For Lenin

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.99 February/March 1991

Lenin brought communism into the 20th century. Leader of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian proletariat, inspiration of the first-ever successful socialist revolution in October 1917 and of the Communist International, Lenin's contribution to the cause of the working class and oppressed is immense. But, ANDY HIGGINBOTTOM argues, social democratic ideologues are determined to destroy every vestige of Leninist influence.

Last year a stream of 'Marxists' were elevated to near celebrity status in bourgeois media. Their brief was not praise Lenin, but to bury him:

‘Lenin, the man, died in 1924. But Lenin, the icon of Soviet power, is meeting its end today . . . Thanks to the revolutions of Eastern Europe, time has run out for Lenin.' (Orlando Figes, The Guardian 30 April 1990)

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The Soviet Union and Baltic nationalism

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.100 April/May 1991

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.gif 

A nationalist upsurge in Soviet republics threatens the break-up of the Soviet Union. In this discussion article, TED TALBOT assesses the communist position on movements for national independence as it applies to the Soviet Union today.

In December 1922 the First All-Union Congress of Soviets declared the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Such a Union was necessary both to combat the threat of internal counter-revolution and external intervention. They believed that it would have been hard to safe-guard Soviet power and the independence of the country, surrounded as it was by militarily strong capitalist powers. This would require uniting to the fullest extent the fraternal Republics’ military, political and diplomatic efforts. The vital interests of all the Soviet peoples and the struggle for socialism demanded the formation of a united multinational socialist state.

This illustrates a contradiction for Leninists with their theoretical commitment to self-determination. Revolutions which have created the conditions in which the secession of oppressed nations is possible are liable to be irretrievably weakened if this right is immediately exercised. Furthermore, it is precisely in the midst of revolutionary ferment that an impetus to independence is likely to be strongest. In fact, the Bolshevik party was clear that the right to self-determination was subordinate to the needs of socialist construction.

Let us follow up this notion of a discord between theory and practice. For example, the following retort addressed to Polish communists in a debate about the legitimacy of annexations is typical of Lenin’s vociferous support for national self-determination.

‘However you may twist and turn, annexation is violation of the self-determination of a nation, it is the establishment of state frontiers contrary to the will of the population.’ (Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’)

In March 1920 Pilsudski’s Polish army invaded Soviet territory and established a base in the raw-materials-rich Ukraine for a few months. They were driven out by the Red Army and the Politburo had to decide whether to pursue the retreating Poles into their own territory. Rejecting Trotsky’s advice, Lenin, along with the majority of the Politburo, decided to invade Poland for the following reasons:

  1. A tactical military reason – Pilsudski was unlikely to accept the territorial frontier demarcated by the Bolsheviks and was likely simply to use the time to regroup his forces.
  2. A political reason – they thought that the advance of the Red Army would promote revolutionary out-breaks in Poland.
  3. Poland was the bridge between Russia and Germany, and across it Lenin hoped to establish contact with Germany, imagining that Germany, too, was in intense revolutionary ferment.

It is pertinent to note that Trotsky’s reservations were based not on matters of principle, but rather on warnings of an upsurge of Polish patriotic sentiment following a Red Army invasion of Poland which he received from Polish socialists in Moscow.

The Polish experience was a watershed not just in Bolshevik practice but also in its contradiction of theoretical propositions. ‘It had been a canon of Marxist politics that revolution cannot and must not be carried out on the point of bayonets into foreign countries.’ (The Prophet Armed. Trotsky: 1879-1921, Isaac Deutscher) In short, in practice Lenin and the Bolsheviks were prepared to view national self-determination as secondary to the interests of socialism.

Today nationalist resurgence is threatening the integrity of the Soviet Union. Ten of the fifteen republics are claiming various degrees of autonomy with the Baltic states in the lead. The drive for national autonomy is inextricably intertwined with moves towards a market economy and greater ties with the West.

On Sunday 1 March two unofficial referendums in Estonia (83% turn-out, 78% pro-independence) and Latvia (88% turnout, 83% pro-independence) saw huge majorities in favour of independence. Rather surprisingly, around 40% of ethnic Russians are reported to have voted in favour of independence, despite the presence of sizeable pro-Moscow organisations in the two republics which have complained of ballot rigging and intimidation of voters. For instance in Daugavpils in Latvia only 13% of the population is ethnic Latvian, yet even here a 51% vote favouring independence was recorded. A previous straw ballot in Lithuania had produced an extraordinary result of a little over 90% in favour of independence.

