp” wing of the organized left. Perhaps the most prominent figure in the third camp tendency was Max Shachtman, a writer and organizer who led a major split out of the Socialist Workers Party in 1940, and helped launch a succession of socialist groups and periodicals in the mid-century period. However, by the end of the 1950s Shachtman had abandoned third camp principles, becoming a defender of United States foreign policy.[3] Another key figure on the third camp left was Hal Draper, who later won acclaim for his five-volume series on the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx. While Shachtman was based in New York City, Draper was a longtime Bay Area resident and, along with Joanne Landy, Joel Geier, Mike Parker, and other “left Shachtmanites,” played a leading part in Berkeley’s Free Speech movement.[4]

The term “third camp” implies a rejection of both the Western alliance (the first camp) and Soviet-style societies (the second camp), in favor of democratic movements in opposition to western capitalism, as well as various forms of authoritarian statism. Since its inception, the CPD developed and advanced a third camp perspective on a range of global issues, from dissident movements in Eastern Europe and the breakup of Yugoslavia, to the rise of the Arab Spring in 2010–2011, and contemporary conflicts in the Near and Middle East. Arguably, the CPD helped to reorient sections of the peace movement and the left more generally away from a focus on great power actors to a strategy of building movements from below across national and regional borders.

Joanne Landy joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth group of the Socialist Party, in 1958. She became active in the YPSL left wing, and along with Draper, Geier, and others, helped launch Berkeley’s Independent Socialist Club (ISC) in 1964. During this period, Landy was also heavily involved in the Free Speech Movement. Thomas Harrison moved to Berkeley in 1966, and joined the ISC in the same year. As the group evolved—changing its name to the International Socialists (IS) in 1969 and moving toward a “democratic centralist” internal regime—Landy and Harrison found themselves increasingly at odds with the group’s trajectory. They were expelled in 1972 for violating internal discipline, and remained independent socialist activists afterwards, though collaborating with like-minded socialist organizations and individuals, including many who were in the ISC and/or IS. In addition to their work on behalf of the Campaign, Landy and Harrison contributed to debates over foreign policy, health care, the two-party system, and third party politics, through public lectures and contributions to the socialist journal New Politics, along with other magazines and newspapers such as The Nation, The Progressive, and the New York Times.

In their capacities as co-directors of CPD, Landy and Harrison worked alongside several prominent figures, such as the Berkeley student radical Mario Savio, Chilean playwright Ariel Dorman, whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, actor Ed Asner, French leftist writer Daniel Singer, then-radical Polish dissident Jacek Kuron, and the historian and anti-nuclear activist E.P. Thompson. The conversation that follows addresses important theoretical and strategic issues, but it also touches on these and other larger-than-life personalities. As the conversation makes clear, Landy and Harrison developed a carefully considered approach to social activism that combined a firm commitment to political clarity with a willingness to pursue friendships and common activity with people from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives.

The interview is organized into eleven sections. The first and second (Family Backgrounds, and Radical Politics) explore the social milieu in which Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison were radicalized in the late 1950s (Landy) and mid-1960s (Harrison). The third, fourth, and fifth sections (The Independent Socialist Club, Socialist Horizons, and The International Socialists) address their involvement in organized third camp politics from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. The history of Shachtmanism is not well documented and these sections may be of particular interest to readers who are curious about the development of radical, small-d democratic leftism in the United States. The sections that follow (Expulsion and Beyond, Solidarnosc, and Détente from Below) are concerned with the turn Landy and Harrison made in the mid-1970s toward building solidarity with Soviet bloc activists and dissidents, which led to the formation of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy in the early 1980s. The final sections (Liberal Interventionism, and The Near and Middle East) explore the ways in which Landy and Harrison responded to the collapse of the Soviet Union and allied regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as how they sought to apply the third camp template to developments in the Near and Middle East in the wake of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010–2011.

The first half of the interview addresses the question of socialist organization in the U.S. during the midcentury era, while the second is concerned with how two leading third camp activists responded to major international and global crises and conflicts over the past four decades. While a certain amount of biographical information is presented in these pages, there is also a great deal of political analysis that tackles contested issues on the United States and international left.

In 2014, Left History published my interview with Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, who founded and subsequently co-edited New Politics for four decades.[5] That interview focused on the Jacobsons’ journey from party building in the 1930s and 1940s to producing a pluralistic journal of leftist opinion and debate during the final decades of the twentieth century. The present interview tracks the ways in which two sixties activists have sought to relate third camp principles to ever-changing realities throughout their adult lives. In tandem, the two interviews provide an in-depth look at the development of third camp politics from the 1930s to the present day.

Family Backgrounds

Kent Worcester (KW): Did you come from the kinds of families that prepared you for the world of leftwing activism?

Joanne Landy (JL): My mother was a liberal activist—active in the Parent-Teacher Association, fighting for integrated schools in Chicago in the 1950s. She was not a radical. She supported Planned Parenthood, civil rights, and so on, but she was a little like the people today who would argue that you should vote for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary because “she would have had a better chance to win against the Republican” (though perhaps I’m being unfair—she might well have supported Sanders. Since she’s no longer alive, I can’t ask her). But she was a real activist. She would spend hours on the phone talking to allies in the PTA. She was really good at convincing people of her point of view, taking a lot of time, and both feeling and showing respect for people she disagreed with. I learned a lot from her about the nuts and bolts of organizing.

I had a younger sister—four years younger. I was born in 1941 and she was born in 1945. She died at the age of 36 from alcohol and drugs. My dad was German and Jewish. He left Germany in 1933. He had trained as a lawyer, but the Nazis did not allow Jews to serve in the professions. I don’t think he saw what was coming in Germany, but he knew that things were getting bad. Once he left he lived in France for two years and then came to the U.S. in 1935. He earned a Ph.D. in library science and later became the director of the library at Chicago State University (when he started it was Chicago Teachers College and Wilson Junior College), which is now in the news because it’s being starved of funds. It’s tragic because it was a kind of avenue of mobility for black youth. My dad wasn’t a liberal—he tended more toward moderate conservatism—but he was very proud of the University and the opportunities it offered to people who had few opportunities.

KW: So when the civil rights movement came along they were both sympathetic.

JL: I wouldn’t say that. My mother was very sympathetic, but my father complained about how disruptive Martin Luther King was. Then later, when Malcolm X came along, he contrasted him to Martin Luther King. I said, “well, Daddy, don’t you remember how you used to denounce Martin Luther King?” He would just mutter something in response. His takeaway from the German experience was that it was important to maintain order. He had a visceral reaction against chaos. Over time he became mellower about the Civil Rights Movement, but his initial reaction was to say that he was against segregation but that this wasn’t the way to change things.

So it was a mixed marriage in more than one sense. He was Jewish and she was Unitarian, but at my father’s insistence they agreed to raise my sister and me in the Jewish tradition. Then again, at my mother’s insistence we always had a Christmas tree. My father would turn ashen when it went up a few days before Christmas and regained his color when the tree was taken down in early January. A little tension there.

Thomas Harrison (TH): My father was a career army officer, whereas my mother’s background was labor liberal. Neither of my parents went to college. My paternal grandfather was a career army sergeant stationed on one of those sleepy pre-World War II bases, this one in Washington State—Fort Casey, on an island at the entrance to Puget Sound. It had big guns trained seaward that were meant to defend Seattle from a maritime invasion. I don’t think my dad originally intended to follow in his father’s footsteps. He worked at the Isaacson steel mill in Seattle and as a merchant seaman on a Dutch ship before he was drafted after Pearl Harbor. Dad saw combat at the Battle of Okinawa, one of the worst, and later in Korea.

My mother came from a working class family, most of them in the building trades. Her dad was a house painter and a staunch trade unionist. Seattle had this fabulous history of militant labor—the IWW, the 1919 General Strike, etc.—of which I was very much aware even at an early age. I used to do odd jobs for a neighbor, an elderly widow named Betty, who told me how she and her husband would join the mass pickets, thousands of them, in support of the 1934 waterfront strike. My brothers and I were taught never to cross a picket line, and whenever my mother would drive by one she would honk and wave. She was always a New Deal Democrat, and I am sure that had she lived she would have been an enthusiastic supporter of Bernie Sanders. During the War she worked at a radio station in Seattle and belonged to a union that was controlled or heavily influenced by CPers. After she married my father, who had by then become an officer, the FBI came to our door to ask some questions about that; my parents were extremely upset.

KW: Did she support Henry Wallace in 1948?

TH: It’s interesting that you ask me this. I don’t think so, but her brother told me, only a short time ago, that he voted for Wallace in ’48. My father became a Reagan Democrat in 1980, for reasons having to do with foreign policy. He was liberal on social issues but he was a hawk. Dad abhorred Communism, of course, but he always had a sneaking interest in it. For example he took me to hear a speech at an outdoor rally in San Jose by Glen Taylor, a fellow traveler and one-time senator from Idaho who had been Wallace’s running mate in ’48. Anyway, he and I had terrible fights about the Vietnam War, the New Left, the draft, and that sort of thing.

We moved around a lot but both of my parents had roots in Seattle, and it’s where I was born, and we sometimes lived there when I was growing up. I was closest to my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, who were Swedes by way of Norway. My grandmother migrated from Oslo, with her parents and eight of her ten siblings, in 1914. She was active in a Swedish sect, the Mission Covenant Church, and I was baptized at the “Swedish Tabernacle” in downtown Seattle. We also spent time in Germany, Japan, New Orleans, Baltimore, Monterey, Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and Augusta, Georgia. Never lived in one place longer than three years. I went to a segregated junior high school in a suburb of New Orleans (and later David Duke’s base)—and got in a lot of trouble with my schoolmates for supporting integration, as you might imagine.  I really hated that place, hated the whole South.

KW: You both went to Berkeley as undergraduates.

JL: I went to a few schools before I ended up in Berkeley. I started at the University of Chicago just before I turned sixteen. I was there for two years. It was then that I met my first husband—Sy Landy.[6] He lived in New York, so I moved to New York in the fall of 1959.

KW: How old were you when you got married?

JL: Eighteen. My parents wondered if I was perhaps a little young, but you have to understand that at the time it was not so very unusual. In general, middle class kids who went to college got married at 21 or 22, but not infrequently they were younger. Things have really changed since then. My parents weren’t too upset by it. They simply wanted to make sure that I was doing what I wanted to do.

Radical Politics

KW: Was Sy Landy a Marxist at this point?

JL: Oh yeah. We met in the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), pronounced yipsel, which was the youth group of the Socialist Party. In high school I had attended workshops organized by the American Friends Service Committee, and I was a committed pacifist by the age of 12 or 13. I made my parents have a minute of silence before every meal, which is something I’d picked up from the Quakers. They patiently went along. I joined YPSL in the late 1950s—1958—which was around the same time that the Shachtman group, the Independent Socialist League (ISL), decided to disband and join the Socialist Party.[7] As a result, the Shachtman youth group, the Young Socialist League (YSL) joined YPSL. In fact, it was Debbie Meier, who had been in the ISL and YSL, who recruited me into YPSL.[8] There were other groups at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s—there were members of the Cochranite group, and the Socialist Workers Party. George Rawick was teaching at the University of Chicago and he had been a Shachtmanite and close to YPSL as well.[9]

I spent a lot of time reading socialist books and magazines. I was reading a lot of George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia and more), of course Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station—there were a bunch of things you were supposed to have read if you were in or around YPSL. Debbie kept pressing me to join YPSL, and I kept telling her, “Well, there’s so much more I need to read.” She finally said, in an exasperated voice, “Joanne, there will always be more to read. If you basically agree with us now you should help build the organization. If you change your mind later you can always leave.” “Okay, okay, okay,” I finally said.

Close to when I joined—it might have been just before, or just after—George Rawick and I had a big argument about pacifism. George used to look at his fingernails whenever he would have a serious conversation—so as he was intently focusing on his nails, he said to me, “Well, I would really like to be a pacifist, Joanne, but I can’t for moral reasons.” “Moral reasons?” I squeaked, “That’s my thing!” So he explained to me that you have to look at the consequences of your actions, and that there are situations in which a pacifist position means that not only will you die but other people might die as well. We had a furious argument about this but I recognized pretty quickly that I had been defeated, though it took me a few days to admit it. Nonetheless, to this day I retain a strong sympathy for non-violence, even though I’ve had fierce arguments with pacifists since that time.

TH: In the 1950s the pacifists were some of the only allies that the ISL had because most were opposed to both sides of the Cold War.

JL: Even now the War Resisters League are people we often agree with and work with. They’re pacifists but we can agree that in a strategic sense that it’s more often smarter to use non-violent means. Non-violent strategies and tactics are often helpful in terms of exposing the elite causes and sources of violence.

KW: Tom, were you radicalized in high school?

TH: Yes, but in an isolated sort of way. I had one or two friends whom I talked politics with, but when I opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam in a high school debate around 1963 or ‘64, I was the only one. During my senior year in San Jose, I used to spend time with my best friend (who later joined the ISC) at a bookstore that had lots of Marxist and leftwing books and was owned by two friendly older women who must have been current or former members of the CP. The high school library happened to have Isaac Deutscher’s anthology of Trotsky’s writings, which I checked out. As a result of reading Trotsky I started to think of myself as a Trotskyist. I arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 1966, looking for something to join.

KW: Did you pick Berkeley because of its radical reputation?

TH: I picked Berkeley because it was affordable—I was a California resident, and it was considered the best of the UC campuses. Even though I had radical ideas, they were pretty inconsistent. For example, I definitely considered myself a revolutionary socialist, yet I was very excited by Bob Scheer’s antiwar campaign in the Democratic primary that summer.

KW: Joanne, you were at Berkeley by 1964. What was the campus like back then?

JL: For various reasons a number of us who had been active in YPSL ended up in the Bay Area in the early-to-mid 1960s—Mike Parker,[10] Joel Geier,[11] Sam Farber,[12] Mike Shute,[13] Kit and Lisa Lyons,[14] myself and a few others.

KW: Sy Landy?

JL: No, he was still in New York. Sy and I broke up in 1962 or 1963. We remained friendly. Getting divorced was a little difficult—New York State’s laws were pretty archaic. But I found out that we could get our marriage annulled under two conditions: first, if we had been married for under three years, which we were, and, second, if someone would testify that before we were married they had heard Sy promise to support me financially and to have children, and that later, after we were married, that same person had conveniently been present when Sy said that he had never intended to do either. The divorce court was lined end to end with women and a family member or friend who supposedly witnessed such pre-wedding and post-wedding conversations. A real farce.

TH: Sy was a quintessential New Yorker, very much at home in NYC, and very likeable. Joel Geier used to say that Sy would never leave New York because he’d miss his delicatessen too much. He had a sly sense of humor; Sy once compared some pretentious little revolutionary sect to a flea floating down the river on its back with an erection shouting, “open the drawbridge!”

JL: We weren’t close after the marriage ended but we were friendly. There’s a funny story about this. At some point in the 1980s, I was one of the main speakers at a public meeting held at the Workmen’s Circle in New York City in defense of Poland’s Solidarnosc. Sy got up during the question-and-answer period and said that Solidarnosc was a bourgeois organization and that no self-respecting socialist should have anything to do with it. Afterwards he came up to me with his sly smile and said, “You know, you owe me a debt of gratitude.” And I said, “Why is that?” And he said, “Well, I didn’t say my name!” That’s an example of his quick sense of humor.

After Sy and I broke up Mike Shute became my boyfriend. We visited Berkeley in August 1964 and it was hopping. It had campus radicalism, great weather. Mike decided to go to graduate school there, and I was really happy about that.

TH: There were lots of literature tables that various groups set up on campus, and people would hang around for hours talking about politics. It was an incredible scene. Every day people would stand around and argue for hours and hours. And after the tables were taken down, they would move to The Terrace, behind Sproul Plaza, and continue discussing things over coffee for hours more.

The Independent Socialist Club

KW: When did you decide to join the Independent Socialist Club (ISC) in Berkeley?

JL: I helped to form it in the fall of 1964, shortly before the Free Speech Movement was born. Hal Draper,[15] Ernie Haberkern,[16] David and Mike Friedman, Mike Parker, Joel Geier, Kit and Lisa Lyons, and a number of other people who had been active in the Independent Socialist League or the leftwing of the YPSL decided to launch the ISC in the fall of 1964. The YPSL leftwing was defined by its “third camp” politics—“Neither Washington nor Moscow”—and by its opposition to supporting the Democratic Party. The YPSL right wing followed Max Shachtman, who had earlier advocated for the third camp and independent political action, but who by the early 1960s had become pro-West and for entry into the Democratic Party.

The ISC got off the ground pretty quickly, and played an important role in the Free Speech Movement—Hal Draper and Jack Weinberg,[17] for example, were leading figures in the FSM.

KW: Did the ISC view the Free Speech Movement as a recruiting ground?

JL: That wasn’t the focus or the mentality, though we did recruit dozens of people in those years. The ISC was an organic part of the FSM, and the student movement in general. We recruited out of the movement but we were also part of the movement. We probably had 60-70 members in the Bay Area by the mid-1960s, many of whom were highly active in student politics.

Tom Harrison, back row, center; Joanne Landy, second row, right
KW: Was Hal Draper the group’s leader?

TH: He was a central figure because of his writings, and he often gave talks and spoke at rallies. We always got a good turnout whenever he spoke. He also took part in a debate with Sociology professor Nathan Glazer about the Free Speech Movement that attracted hundreds of people.

JL: But he was not the central player from an organizational perspective. Joel Geier and Mike Parker were key in terms of maintaining the group on a daily basis. Geier and Draper would often confer.

KW: Phyllis and Julius Jacobson suggested that Draper was something of a paradox—he could be remote, but he also was a beloved figure among younger radicals.[18] Jack Weinberg, for example, famously said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30—except Hal Draper.”

TH: He was just a brilliant guy. And while he was an inspiring speaker, he also spent time talking with people. I remember going on a hike with him and his wife Anne and a bunch of others on Mount Tamalpais. Once he told me I should learn German and dedicate myself to the history of the early years of the Third International. He could be intimidating, and he wasn’t warm or cuddly. I heard that he greeted people by saying, “and how are you justifying your existence?” He was a big wine aficionado—did you know that? He knew a tremendous amount about California wines.

JL: And he organized square dances! He definitely socialized with people.

TH: But he maintained a certain distance. He and Anne weren’t expansive and embracing like Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, who would frequently invite us over for dinner and holidays, invite us to stay at their vacation home upstate, and so on.

JL: The Drapers were much older than most of us, but they weren’t anti-social. I wrote my senior thesis at Berkeley on the ideas of Lenin and Luxemburg, and Hal spent many hours helping me with it. The Drapers were always friendly with me, but some people may have had different experiences. Whenever I called Hal, and said, “How are you?” there was silence on the other end. Finally, one day I said, “Hal, why aren’t you saying something?” He said, “Well, the question is just a formality.” And I said, “Hal, it’s a conversation stopper if you don’t say anything. You need to say ‘fine’ or ‘not bad’ or something.” He said, “Really? OK.” After that he would always say, “fine” whenever I asked him how he was. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

KW: Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech Movement, seems to have been the right person at the right time.