It is unlikely that these results will be repeated in the national referendum currently taking place. This asks whether the present national boundaries of the USSR should be maintained. Six republics are refusing to take part in the vote. Gorbachev has warned that a ‘no’ vote, leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union, would be ‘a world disaster’.

The policy of glasnost has allowed a multitude of national grievances to enter the public arena. Some of these grievances may be legitimate but the secession of one republic would surely promote what Gorbachev’s adviser, Alexander Yakovlev, terms a ‘domino effect’ which would rapidly lead to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

It is fairly clear, as much as anything is clear from his contradictory statements, that Gorbachev, whether from personal disposition or due to pressure from the KGB/military etc, is prepared to allow substantial degrees of national autonomy but not to countenance the destruction of the USSR:

‘Disintegration and separation cannot happen in our country, simply under any circumstances . . . If we start splitting, there will be a dreadful war.’

What should be the attitude of Marxists in this situation? Can the conception that the interests of socialism are superior to the concern for independence apply here also? To accept such a qualification puts one in total opposition to the overwhelming majority of Trotskyist groups (with the exception of the Spartacists), who uncritically support independence moves.

Indeed, such uncritical support for nationalism blends with the desire of the Trotskyists to see capitalism restored in the Soviet Union. Outflanking even Workers Power, the Revolutionary Communist Party outlines explicitly the hidden agenda of the Trotskyist left,

‘Whatever the short-term cost of capitalist restoration in the Stalinist world, the destruction of Stalinism will remove an historic barrier to the self-emancipation of the international working class.’ (Frank Richards in Confrontation No 5.)

Fortunately for them, it is not the RCP who are having to pay the ‘short-term cost’ of capitalist restoration in, for example, the former GDR or Poland, in terms of mass unemployment, loss of housing and widespread poverty. ‘Short-term’, in these cases, means the ruination of many people’s lives. However, far from the ‘cost’ being ‘short-term’, the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe has given a tremendous boost to imperialism.

The RCP’s position does at least have the virtue of being honest – if stupid. The restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union would be a step forward for the international working class! Socialist Outlook, as befits these clandestine Labour Party entryists, are better at dissembling:

‘Some will argue that to advocate independence is in effect to advocate independent capitalist states given the nature of the Popular Fronts. Such positions reveal both a profound pessimism and a lack of clarity on how socialists should support national movements.’ (Dafydd Rhys in Socialist Outlook 1990)

To read this article one would not imagine that a whole series of counter-revolutionary setbacks has put imperialism on the offensive, and the line is put that a ‘clear space’ exists for ‘a common struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy and imperialism’.

How the independence movements are going to take on the world or what the consequences might be are, wisely, left implicit. Presumably the nationalist movements are going to promote a political revolution which will finally overthrow that icon of Trotskyist demonology, the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy’. The Soviet Union can then become a real threat to imperialism. That would be logical, if so utterly abstract as to bear little relation to reality. However, earlier on Socialist Outlook gives the actual reason for supporting the independence movements: if we do not we will be isolated.

‘ . . . Socialists have to not only support but advocate independence for these countries. Any other position would leave us by-passed by events and completely isolated from a dialogue with the masses.’

This is the same argument which the Trotskyists use to justify their continuous perambulations in and around the Labour Party and just as opportunist. Marxist politics should be characterised by political independence rather than tailing popular ideological formations, and their organisational expressions. In fact, given that a dialogue between Socialist Outlook and the nationalists is somewhat remote, one can surmise that their real concern is to tailor their position to accommodate their Labour Party audience.

One argument against a denial of the right to independence to the Soviet republics is that it is pandering to Great Russian chauvinism. Lenin is quite clear that one’s position is relativist and is governed by the nature of the regime in question and the nation one is living in. The Polish debate again provides some useful guidelines. Lenin argues:

‘The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping . . . to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies . . . The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional “freedom to secede”; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period.’