JL: Very sweet and very smart. The Free Speech Movement was much bigger than anything I’d ever seen before—it was an engulfing moment. It was a revolution, but on a single campus. It bore a kinship to what I had read about the Russian Revolution, but on a smaller scale of course. You saw authority crumble, you saw the students win their demands, you saw different sectors of the students and faculty come over to our side. There were setbacks and pauses, and times when we vigorously debated how to respond to one problem or another. In the end, we won. It was invigorating and educational.

TH: When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley there was a student strike almost every quarter, it seemed. I actually went to very few classes. I was reading a lot, but not necessarily what was required for my classes.

Just to give you a sense of the times, there was a sit-in a couple of months after my arriving on campus, which I rushed to join. It was around a Naval ROTC table in the Student Union—as a non-student group they were allowed to recruit there while the non-student political groups weren’t. I didn’t get arrested, but a few people, including Mario Savio, did. That led to a strike. Before that, in September I think, I was attending a rally at Sproul Plaza and a young woman came up to me with a piece of cardboard that was filled with political buttons. One of the buttons said, “I wouldn’t vote for [Edmund] Brown even if he ran against Ronald Reagan.” This was prior to the California gubernatorial election, which Reagan won.

And this was Joanne. She asked me if I’d like to buy this button, and I said, “No, but I would like to buy a button with a picture of Karl Marx,” which she said she had. So we had a conversation that lasted several hours on the steps of Sproul Plaza.

JL: We went through all the big issues—the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, the Cold War.

KW: Who were some of your favorite professors?

TH: Carl Schorske, Larry Levine, Reginald Zelnick in History, and Mike Rogin in the Political Science department.

JL: Mike Rogin was close to the ISC, in fact. All of these people we’ve named were part of the pro-student wing of the faculty. They didn’t take part in the sit-ins but they played an active supporting role. William Kornhauser, Philip Selznick in Sociology, Sheldon Wolin in Political Science.

TH: Right. But there were some real trolls, too—Martin Malia, who was a great historian but a terrible reactionary. Gerald Feldman was another, a specialist in German history. He absolutely hated the student movement, and there was a rumor that he carried a blackjack in his pocket. One night there was a fire at Wheeler Auditorium, and I was with Joanne, and Feldman was there and accused Joanne of being to blame.

JL: And I said, “What the hell are you talking about?”

KW: Nathan Glazer was another critic of the student movement, although his approach was much more low-key.

JL: There’s a funny story about Hal Draper and Nathan Glazer. We—the ISC branch—had decided to organize a debate about the Free Speech Movement after the FSM had won. And we wanted to invite Glazer to represent the liberal position. Glazer’s view was that the FSM’s use of civil disobedience was illegitimate. Draper’s position was that the FSM needed radical means and radical leaders to win even liberal goals—and that without radicals taking the lead the Free Speech Movement would have never succeeded.

So I phoned Glazer and invited him to participate in this debate. And Glazer, who was well aware of Draper’s debating prowess, said, “I’ll get slaughtered.” So I said, “Don’t say yes or no right away, but take some time to think it over. Let me call you back in a couple of days.”

And I called him back a couple of days later, and he said, “Joanne, I’m not suicidal. I’m not going to do this.” I told him, “If you don’t do it, we’re going to have to ask Professor William Petersen to do it.” “Oh no!” he said, aghast, because he knew that this would discredit his side of the debate. I said, “Why don’t you think about it some more? Let me call you back in a couple of days.” Eventually he said, “OK, but I’m going to regret this for the rest of my life.” The debate finally happened, and of course he got slaughtered.

KW: Did ISC members listen to rock music? Did the men grow their hair long?

TH: We certainly weren’t hippies, but there was long hair, short hair – there was no sense whatsoever of a dress code in the ISC. Lots of people smoked dope, went to rock concerts, and so on. It was all very porous. And of course that was a glorious time and Berkeley was a glorious place for popular culture. Bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane sometimes played for free in the parks. Janis Joplin was just mind-blowing. Right after my freshman year was the “Human Be-In” and afterwards the “Summer of Love.”

JL: And we were all affected by what was going on around us, including the music. But there were arguments—we would argue with people over what might be described today as “anti-politics.” We didn’t think that dropping out or building communes would lead to the revolution. But we were part of the sixties culture.

Socialist Horizons

KW: In the mid-1960s the ISC is growing and the anti-Vietnam war movement is gaining traction. Did you think that a socialist transformation might be on the horizon?

TH: No. We never thought that socialist revolution was imminent. Never.

JL: But we were excited about the antiwar movement, and we were also excited about how the ISC was doing. We had an optimistic and enthusiastic feeling, but we weren’t living under the illusion that socialism was around the corner. We tried to be sober about these things. But on the other hand the group gained members and established new chapters in the late 1960s—there was a definite sense of momentum.

KW: When did your optimism peak?

TH: 1968 of course was the most exciting year. It was worldwide. France, Czechoslovakia. If you think about what took place in France it is almost unbelievable—workers and students united, the government shaken to its foundations, our dream come true.

JL: There was a vibrant if not unproblematic student movement, and antiwar movement, here in the United States. You didn’t have to believe that we would soon be following in France’s footsteps to be hopeful. It’s perhaps easier for people who lived through this period to retain a sense of optimism than it might be for people who didn’t experience the sixties firsthand.

KW: My impression is that the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was not much of a factor at Berkeley.

TH: It was there—it had a presence—but it never amounted to much, mainly because it was so faction-ridden and full of internal bickering.

JL: It wasn’t hegemonic in the way it was on some campuses. Also, by the time that SDS was on the scene there was already a well-established campus left that had a strong sense of itself. And to some degree Berkeley is in its own world. It’s not that we didn’t know about what was going on at Harvard or Columbia, but Berkeley’s New Left was unique.

KW: And when did you start to think, “Oh no, this is starting to smell bad.”

TH: 1969. Things started to get very dire—Weathermen, Progressive Labor…

JL: And SDS split apart.

TH: Maoism in this country really got going around 1969-1970. Bob Avakian is part of this story of course, and he was in the Bay Area.[19]

JL: Bob Avakian’s father, Spurgeon Avakian, was a judge, and in fact he presided at my second wedding, to Nelson Lichtenstein.[20] A while after Mike and I broke up in the late sixties I began to see Nelson, also a history PhD student at UC Berkeley. We lived together and then got married. Nelson and I moved to New York in 1975—he couldn’t find a job in the academy, so he moved here to work at Facts on File. Tom moved to New York a few months after we did.

TH: Nelson is a very warm person, generous and full of enthusiasm, and he’s been an outstanding labor historian for many years. His first book, which was based on his dissertation, was profoundly shaped by his time around the ISC. When I moved to New York to attend grad school at Columbia, Nelson gave me some writing work at Facts on File, where he was an editor, providing badly needed income to supplement my measly fellowship.

JL: The ISC changed dramatically in the early 1970s, however. It was larger in numbers, and had already decided to rename itself the International Socialists in 1969. There was a sharp turn toward industry, which meant placing members in key industrial sectors such as auto and steel. The group became “harder” as a result—this wouldn’t have necessarily followed, but it did. Draper initially supported the policy of industrialization but didn’t agree with the way in which it was implemented, and he dropped out of the organization in 1971.

TH: By the way, we very much agreed with Draper about the recklessness with which the IS tried to turn itself into a workers’ party.

JL: I wasn’t against the general strategy of industrialization—Hal and Anne actually were the ones who convinced me of its merits. But I was not in favor of the manner in which it was done, and the things that went along with it. I wasn’t in favor of shaming people who for whatever reason weren’t ready to take the plunge. I wasn’t in favor of ignoring the gains we had made and could still make on college campuses. And I wasn’t in favor of the idea that we had become a “pre-party” formation, and that we were on the way to building the revolutionary party.

TH: What we needed was a few more years to build a healthy third camp tendency.

KW: Tom, you didn’t come out as a gay man while you were at Berkeley.

TH: Oh no, that was much later. I was very confused—it was personal and it’s hard to describe or explain. I didn’t know. Plus, this was before Gay Liberation—before 1969, I mean—and the atmosphere in the ISC did not seem friendly to homosexuality. It was a subtle thing; there was no formal sanction on being gay, as there was in some of the sects. On the contrary, after Stonewall the IS responded quickly to Gay Liberation by adopting an excellent position on gay rights, and the atmosphere improved a great deal. But before 1969 there were the occasional (private) sneers and jokes about homosexuals, and, to me at least, there was a sense that gays were merely tolerated. I certainly felt intimidated, but I can’t blame that for my confusion, which had much more to do with my own anxieties than anything about the organization.

I think it’s hard now to recall how natural it was in those days for straights—including socialists—to treat gays as at best neurotic and embarrassing and at worst disgusting. After all, it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental illness. And psychiatric orthodoxy, Freudianism, etc., was widely accepted among the comrades.

JL. I’m horrified to learn that anyone in the ISC was making such degrading, coarse jokes and sneers.

The International Socialists

KW: The IS was launched in 1969; Hal Draper joins the organization but leaves in 1971. Were you part of a factional grouping within the IS during this period?

TH: Joanne, Mike Shute, and Charlie Capper were not quite a faction but they were…

JL: We were a tendency—with a small-t—of like-minded people. We didn’t draw organizational lines that you could or couldn’t cross.

KW: But your opposition to calling for a National Liberation Front (NLF) victory in Vietnam helped bring you together.

JL: That was the main issue. We formed a “third camp tendency” a few months before we were expelled from the Berkeley IS in January 1972. Tom was a member but he wasn’t expelled, because he was living in Seattle at the time.

KW: Is opposition to an NLF victory a policy you support in retrospect? I assume that by this point the radical wing of the anti-Vietnam War movement actively favored an NLF victory.

JL: The ISC had always maintained a third camp position on the question of the Vietnam War. After the Tet Offensive, however, Draper argued that the group should support the military victory of the NLF on the grounds that the NLF had become the de facto government, so it had become a question of national self-determination. Mike Shute and I and others continued to support what we believed to be the consistent third camp position, and we made our case in a leaflet that we distributed at an antiwar demonstration in 1971, which led to our expulsion in January of the following year.

TH: The “third camp tendency” consisted of a small group of IS members: Joanne and myself, Mike Shute, Charlie Capper, Lois Weiner,[21] Nelson Lichtenstein, Bruce and Cynthia Novack, and one or two others. Draper had written this long piece on self-determination in which he made his case for military support to the NLF, while our group coalesced around the third camp position. Joanne wrote a response to Draper’s piece that was also quite lengthy. Some of the same questions arise today in relation to, say, Iraq and Syria. We argued that one could unequivocally call for unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam without supporting the NLF; today we oppose U.S. military intervention in the Middle East but also oppose regimes like those of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad.

KW: Let’s suppose the organizers of a demonstration issue four demands, and one of the demands is victory to the NLF. Would you encourage people to skip the demonstration?

JL: It’s always a question of degree. Similar questions came up with protests over the Iraq war. If it was a demonstration organized by ANSWER, then their support for Saddam Hussein became a prominent part of the demonstration, and I myself wouldn’t attend such a protest.[22] But if it’s part of the mix I’m not going to be happy, but I go. And if I have the time, and courage, and wit to say something or carry a third camp sign, then I’ll do that.

TH: People who are involved in ANSWER support all kinds of dictators—not only Saddam Hussein, but Assad in Syria, Kim Il-Jung in North Korea, and so on. But most people who join a march organized by ANSWER aren’t necessarily aware of the group’s hideous politics.

JL: An example of this came up last weekend. There was an anti-NATO demonstration where nothing was said about Putin, Assad, Ukraine, and so on. A supporter of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy urged people to attend the march even though he wasn’t endorsing it. I probably would have gone if I could have but I’m not completely certain about that. There’s not a single formula we can use to decide these things. It’s on a spectrum.

KW: Were there antiwar activists who tuned you out once they learned about your position on the NLF?

TH: It was an unpopular position, that’s for sure—and still is!

JL: It seemed to us that the IS people felt relieved that they no longer had to defend this unpopular position. They gave military support to the NLF but not political support, but you didn’t hear much about their political criticisms.

KW: The U.S. Socialist Workers Party also opposed the “victory to the NLF” demand. Their position was, “Bring the Troops Home Now.” Is that where you ended up?

TH: Of course we supported the demand of Bring the Troops Home Now, but we also emphasized the question of independent political action. And in practice this differentiated us from the SWP and their youth group the YSA. The SWP danced around the issue of the Democratic Party and its role vis-à-vis the antiwar movement. Meanwhile, they would run their own sectarian electoral campaigns.

JL: Although the SWP had its own speakers advocating a vote for its own candidates, it avoided including non-SWP speakers, such as from the new Peace and Freedom Party, who advocated independence from and no support to the Democratic Party at their rallies and demonstrations. I would never insist that an antiwar demonstration be built around a call for independent political action, or that liberal politicians be excluded as speakers. But I would want to make sure that the independent political action position was represented on the speakers’ platform.

Expulsion and Beyond

KW: But why did the IS expel you over this question of support for the NLF? Why wasn’t this something that could be debated within the organization?

JL: It could be debated. We were expelled because we passed out a leaflet with our point of view at an antiwar demonstration, even though the leaflet said clearly that we were a minority tendency in the IS.

TH: We had “violated discipline.” And this was at a time when the IS was trying to transform itself into a more disciplined organization.

JL: The leadership said that we could make the case for our position in the group’s journal, but that we couldn’t pass out our own leaflet at a public event. They insisted that Lenin and the Bolsheviks would never have allowed it. We responded by pointing out that we weren’t experiencing another 1917, that the stakes were not quite as high, and that in fact the Bolsheviks were often rather looser in their approach to discipline. We also predicted that our expulsion was going to be the beginning of a process of the organization enduring more and more splits and expulsions in the future.

On a related point, Mike Shute had an excellent piece of advice, which we did our best to adhere to—he said, let’s make this the friendliest split in the history of the left. We realized that despite our expulsion these were the people that we were closest to politically, so why not try to get along? In this we succeeded; in fact, we are friendly to this day with people who voted for or supported our expulsion, and often collaborate with them.

TH: The judge at our “trial” was Sam Farber, a brilliant analyst of the Cuban Stalinist regime, a longtime friend of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, and a personal friend.

JL: For a long time, whenever Sam came in the room we’d say, “Here comes the judge!”

KW: If your group had said, “We’ve made a mistake, you were right,” they would have taken you back.

JL: Oh yeah. They regretted, as they saw it, having to drive us out. It was…peculiar. And we weren’t at all eager to leave the organization, but we weren’t willing to remain under the conditions the majority insisted on.

KW: After you left IS you formed a group called “Socialists for Independent Politics.” What did you hope to accomplish?

JL: Just to hold things together. To get some ideas down on paper.

KW: Why didn’t you leave with Draper?

TH: Because we didn’t agree with his organizational proposals—turning the group into a mere editorial board plus supporters—and we felt that he was soft on the union bureaucracy.

KW: Nevertheless, Draper’s departure must have been a little discouraging.

TH: Yes, but I think that Draper himself had become discouraged. The fiasco of the Cleaver campaign for president in 1968, on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, definitely played a part in this. He had been a big proponent of both Peace and Freedom, and, at first, the Cleaver ticket. But Cleaver made a farce out of the entire campaign. With a different candidate and a serious, broader campaign, Peace and Freedom might have picked up a lot of Eugene McCarthy’s supporters after the Democratic convention, I think, because there were thousands of angry young McCarthy supporters who hated Humphrey and didn’t know where to turn, and because the idea of a genuinely antiwar party had a certain appeal at the time. After that, Draper really became sour on organizational issues.

JL: He reacted correctly, I think, against some of the wild-eyed “struggle group” ideas—that rank and file militants should leave the existing unions and build new working class organizations to replace them—that were floating around the IS at the time. On the other hand he was skating toward a generalized defense of the labor bureaucracy. We didn’t really agree with either position.

TH: In addition, the tone of the Draper group was very different from our tone. We tried to be friendly. Their approach was the opposite. They were contemptuous, arrogant, and hostile in their dealing with the IS majority.

JL: But we also tried to maintain good relationships with the folks around Draper.

KW: Did it take you a few years to adjust to not being in an organization?

JL: It’s true that ever since then I’ve felt a little sorry not to have an organization like the ISC was before it changed—radical, democratic, third campish, and looser than the IS became in the 1970s. A small group of determined people can make a difference, especially if you have good ideas. As socialist independents, we’ve worked alongside small socialist groups—Solidarity, for example, as well as the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Democratic Socialists of American (DSA). We’ve been involved in politics for quite a few years without being in a formal group, so we’ve gotten used to it. The Campaign for Peace and Democracy has provided a way of promoting third camp ideas without having to belong to any particular socialist organization.

KW: Before we talk more about the Campaign, could you both say something about the shock of moving from the West Coast to New York City in the mid-1970s.

TH: There were times when I wondered whether I had made a big mistake. This was 1975. The city was in terrible shape. It looked bad, and it felt scary. It actually smelled bad. I arrived in the summer and it was just hideous.

KW: George Orwell here.

TH: I was starting grad school at Columbia, in History. I never finished my Ph.D., however. I received a fellowship to study in Paris in 1978, and ended up staying longer than I had expected—a year and a half—because I liked it so much. My advisor was Robert Paxton, whose path-breaking book on Vichy France had come out just three years before I came to Columbia and caused a huge sensation in France. He was an outstanding scholar, dignified and extremely erudite, and very principled. I returned to New York in 1980 and was at loose ends. I found a job at the Brearley School, a private girl’s school in Manhattan, and I’ve been teaching there ever since.

KW: When did you join the New Politics editorial board?

JL: My former husband Sy Landy and I had worked on the magazine when we were living in New York City in the early 1960s. Sy was on the editorial board for a few years, and I wasn’t. The sexist exclusion wasn’t just about me—Julie [Julius] was editor, and his wife Phyllis wasn’t even though she was actually co-editor. The exclusion was completely unconscious.

Even after I moved to Berkeley in 1964 we sold the magazine at ISC tables and events. New Politics was starting to wind down in the mid-1970s but the magazine revived in 1986, and Tom and I have both been active as contributors and editors of this second series of the magazine.

We did maintain a Socialists for Independent Politics discussion group for several years. We met at Cynthia Novack and Dick Bull’s (her second husband) apartment every couple of months or so. Cynthia and Dick were dancers and their apartment was also a dance studio. Draper spoke to our group when he was in town. There were eight or ten of us, and another ten or fifteen people would turn up. We weren’t a formal organization but it was a way to keep our politics alive. We even published a mimeographed bulletin.