There are no exact parallels here from which to derive tactics. But it is clear that communists in the republics are correct to oppose independence, as otherwise they would be in ‘humble servitude’ to reactionary independence movements which are completely orientated towards imperialism. Communists in the imperialist countries can take note of the socialist credentials of the Soviet Union, which are under heavy internal attack but are still substantially extant, and conclude that there is a legitimacy in defending the integrity of a socialist state which would not exist in the case of an ‘imperialist monarchy’. These tactical arguments do not transcend the strategic argument that the building of socialism takes precedence over the freedom to secede, but they do reinforce it.

Lenin stresses the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. This distinction is not, at least in economic terms, a characteristic of the USSR. In fact, in an ideal world (such as the Trotskyists inhabit) it would be a useful exercise to grant the fractious republics immediate independence but without access to Soviet aid which has been extremely favourable to them. Neither is it likely that the imperialists would be prepared to pump large amounts of finance into such fragile allies. Poland has made many requests for aid but remarkably little has been actually forthcoming. Possibly the salutary lessons embodied here would lead to a voluntary reunion in the long run which would certainly be preferable to the present hostile situation. Unfortunately, such a scenario is quickly revealed as naive when the weakness of the Soviet Union relative to imperialism is considered.

To advocate an absolutist position of ‘independence at any price’, as most of the Trotskyists do, is also to advocate the final break-up of the Soviet Union and the final destruction of the gains of 1917. No amount of mealy-mouthed talk should be allowed to suppress this fact. Such a result would be a mighty victory for imperialism, and all the more so as it would have been won at so little cost. In this situation the interests of the international working class and oppressed masses clearly take precedence over national aspirations in the Soviet republics.

Land and Freedom – a distortion of history

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.128 December 1995/January 1996

land and freedom 

With its subject, the Spanish revolution and civil war of 1936-1939, and its radical socialist director Ken Loach, the urge was to welcome Land and Freedom* and even overlook its weaknesses. After all, in this period of reaction and cynicism, a work of art with a potential mass audience that claims to openly uphold the ideals of socialism is akin to a miracle. But against all wishful expectations, Land and Freedom is an artistic and a political disaster. EDDIE ABRAHAMS argues that it fails to recreate an authentic, living picture of the revolution with its awesome political conflicts and its moving human dramas. It is no tribute to those who fought and died for a noble cause. Nor is it the stuff for a serious discussion of the future of socialism.

Loach’s aim is to offer an interpretation of the revolution which places responsibility for its failure at the foot of the Communist Party of Spain and the Soviet Union. The argument unfolds through an account of the experience of David, a young, working-class Communist Party member from Liverpool who goes to Spain to fight Franco. There he joins up with a unit of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). As the plot develops, Loach treats us to an interpretation of the clashes between the POUM and the Spanish Communist Party which drive David to tear up his Party card in disgust at the Communists’ apparently anti-democratic and anti-socialist politics.

To placate the ‘democratic’ capitalist powers – Britain and France – and the Spanish ‘democratic capitalists’, the Communist Party opposes the collectivisation of the land, eliminates the democratic, popular order generated by the revolution, forces women out of the trenches back into the kitchen, reintroduces a bourgeois hierarchy in the army and monopolises all political power. Thus the Communists destroy the living forces of the revolution and therefore the revolution itself. This at any rate is Loach’s story, a story that alas does not go beyond the dogmatic sloganising one was familiar with in Trotskyist pamphlets of the 1970s.

As a ‘film from the Spanish Revolution’ Land and Freedom is from the outset distorted by its focus on the POUM, a relatively minor force. It was the Anarchists, massively influential, who were the Communist Party’s main opponents and they hardly feature. One cannot object if Ken Loach wants to argue the culpability of the Spanish Communist Party. Communist Party supporters can argue back. But not to acknowledge and honour the thousands of rank-and-file members of the Communist Party who remained faithful to their party and died in the cause of the revolution is an uncalled-for insult to their memory.

With a predetermined, a priori and forced political message it is hardly surprising that the result is artistically flawed. The characters and the plot are one-dimensional and life-less – mere messengers for Loach’s one-sided political argument against ‘Stalinism’. The ‘good’ are good without qualification, while the ‘evil’ are evil beyond any redemption. Neither life nor good art can be so simple. For good measure but bad art, the leader of the ‘Stalinists’ happens to speak with a broad and arrogant US accent. In between the good and the evil is a patronising English middle-class invention – a rather confused and intellectually simple British working-class militant.