TH: We had an interesting discussion about the 1980 Barry Commoner campaign, as I recall. And some of us were active in the campaign.


KW: Solidarnosc, the independent trade union in Poland, was launched in 1980, and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy/East and West was formed a couple of years later to help promote ties between democratic labor, peace and human rights activists across Cold War lines.

JL: I remember quite vividly how the group got started. Arthur Lipow was visiting New York, and Solidarnosc had just gotten underway in Poland.[23] In his typical manner he said, “Joanne, you must do something about this. This is a historic opportunity for our politics and you just have to organize something.” I have to give him credit—he was right.

A small group of us then met in my apartment – Gail Daneker, Judy Hempfling, Chris Meagher, Sam Farber, Gabe Gabrielsky, Mel Bienenfeld, and a couple of others. Gail had come from the world of left-leaning NGOs, and she was the person who knew that we would need a board of directors, and that we would need to file the paperwork in order to claim nonprofit status. She also encouraged us to reach out to folks like Ed Asner, Paul Sweezy, Seymour Melman, Erika Munk, Pete Seeger—people from outside our existing circle of contacts, in other words. We also got in touch with Mike Harrington, Barbara Garson, and David McReynolds, whom I had known from past activities. In addition, we made a point of making sure that we involved people who had been in and around the Communist Party but who were shaken up by the struggles that were taking place in countries like Poland. It was easy to attract the support of people who already had third camp politics, but we worked hard to reach beyond the traditional third camp milieu.

KW: Were you thinking that this was broadly analogous to the crisis within the Communist world that erupted in 1956-1957, as a result of the Hungarian revolt and the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin?

JL: Maybe we should have but I don’t remember thinking in those terms.

TH: We didn’t anticipate anything quite so cosmic. We just knew that Poland was in turmoil.

JL: In 1980 it was just Poland. We wanted to get people talking about the importance of independent trade unions in so-called workers’ states, and toward that end we organized a couple of well-attended public events in New York. And in fact, we hadn’t expected these events to attract as many people as they did. We organized a public meeting with something like twenty speakers at Washington Irving High School, and after that there was a big event at the Town Hall that was mainly organized by Ralph Schoenman.

These events helped bring together a core group of people, many of whom came out of third camp politics. But it wasn’t limited to third camp socialists—Gail, for example, wasn’t a socialist but was a Green. She didn’t like the idea of nationalizing practically anything. But she was pro-labor and had worked for a group called Environmentalists for Full Employment, so she came out of a small-d democratic background. Steve Becker was another pro-labor green who worked closely with the Campaign.

KW: Women have played a central leadership role in the Campaign from the beginning. Were you thinking that peace groups had been mostly dominated by men and that you needed a more feminist approach to these issues?

JL: I had been a leading member of the ISC, and for a short period the IS, and of course a woman, but I never thought about the question of leadership from a feminist perspective until years later. Gail and I were both feminists, and we were the Campaign’s leading members, but we didn’t think about the Campaign as a women-led movement.

TH: I never thought about it either.

JL: But now that you mention it…

KW: Who were the most interesting speakers at your early events?

JL: Harrington comes to mind. He quite liked what we were up to, i.e., the broadness of our approach. We weren’t close friends, and had many disagreements, but he was a friendly kind of person.

TH: Daniel Singer was an inspiring speaker and very close to us.

KW: What made you decide to create an actual organization?

JL: Well, we had organized a couple of big events, and we wanted to build on our success. We officially launched CPD/EW in 1982 with a dinner at Sardi’s. Adam Hochschild came to the dinner, and he later joined our board.

KW: You must have spent hours setting up the organization—tax forms, post office forms, and so on. Did any other ISC/IS spin-offs go in this NGO direction?

TH: Labor Notes and Teamsters for a Democratic Union both come to mind. But our focus on foreign policy was distinctive.

KW: The NGO model of organization offered certain advantages—it’s much easier to raise foundation money if you have a 501(c)(3) status, for example.

JL: Even individuals. If you want gifts to be tax deductible you need that 501(c)(3) status. I never even knew about this until Gail laid it all out. The problem with the term “NGO” is that it has a bad odor for some people—there are definitely NGOs out there that exist simply in order to keep themselves afloat.

KW: How would you describe the Campaign?

JL: As an advocacy group—a third camp advocacy organization. We were radical democrats who opposed the elite-driven foreign policy of the United States and supported social justice, democracy and freedom from great power domination everywhere.

KW: What was it like working with Ed Asner?

JL: “Work with” is a little bit of an exaggeration. He signed our first ad in the New York Times, “U.S. Peace and Labor activists defend Polish Solidarnosc on Trial,” which appeared on April 10, 1983, and he came with us later when we went to the Polish Embassy to protest repression against Solidarnosc. We had sent out a press release, but there didn’t seem to be any press in the vicinity as we gathered our group outside the embassy, but when Ed showed up suddenly there were press photographers everywhere, sprouting up like mushrooms after the rain. Another big name was the writer Ariel Dorfman, whom Tom mentioned. He also has joined many of our protests and petitions.

Building the Campaign

TH: In some ways the most important people who worked with us were from Europe—E.P. Thompson, for example, as well as folks from Eastern Europe.

KW: Were European leftists were generally more willing to criticize the Soviet Union, and Soviet-style states in Eastern Europe, than U.S. leftists, many of whom clung to the perspective that the enemy of our enemy is our friend?

TH: It certainly seemed that way. There was less interest in the Solidarnosc movement in the U.S. than there seemed to be in Europe. Also, Europeans felt under the gun because of the military buildup that was taking place. There was genuine grassroots concern about what both the Americans and the Soviets were up to so far as nuclear weapons were concerned.

JL: The Campaign helped encourage the major U.S. peace organizations to reach out to independent peace activists in the Soviet bloc. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, War Resisters League, Sojourners, the nuclear freeze campaign, and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), as well as local peace groups around the country—they all became more interested in and supportive of independent movements in Eastern Europe as a result of our efforts. This also applied to leading individuals in the peace movement, such as Randy Forsberg and Pam Solo. To say that we worked closely with them might be an overstatement, but people from these groups supported our campaigns, came to our events, and sometimes spoke at them. That was one of the big accomplishments of the Campaign. The tendency of the big peace groups had been to avoid having anything to do with independent activists from places like Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union out of concern for legitimizing U.S. militarism. This started to change as a result of our efforts to show that opposing the U.S. war machine and supporting democratic rights in the Soviet bloc could actually strengthen both causes. The U.S. Peace Council would have nothing to do with us, of course, because they really were pro-Soviet.

Our position was quite simple. We were not demanding that the peace movement make a complete break with people who were soft on the Soviet question. So for example, if a group such as the AFSC or the Fellowship of Reconciliation went to Moscow, we would encourage them to meet with independent people, and we wouldn’t denounce them for meeting the leaders of the official peace groups, even though we believed and said that these official groups weren’t genuine anti-war organizations since they condemned only the U.S. and not the Soviet Union.

TH: E.P. Thompson played a crucial role in all of this. He really encouraged peace activists in Britain as well as Western Europe and the United States to search for counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and to help them in any way that we could. His writings were critically important in terms of taking on the theories that were used to justify the Cold War and nuclear deterrence, making the case for a nuclear free world and for building a peace movement that was genuinely independent of both the West and the Soviet bloc. He was also an incredibly electrifying speaker.

JL: Thompson was the person who developed the intellectual framework for the idea of détente from below. Of course, when we read about his ideas they fit perfectly with the politics that we had already had, but he put it in new language and from a fresh perspective. The fact that he was an ex-CP person himself was also important.

KW: The ice was cracking.

TH: There was a parallel with 1956 in that you could begin to see the possibility of a real embodiment of the third camp ideal. Here was this peace movement in the West with major components consciously committed to building bridges with independent peace activists in Eastern Europe. There was a point in the 1980s when it seemed as if there was a common struggle that united people across the Cold War divide—a struggle that was against U.S. foreign policy, about the placement of missiles on European soil, but that was also against authoritarian rule in the Soviet bloc. It was very exciting.

KW: When does Christopher Hitchens enter this story?

JL: There was a vivid personality! And he really did work closely with the Campaign until he broke with us over Bosnia. He came with a group of us when we went to Czechoslovakia; he organized a public meeting for the Campaign in Washington, D.C.; he spoke at many of our events, including the big one-day conferences. The first inkling that I had that there was an emerging divergence between us was in the early 1990s, when we were talking about the United Nations. I was making the point that it is a top-down organization in which the great powers make the crucial decisions. And he said, “Well, it’s run by the victors of World War Two and that’s pretty good.”

TH: The big turning point for him, as Joanne noted, was Yugoslavia, when he came out in favor of a NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1994.

KW: Whereas the Campaign’s position was that the international embargo against Bosnia should have been lifted, so that they could defend themselves.

TH: I ended up writing a great deal about Bosnia, and spoke at quite a few events. At one point I, along with Steve Shalom, took part in a public debate with Michael Walzer and Bogdan Denitch on the question of U.S. and NATO intervention in Bosnia. It was actually broadcast on cable TV, on a show called “Perspectives from the Left.”

Détente from Below

KW: The Campaign initially focused on developments in Eastern Europe. What made you decide to expand your focus to encompass Latin America, the Near and Middle East, and so on?

JL: It’s not exactly true that we initially focused on Eastern Europe to the exclusion of other areas of the world. Even at the beginning we were interested in countries within the Western “camp,” such as Turkey, the Philippines, in Latin America, etc. One of the most important things we did was to enlist Eastern European intellectuals and trade union activists to sign statements opposing U.S. policy towards Nicaragua and Chile. International solidarity—independent of and in defiance of the superpowers—was baked into the Campaign from the beginning.

TH: That was the point. We were trying to break down bipolar, Cold War-type thinking.

JL: We never imagined that we could address every issue around the world. For a long time, our focus was on Eastern Europe and Latin America.

TH: Even at our first all-day conference we included a panel on Tibet. Other panels I recall were on Kashmir, and the EU with John Palmer. We did events about the Kurds. The goal was to encourage solidarity from below, and to bring together democratic, peace, and trade union activists in a way that was genuinely independent of Cold War thinking.

KW: What was it like to have been heavily involved in Eastern European solidarity activism, and then for the Soviet bloc to fall apart in a few short years?

TH: It was a big surprise. Everybody says that, and it’s true. Despite all of the warning signs, none of us expected it. The system may have been disintegrating, but it seemed like it would never end. When the end came, it was thrilling. We had high hopes, which sadly were not realized. And so we had to adjust to a new set of realities. Joanne wrote a series of very effective essays about shock therapy and so on.

JL: I was in Poland in 1989, and it was clear that things were not moving in a socialist direction. Some of the activists that I knew were still holding onto a radical sensibility but other people who had come out of leftwing anti-Stalinist politics were beginning to think and sound like typical Western politicians. I remember going to a meeting after 1989 at Helsinki Watch in New York where Adam Michnik gave a presentation. He had recently been elected to parliament, and I asked him why he hadn’t told voters that his party was planning to close many of the Gdansk shipyards. He said that they hadn’t expected to get elected so that’s why they hadn’t spelled out their program. I followed up by saying, well, once you were elected and you were going to begin to take action, don’t you think you should have consulted the Polish people again, and asked for some kind of support for your plans? He didn’t reply.

So you can imagine how devastating it was to see people who had been grassroots activists suddenly become the shock troops for neoliberalism. I don’t think that what happened was inevitable. But it was a reflection of the weakness of the global left that the only thing that seemed like an alternative to the Communist regimes was the capitalist system. Anyway, by the summer of ‘89 I was very depressed about the pro-capitalist direction developments in Eastern Europe were taking, even though I of course welcomed the end of Russian domination and one-party dictatorship.

TH: This was at a time when Reaganism, Thatcherism, and neoliberalism were absolutely hegemonic. The left was at its very weakest.

JL: And on the whole, the left in the West was very reluctant to extend its support to the struggles of dissidents and ordinary people in Eastern Europe in initiatives such as Solidarnosc in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. The people who were actually on the ground, offering support, were from the National Endowment for Democracy, the AFL-CIO, and others who supported U.S. imperial foreign policy aims. And their support came with all kinds of conditions. It wasn’t that individual dissidents were corrupt or greedy—most of the people we knew in Poland, for example, were dedicated small-d democratic activists. Many had embraced democratic socialist ideals in their youth and were broadly egalitarian in their outlook. But the system they were living under collapsed at a time when it seemed like the only option on the table was market capitalism. Progressive and left movements in the West were not only weak; they were generally uninterested in offering the East Europeans a different path as they ended the Communist system.

TH: Many of the people we’re talking about came of age during the 1960s, when the left was relatively strong and hopes were high. And it went downhill from that point on. It was tragic.

KW: What are some of the lessons of the Campaign? What kinds of initiatives worked and what kinds didn’t?

TH: We got a lot of things right, in my view. For example, the work we did in the 1980s around dissidents and movements from below in Eastern Europe, like the work we did around Bosnia in the 1990s, was unusual on the radical left for its emphasis on the issue of democracy, including the democratic right of peoples to self-determination.

JL: It’s important to emphasize that the Campaign was and is a specific type of group. It’s not a membership organization. The projects that we undertook were related to how we were organized. We were always a small, self-organized group that wrote statements, sponsored public meetings, and so forth. We started with Poland, and a lot of people continued to associate us with the work we did around Solidarnosc, and Central and Eastern Europe more generally. Our approach then was to build ties between grassroots activists in the West and dissidents in the East—détente from below, in other words.

And over time we were able to attract support from prominent individuals in the peace movement who proved willing to sign statements of support for Solidarnosc and other grassroots movements in Eastern Europe. Peace groups had traditionally stayed away from taking a critical stand on anything having to do with the Soviet bloc, and were often willing to meet with official peace groups from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, validating the idea that they were actual counterparts to our own independent peace organizations. Our efforts had an impact in terms of helping people move beyond the Cold War framework: even though some peace groups continued to meet with government-controlled groups from the Eastern bloc, they frequently challenged authorities on their repression of independent groups and met with independent groups as well.

My first trip to the region was in 1981, the year of the U.S. Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. I recall that vividly. Since I was respecting the strike by not flying from a U.S. airport, I took a train to Montreal and flew from there to Warsaw on LOT Polish airlines. When I got to Warsaw, I went into the LOT ticket office to arrange details of my return flight. I was wearing my “Support PATCO Strikers” button, and the staff spontaneously shouted out their approval.

KW: What was it like to visit Warsaw in this period?

JL: It was thrilling. The atmosphere in the building where Solidarnosc was meeting was electric. There were meetings of all sorts going on simultaneously—steelworkers, journalists, academics. People were rushing up and down the stairs with papers, coffee, etc. It reminded me of the heady days in Berkeley, California, when I was active in the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

KW: Was your hotel room bugged?

JL: I assumed that it might be, so I was cautious in what I said. When I met with Solidarnosc people in their homes, if a sensitive topic came up they would point to the ceiling and twirl their index finger in a circle to indicate that we were likely being bugged, at which point we would just write down key points of our conversation and show the paper to one another.

KW: Were you followed from the airport?

JL: I don’t know. I wasn’t aware of being followed from the airport, but once, a few years later, when I was in Gdansk, I met with one of the women who had been active in the Gdansk shipyard strike that sparked the birth of Solidarnosc as an independent trade union. As we walked through the streets she said, “Well, you know, they’re following us”—I hadn’t noticed a thing—and she took me through a couple of crowded department stores, where we’d go in one set of doors and leave by another that exited onto another street.

TH: When I visited members of the Trust Group in Moscow in the 1980s they didn’t even write things down on paper—they used those erasable pads with cellophane, so that anything they wrote down could be immediately erased.

KW: How did you know whom to work with?

TH: It was usually pretty obvious, because these were the people who were leading members of democratic movements, whether they were organized around issues of peace, labor rights, or whatever.

JL: Helsinki Watch helped us identify some people, but as far back as the early 1960s we were in touch with various radicals in Eastern Europe. Back in Berkeley there was a fellow named Witold Jedlicki who had been hidden by the family of Jan-Jósef Lipski during World War II. As a result, he was a close friend of Lipski, who became a leading member of the KOR group of intellectuals that helped advise Solidarnosc in its early phase. The first time I went to Poland I was able to meet Lipski. There was a Solidarnosc conference going on at the time and I was able to attend the conference and met a lot of interesting people as a result. At a later point an independent peace group called Freedom and Peace was organized in Poland and they were particularly keen to establish links with groups like ours in the west. Their leader, Jacek Czaputowicz, was in and out of jail in the 1980s, and I visited with him very shortly after he had been released from jail. He was a young guy—maybe twenty—and I remember thinking that he was the palest person I had ever met. There must have been a long period when he was in prison that he had no access to sunlight.

KW: Did you carry CPD materials in your suitcases?

JL: Generally no. I once went to participate in a demonstration in Poland that called for the release of prisoners who were in jail under martial law. I wore a t-shirt that carried a political message—I think I still have the t-shirt—but I had taken a white t-shirt and a magic marker with me, and wrote down the message the night before. I did once bring some materials sent by the London-based Czech human rights activist Jan Kavan to dissidents in Czechoslovakia. I definitely breathed a sigh of relief once I was out of the airport carrying the books he’d asked me to bring. On one of my early trips to Poland I’d received a request from women there for books about feminism, and I brought as many as I could manage.

I didn’t bring lists of names and phone numbers with me on these visits, of course. I’d usually have the phone number of a key contact person memorized, or partially written out in two or three different places, and it was usually someone whom the authorities were already very familiar with. They were public dissidents, and presumably known for meeting with people from outside the country. That person would then make the necessary introductions.

KW: Would you have gone to the U.S. embassy if you’d been arrested in a country like Poland or Czechoslovakia?

JL: Maybe.

TH: When I met with the Trust Group people in Moscow there was an unmarked KGB truck outside the building with listening devices. You could see a couple of tall poles poking out of the truck.

JL: I remember when I met with the activist Petr Uhl at his home in Prague. He told me to take a look out the window at the traffic light on the street corner. There was a camera placed on top of the traffic light that was pointed right at his apartment.

TH: The repression in the Soviet Union was a lot fiercer than it was in these other countries. Dissidents were still being shipped off to mental hospitals in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, for example.

KW: The 1991 Yale conference on “Post-Communist Futures” was held in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet-style regimes across Central and Eastern Europe. Did the Campaign have a clear sense of what was happening, or did you think to yourselves, “Man, we are really paddling in the dark here.”

TH: Something in-between. We knew that there were certain demands that we needed to raise—for example, we were strongly opposed to the policy of shock therapy.

Liberal Interventionism

JL: But we were also experiencing some arguments within the Campaign before the start of the Gulf War in 1991. Some members of the Campaign’s Board of Directors were in favor of sending hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into the region—not necessarily to start a war, but to send the Iraq government a message. That was Noam Chomsky’s position, for example. Tom and I were unconvinced, shall we say, and we wrote an article opposing the impending war that appeared in The Progressive. On the other hand, everyone on the Board was against the war once it started, which enabled us to move on. But for a while things were a little tense.