The POUM activists, few of whom appear to be Spanish, seem not to suffer the ravages of civil war and revolution. Despite winter in the trenches, their bright and colourful clothes are neither tattered nor worn. They are all young and healthy and remain so. War and revolution ages and wears one down. But not our POUM militants who are fresh-faced and beautiful to the bitter end. It looks as if they never missed a meal. They are rarely touched by the harshness, the hunger, the weariness or the maiming of war. The titanic human endeavour of the Spanish revolution leads to no personal, intellectual, psychological or emotional development. A flat, wooden, stilted depiction of historical and social truth.

In a work of art, the roots of the passions and the hatreds of life, the roots of suffering and harshness must emerge from the actual development of the plot. If they are tagged on as assertions they cease to be genuine and fail to inspire thought, feeling or reaction. Such is the case with this film. Besides some text at the opening of the film, it has no living historical or political context. The peasantry’s appalling poverty is not shown. It is asserted, but only in dialogue between healthy looking POUM militants. One gets no feeling of the violent exploitation and savage poverty which drove the peasants and small village populations to violent revolution.

The film depicts scenes of violent anti-clericalism but does not suggest its causes. The Church’s enormous wealth while preaching poverty and its integral bond with the hated landlords is not even hinted at. Victorious POUM forces execute the local priest who collaborated with fascist defenders of a small village. But why the peasants, instead of taking over the Church, set about destroying it and desecrating statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary is left inexplicable.

Having emptied the revolution of real life, the politics of the revolution is reduced to an exchange of slogans. Natural language is replaced by wooden didacticism. A central scene in the film is the political debate on the question of land collectivisation. The POUM are presented as eager supporters, whilst the Communist Party opposes collectivisation – so as not to alienate the revolution’s bourgeois supporters. In this debate conducted in the hackneyed language of British Trotskyist pamphlets – the POUM is seen targeting not the great local landlords, the Church or the big peasantry but a genial, gentle local smallholder who doesn’t want to form part of a collective. Serious socialist debate about land and political power would not categorically oppose collectivisation to non-collectivisation. It would take into account the need for an alliance with the small, impoverished peasants who don’t want collectivisation, the relation of forces in different regions of the country at different times and the tactical alliances necessary for defeating the main enemy – the bourgeoisie and their imperialist allies. The film’s ‘discussion’ of collectivisation touches on none of these issues.

Ultimately, despite Loach’s intentions, Land and Freedom serves an anti-socialist and anti-communist purpose. The POUM is used merely as a vehicle to expose the great evil – Stalinism. The POUM’s identity and character as a self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxist organisation dedicated to the destruction of capitalism leaves no imprint. Its militants emerge as no more than a group of young idealists dedicated to a socialism and democracy so vaguely defined that even the Blairite Labour Party can applaud. Opposed to the POUM are the totalitarian, anti-democratic, brutal and nasty Communists whose Marxism is not concealed. In one of the last scenes of the film, Communist military forces, headed by the US accent, are ranged on a hilltop, in almost Nazi-like formation, looking down, guns at the ready, at the helpless young things of the POUM.

No political force was innocent of errors in the Spanish revolution. The Communist Party, given its dominant position, must clearly bear central responsibility for the fate of the revolution. But not to acknowledge its role in sustaining the war against Franco is puerile sectarianism. It was guilty of serious political errors which demand historical study. But this film isn’t a contribution to this task. Furthermore, to overlook the Anarchists in favour of the marginal POUM and also ignore the POUM’s own large bag of political and military stupidities and gross errors is plainly ridiculous.

The film makes no mention of the perfidious role of European Social Democracy. As effectively as the German and Italian fascists aided Franco, and the ‘democratic’ capitalists isolated the Republicans, European Social Democracy displayed a studied indifference to the fate of the revolution and indeed collaborated with imperialism. Meanwhile the Soviet Union did actually send weapons to Spain. None of this is touched on, leaving the film both artistically and politically remote from real life.

Film goers wanting to see a good film which deals with the question of Stalin and the problems of socialism should go and see Burnt by the Sun, a Russian, post-Soviet, film directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Infinitely superior and more satisfying than Land and Freedom.