During the Cold War these kinds of disagreements didn’t surface, since everyone broadly agreed that they were opposed to both Washington and Moscow. But as the Cold War ended, these differences emerged. Some were willing to back some forms of U.S. military intervention—not uncritically, and not consistently, but on occasion.

TH: An early glimmer of this kind of liberal interventionism surfaced around the issue of Bosnia in 1992-1994. The Campaign took a position in favor of lifting the arms embargo so that the Bosnians could defend themselves against Serbian aggression. But we also argued against any form of U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, whether through bombing campaigns or troops on the ground or whatever.

KW: Tom, you wrote extensively on foreign policy questions in the 1980s and 1990s, but you were also writing about party politics. Did you feel torn between writing about domestic and international issues?

TH: Both were interesting to me, and they were interconnected politically.

JL: You’re not going to get a better foreign policy without a powerful movement independent of the Democratic Party.

TH: Yes. Part of what I tried to argue in my pieces on the Democrats was the importance of formulating a new, democratic foreign policy through independent politics, by creating a new party of the left. We obviously need to open up the question of military spending and it’s not possible to do that within the current two-party system.

JL: Some of the people who have supported the Campaign over the years are also inclined to vote for Democrats. We did not make the question of the Democratic Party a make-or-break issue for our supporters. But at the same time, Tom and I never downplayed or disguised our fundamental critique of the Democrats and our support for independent political action.

TH: You know who was a big influence on me? Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015), along with his magazine Democracy (1980-1983). It was in large measure because of Wolin that I became inspired to write about American politics. He had a very sophisticated, radical point of view that was opposed to the two-party system and the status quo. If you look at my articles for New Politics on U.S. politics you’ll see that the tone was definitely inspired by Wolin’s essays and books. Very sarcastic, and a little bitter.

KW: Did you take any classes with Wolin when you were at Berkeley?

TH: No, much to my regret. I don’t know why I didn’t. Wolin had a lot to say about Reagan’s triumph in 1980, not only about the Republicans but also about the complicitous, enabling role of the Democrats and the political system as a whole. That had a big effect on my thinking. Most people don’t remember now how thoroughly traditional labor-liberalism collapsed at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. With Reagan’s election I thought that we had reached the bottom of the barrel.

KW: Back to the Campaign: presumably your work attracted some fierce criticism from folks who were favorably disposed toward the Soviet Union. Were you bothered by some of the negativity?

JL: We were most definitely disliked by pro-Soviet types, including people around the U.S. Peace Council. Mainly what we encountered was the secondary effect, however. We had to deal with activists in the peace movement who were influenced by or at least talking to pro-Soviet types. The occupational hazard of the peace movement during the Cold War was the reluctance to criticize the “other side” so as, the thinking went, not to give support to “your side.” They were not hardline CPers but many people did believe that in order to justify lower military spending you had to argue that the Soviet Union was basically a benign actor in international affairs. Luckily there were always some people who supported us and who recognized the importance of reaching out to genuine peace activists in the Soviet bloc—and in fact the numbers of such people increased over the years of our work.

These questions are relevant to this today. Most people in the peace movement are not pro-Assad, for example, but they are reluctant to criticize the Syrian government on the grounds that if you attack Assad you must favor U.S. military intervention. There are some people in the peace movement, for example, who call for organizing delegations to visit the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. to thank them for agreeing to a ceasefire, rather than challenging their intervention in the first place.

KW: Jesus, that’s idiotic.

JL: That’s what was so useful about E.P. Thompson’s role in the 1980s in the peace movement. He very skillfully articulated a perspective of détente from below.

TH: After the fall of Soviet Communism in the early 1990s things became a little more difficult. Many human rights and peace activists developed serious illusions about U.S. imperialism. That was a battle that had to be fought over and over again.

JL: There were a number of people—not in the Campaign, but in the larger peace movement—who argued, with the fall of USSR, that NATO had a valuable role to play in Europe and elsewhere. For some people the idea of being opposed to U.S. military intervention on principle was a difficult pill to swallow. I remember just after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, meeting with someone who had been a Campaign supporter in the past . CPD co-director Jennifer Scarlott[24] and I met with him to ask for further support, and he began the conversation by asking eagerly, “Does either of you have the ear of the Clinton administration?” as if that were the key question. I doubt that he would have asked about our influence with an American president during the Cold War.

KW: Did it become harder and harder to raise money after the fall of the Soviet Union? Was this one of the reasons why the Campaign was put on hold in the mid-to-late 1990s?

TH: That was the big reason. The Clinton years were the years of the locust so far as the Campaign was concerned. It was very hard to do anything. None of our funders were interested in the issue of Bosnia, for example. Many people felt that Serbian aggression against Bosnia had to do with age-old incorrigible ethnic hatreds, and that all sides were somehow equally aggressive and bloodthirsty. Then they looked to the Clinton administration and the UN to figure things out. They weren’t interested in an independent approach to defending Bosnia’s sovereignty and the lives of ordinary Bosnians.

Near and Middle East

KW: What led you to revive the Campaign in the early twenty-first century? Was it the build-up to the Iraq war?

JL: That was definitely part of it. In 2002 we drafted a statement that made the case for opposing both Saddam Hussein and U.S. military intervention. The statement first appeared in the Nation, and then in the New York Times and elsewhere.

KW: It’s striking how a third camp approach can be applied to both Eastern Europe in the 1980s and the Middle East in the early 21st century.

JL: More recently we were inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011, but the problem is that pretty much everywhere—not just Syria—serious repression has been directed toward pro-democratic forces in the region. I reluctantly accept what Gilbert Achcar has argued, that the Arab Spring was the start of what is going to a long process, and that we can’t expect sustained immediate victories. But at the moment the situation is grim—there’s not only repression directed by state military forces, but also the rise of jihadists of different varieties. As a result, pro-democratic forces face at least two enemies, if not more.

It’s also worth noting that it was much easier for people like us to meet activists in Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union than it is in places like Iraq and Syria. The way we sorted out who was who in Eastern Europe was by going there and meeting with people. I wouldn’t feel safe visiting Iran, for example, even though at the moment there isn’t the kind of overt military conflict that’s going on in Libya or Syria.

KW: Are you beginning to get a sense of who’s who in the Syrian opposition?

TH: It’s murky—we don’t know much about the groups. Unlike a lot of people, we recognize that there is a civil society in Syria that is very much alive in many parts of the country. That’s a hopeful sign, but I’m not optimistic about how things will play out in the coming months and years. The better groups are getting decimated, or have made their peace with the jihadists.

KW: Are you surprised at the scale of quasi-Stalinist support for Bashar al-Assad and the Russians within many sections of the American left?

TH: I’m not sure if Stalinism is the best label for this. Certainly there’s a fear of radical Islam that pushes some people in the direction of strongmen like Assad—that you need a strong leader to keep the forces of Islamic extremism from gaining power.

JL: I also think that it reflects U.S. leftists’ terrible sense of weakness—they don’t feel as if they can influence events, so they look to someone like Assad who can stand up against the Americans and the jihadists.

TH: The collapse of the Arab Spring has paved the way for a profound sense of pessimism. So many people refuse to believe that there was anything good about the Syrian revolution. There’s a lot of cynicism about this, and people just refuse to be convinced that there are masses of ordinary people on the ground in places like Syria who are neither pro-regime, nor pro-U.S., nor jihadist.

JL: From the outset there have been important voices on the left who have argued that Assad is an anti-imperialist leader who stands up against the United States and therefore deserves our support. And their attitude toward Syrian opponents of Assad is that these people are objectively helping U.S. imperialism. Beneath that is a larger sense of cynicism and pessimism that is very pervasive on the U.S. left.

TH: Even before the Arab Spring there were people on the left who refused to believe that there could be authentically indigenous movements from below in the Middle East. Quite a few people, for example, argued that the Green Movement in Iran was something that the State Department had somehow organized, and this was a couple of years before the Arab Spring. The same arguments that people made against the reform movement in Iran are now being used to prop up Assad’s regime in Syria.

JL: It was easier to make the argument, however, that the Green Movement was a mass, democratic movement—the evidence in terms of photographs of hundreds of thousands of people marching in Tehran and so forth was very difficult to overlook. The initial movement in Syria was so quickly repressed that it’s easier for these people to deny that it ever took place. The situation became militarized very quickly, which placed democratic activists in an almost impossible position. The pro-Assad forces are receiving an enormous amount of support from the Russians, whose leaders are keen to restore Russia’s status as a world power.


Further Reading

Cohen, Robert and Reginald E. Zelnick, eds. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

Draper, Hal, ed. Berkeley: The Student Revolt. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

———. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vols. 1–5. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977–1990.

Drucker, Peter, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century.” Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994.

Feffer, John. “Regretting the Region’s Right Turn.” JohnFeffer.com. Last modified 23 April, 2013.

Fisk, Milt. Socialism From Below in the United States: The Origins of the International Socialist Organization. Cleveland, OH: Hera Press, 1977.

Fisk, Robert. “Revolution in the Teamsters.” Tikkun 8, no. 2 (March, 1993): 19–24, 71–74.

Friedman, Michael, ed. The New Left of the Sixties. Berkeley, CA: Independent Socialist Press, 1972.

Harrison, Thomas. “Breaking Through by Breaking Free: Why the Left Needs to Declare Its Political Independence.” In Empowering Progressive Third Parties in the United States: Defeating Duopoly, Advancing Democracy, edited by Jonathan H. Martin, New York: Routledge, 2016.

———. “After the Elections: Which Way for the Left?” New Politics 54 (Winter, 2013).

———. “Socialism and Homosexuality.” New Politics 46 (Winter, 2009).

———. “Obama and Empire.” New Politics 47 (Summer, 2009).

———. “The 2004 Elections and the Collapse of the Left.” New Politics 38 (Winter, 2005).

———. “The Dead-End of Lesser Evilism.” New Politics 37 (Summer, 2004).

———. “Only a Democratic Foreign Policy Can Combat Terrorism.” New Politics 32 (Winter, 2002).

———. “The Democrats: No Way To Fight the Right.” New Politics 31 (Summer, 2001).

———. “Election 2000: Infamy and Hope.” New Politics 30 (Winter, 2001).

———. “The Need for a Political Alternative to Clintonism.” New Politics 27 (Summer, 1999).

———. “France (1789–1794): The Mother of Revolutions.” New Politics 25 (Summer, 1998).

———. “The 1996 Elections: Angry Voters with Nowhere to Go.” New Politics 22 (Winter, 1997).

———. Review of Radical Democracy, by C. Douglas Lummis. The Nation: 50–52.

———. Review of Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, by Laura Silber and Allan Little. The Nation (April 8, 1996): 37–40.

———. “The Empire and Left Illusions.” Against the Current 61 (March/April, 1996).

———. “A Cold Peace in Bosnia.” New Politics 20 (Winter, 1996): 6–12.

———. “Bosnia: Against Interventionism, Lift the Arms Embargo.” New Politics 17 (Summer, 1994): 3–10.

———. “Somalia and U.S. Imperial Policy.” New Politics 16 (Winter, 1994): 5–9.

———. “Intervention Won’t Achieve Our Goals.” Peace and Democracy News (Winter, 1993/1994): 1–3.

———. “A Question of International Solidarity.” In Why Bosnia? Writings On the Balkan War, edited by Rabia Ali and Lawrence Lifschultz. Stony Creek, CN: Pamphleteer’s Press, 1993.

———. “The Betrayal of Bosnia.” Z Magazine (July/August, 1993): 34–40.

———. “Intervention in Bosnia: The Arguments Against.” Labour Focus on Eastern Europe (May–August, 1993).

———. “Solidarity With Bosnia.” Peace and Democracy News (Winter, 1992/3): 1–2.

———. “The Gulf War and the Anti-War Movement.” Peace and Democracy News (Summer, 1991): 1–3.

Harrison, Thomas and Joanne Landy. “The Greek Grassroots Challenge to the Politics of Austerity.” Campaign for Peace and Democracy. 2012. (accessed January 9, 2018).

Howe, Irving. A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography. New York: Harvest, 1984.

Isserman, Maurice. If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Landy, Joanne. “The Foreign Policies of Sanders, Trump, and Clinton: America and the World in 2016 and Beyond.” New Politics 61 (Summer, 2016).

———. “Ukraine Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Is There a Way Out?” New Politics 57 (Summer, 2014).

———. “Some Lessons of 1989’s East European Revolutions: Reflections of a U.S. Peace Activist,” New Politics 53 (Summer, 2012).

———. “The Change We Really Want?” New Politics 46 (Winter, 2009).

———. “Iraq: The Case for Immediate U.S. Withdrawal,” New Politics 37 (Summer, 2004).

———. “Revolution and Us.” Tikkun 5, no. 2 (March, 1990): 18–27.

———. “Two Steps Back: The East Chases the Worst of the West.” The Progressive (June, 1991).

———. “Suppose We Invade Haiti. Then What?” New York Times (op-ed), August 7, 1994.

———. “A New Goal for the Peace Movement.” New York Times (op-ed), December 25, 1988.

———. “The Polish Regime Calls It Justice.” New York Times (op-ed), June 15, 1985.

———. “Let U.N. Assembly Elect Security Council.” New York Times (letter), December 24, 1992.

Landy, Joanne and Oliver Fein. “We Can Do It! The Case for Single Payer National Health Insurance.” New Politics 45 (Summer, 2008).

Landy, Joanne and Jennifer Scarlott. “Democratic Movements Can Force Disarmament.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 48, no. 4 (May, 1992).

Morton, Brian and Joanne Landy, “East European Activists Test Glasnost,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 44, no. 4 (May, 1988): 18–26.

Polish Video Tribute to Joanne Landy, New Politics (last modified July 1, 2017).

Worcester, Kent. “From the Sixties to the Present: An Interview with Lisa Lyons.” In Silent Agitators: Cartoon Art From the Pages of New Politics, edited by Kent Worcester, 96–101. New York: New Politics, 2016.

———. “Third Camp Politics: An Interview with Julius and Phyllis Jacobson.” Left History 18, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 2014): 39–60.


[1] “Statement of Purpose,” Campaign for Peace and Democracy, accessed on January 9, 2018.

[2] “Highlights of CPD Initiatives, 2002–2013,” Campaign for Peace and Democracy, accessed on January 10, 2018.

[3] Key sources on the history of the Shachtmanite current include Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994); Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (New York: Harvest, 1984); and Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

[4] On the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, see Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnick, eds., The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), and Hal Draper, ed., Berkeley: The Student Revolt (New York: Grove Press, 1965).

[5] Kent Worcester, “Third Camp Politics: An Interview with Phyllis and Julius Jacobson,” Left History 18, no. 1 (2014): 39–60.

[6] Seymour Landy (1931–2007) was a Marxist writer and activist. He was a member of the Independent Socialist Clubs (ISC) and the International Socialists (IS) in the 1960s and early 1970s, before breaking with the IS in 1973. He subsequently cofounded the League for the Revolutionary Party in 1976.

[7] Max Shachtman (1904–1972) was a leading Trotskyist before he split with the movement in 1939–1940. He cofounded the Workers Party (1940–1947) and its successor organization, the Independent Socialist League (1947–1958). His books include Behind the Moscow Trial (1936) and The Bureaucratic Revolution: The Rise of the Stalinist State (1962).

[8] Deborah Meier is a longtime educator and a leading advocate for the small schools movement. Her books include In Schools We Trust (2002) and Many Children Left Behind (2004).

[9] George Rawick (1929–1990) was a historian whose works include From Sundown to Sunup (1971) and Listening to Revolt: The Selected Writings of George Rawick (2010). He edited the 41-volume set of oral histories of former slaves, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (1971–1979).

[10] Mike Parker is a veteran labor activist. His books include Inside the Circle: A Union Guide to QWL (1986) and Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept (1988, with Jane Slaughter). He is currently active with the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California.

[11] Joel Geier is an associate editor of the International Socialist Review (ISR). His coauthored response to Martin Smith’s “Talkin’ ‘bout a Working-Class Revolution” appeared in Left History in 2013. See Candace Cohn et al., “Response to Martin Smith’s ‘Talkin’ about a Working-Class Revolution’: Not the IS, Not in Our Name,” Left History 17, no. 2 (2013): 137–156.

[12] Sam Farber is a Cuban-born socialist. His books include Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960 (1976), Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (1990), and The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (2007).

[13] Mike Shute’s essay “For an Independent Campaign against Brown and Reagan, and the Building of a New Party” was circulated by the ISC in 1966.

[14] Lisa Lyons is a longtime socialist-feminist cartoonist. She creates cover art and interior illustrations for the semiannual journal New Politics.

[15] Hal Draper (1914–1990) was a writer and socialist activist. His essay “The Two Souls of Socialism” (1966) is a classic of socialist thought. His books include Berkeley: The New Student Revolt (1965), Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vols. 1–5 (1977–1990), and War and Revolution: Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism (1996).

[16] Ernest E. Haberkern is a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Socialist History and the coeditor, with Arthur Lipow, of Neither Capitalism nor Socialism: Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism (1996).

[17] Jack Weinberg is a longtime labor and environmental activist. He was held in a police car for 32 hours for sitting at a Congress of Racial Equality table and not showing a student ID. Three thousand people surrounded the police car, and the FSM was launched.

[18] Phyllis Jacobson (1922–2010) and Julius Jacobson (1922–2003) co-founded New Politics in 1961 and served as co-editors until 2002. Their co-edited book Socialist Perspectives was published in 1983. Julius Jacobson also edited The Negro and the American Labor Movement (1968), and Soviet Communism and the Socialist Vision (1972).

[19] Robert Avakian is a former Free Speech Movement activist and Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).

[20] Nelson Lichtenstein is a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. His books include Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in America (1997), State of the Union (2002), and The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (2009).

[21] Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University and a member of the New Politics editorial board. Her books include Urban Teaching: The Essentials (2006) and The Future of Our Schools (2012).

[22] ANSWER (“Act Now to Stop War and End Racism”) is a U.S.-based coalition that was founded by members and supporters of the Workers World Party shortly after 9/11. The group maintains a self-consciously “anti-imperialist” stance and continues to organize rallies and demonstrations against different aspects of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. Both the Workers World Party and ANSWER are loath to criticize authoritarian regimes that are in conflict with the United States and its allies. See Answer Coalition; and David Corn, “Behind the Placards,” LA Weekly, October 30, 2002, both accessed on January 9, 2018.

[23] Arthur Lipow’s (1935–2016) books include Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement (1982) and Political Parties and Democracy: Explorations in History and Theory (1996).

[24] Jennifer Scarlott was a co-director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, as well as an editor and contributor to CPD’s Peace and Democracy News, from 1990 to 1998. She currently serves as Coordinator of two grassroots organizations in the Bronx—Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice.



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