*Land and Freedom — ‘a film from the Spanish revolution’ directed by Ken Loch

A British communist remembers

Rene Waller, now 82, was a young Communist Party militant during the 1930s. Here she gives her own assessment of Land and Freedom.

When reviewing a film about the Spanish Civil War and discussing who was responsible for the defeat of the Spanish republic, the overall international situation must never be forgotten.

The Spanish government was democratically elected, and entitled to be recognised as legitimate. It should therefore have been able to trade normally with other governments and buy arms for its defence. Not only was this right denied, but the fascist powers in Germany and Italy were left free to support General Franco, and did so, incidentally taking the chance to test their bombers and other weapons in readiness for the wider world conflict so clearly coming.

Despite all the odds and the disunity in the republican ranks, plus the treachery of the social democrats throughout Europe, the Spanish republican government withstood the fascist onslaught for three years, affording anti-fascists in Britain a chance to organise and mobilise. We in Britain should be particularly grateful, for I can personally testify that in 1936 there was no organised anti-fascist movement here, and the Communist Party was but a tiny sectarian group discussing Marxism in an academic way, and more interested in staying ‘pure’ than recruiting. All that changed quickly and dramatically when the urgent need to support Spain was perceived. Young people were soon looking for ways to show their support.

Like the young people later on, on the City Group Anti-Apartheid picket, we had a serious objective, but the fascist brutality made us angry rather than sad. Despite official bans, the movement became more and more united and finally a number both from the rank-and-file and leadership joined the International Brigade and slipped across the frontiers to continue the struggle by force of arms. In some circles, it is now alleged that Communist Party members did not do so with the approval of their party. I’m sure this is a libel: there couldn’t be recruiting calls in the Daily Worker, but no one doubted whom to approach.

Well, the Spanish people were defeated and paid a terrible price, but their resistance enabled the anti-fascist forces to get together. However, were we wrong to seek allies and strive to isolate the most openly reactionary forces? Should we have done better to say splits in the ruling class are unimportant and we do not want any temporary and unreliable allies? Well, it would certainly simplify our tactics, but would it help us to get socialism? Lenin ridiculed the idea that the working class would not be capable of understanding the need for tactics and frankly, how can It be sensible not to take advantage of the constant rivalries that lead capitalists to shoot each other?

I believe the Communist Party of Spain was correct to see this. The failure was not due to its effort to maintain unity but to the failure of the movement outside Spain to prevent open racist intervention and to secure for the republican government its normal rights.

Karl Marx 1818-1883: Before all else a revolutionary

Karl Marx

On the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx on 5 May 1818, we will no doubt see many reflections on the relevance and legacy of his work. Some will claim serious scholarship, others, like a recent Financial Times skit on the Communist Manifesto (‘Life and Arts’, 10 March 2018), will pour scorn on his work.

In the imperialist countries it has become the norm to concede that Marx made an important contribution to economic thought but to deny the Marx who would destroy the capitalist system. It is our hope that at least some of these bicentenary contributions will have the political courage not to separate Marx the revolutionary from Marx the social and economic critic of capitalism.

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Imperialism, war and the socialist movement

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 100, April/May 1991

The brief span of the imperialist war against Iraq rekindled some interest in the Marxist position on war, especially as it was developed by Lenin during the first imperialist war. ROBERT CLOUGH examines Lenin’s position and contrasts it with the positions advanced by the British ‘left’ during the Gulf War.

First, the position of revolutionaries vis-à-vis any war depends on a concrete analysis of the political content or substance of that war. How do we disclose and define the substance of a war?

‘War is the continuation of policy. Consequently, we must examine the policy pursued prior to the war, the policy that led to and brought about the war . . . The philistine does not realise that war is “the continuation of policy”, and consequently limits himself to the formula that “the enemy has attacked us”, “the enemy has invaded my country”, without stopping to think what issues are at stake in the war, which classes are waging it, and with what political objects.’ (Collected Works (CW) Vol 23, p33)

In other words, Marxism requires:

‘ . . . an historical analysis of each war in order to determine whether or not that particular war can be considered progressive, whether it serves the interests of democracy and the proletariat and, in that sense, is legitimate, just, etc.’ (CW Vol 23, p32)

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