No 1522 14th October 2017
Trade war antagonism and austerity stagnation, deepening constantly as capitalist crisis unfolds, drives now constant eruption of nationalism and conflict such as Catalonia. Declaring these simply “struggles for freedom and self-determination” is academic moralising which misses their significance as symptoms of the plunge towards Slump and world war breakdown. Simplistic “democracy” illusions aid their use by capitalism to distract and diverts workers’ attention and feeds chauvinism being whipped up everywhere (as with Brexit). Many national struggles like Ireland are progressive but because defeating imperialist oppression and opening a road to the proletarian revolution that alone can solve mankind’s problems. Others are reactionary gimmicks. Concrete analysis needed with Leninist theoretical grasp
The (re-)eruption of multiple nationalist “causes” across the world reflects imperialism’s catastrophic collapse into chauvinism, international anarchy and trade war.
But except for particular or exceptional cases, most of these demands for “self-determination” are pure gimmickry and distraction.
Be it the Catalan “independence” provocations of the past fortnight in Spain, the Iraqi Kurds’ equally specious opportunist “referendum” to “break free” of Baghdad, continued posturing of the middle-class Scottish Nationalists or even the great Brexit breakaway, chasing (non-existent) “sovereignty” by British imperialism itself, these are all primarily bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalist stunts.
They are all symptoms of the disintegration and growing antagonism of international relations as the inherently conflict ridden and ultimately destructive nature of capitalist competitive monopoly rivalry intensifies, because of the “over production” contradictions built into the private profit system.
They are part of its breakdown.
But they are not solutions for the working class.
To the contrary. As the ruling class becomes increasingly paralysed by the terrifying implosion of its entire greed-ridden world system – witness the witless conference turmoil and incompetent floundering of the British Tories, collapse of Macron populism in France and the breakdown in Germany’s “consensus” in the last election – these petty nationalisms are deliberately used to confuse, fragment and divert any coherent working class struggle to end the out-of-time monopoly capitalist order, as it breaks down into ever more paralysed chaos and bitter rivalries for collapsing markets.
Not only do they fail to solve the great questions raised by this still deepening disintegration of the capitalist economic system, but they seriously divert working class attention from the only question that matters, that of overthrowing the entire world capitalist system and establishing socialism.
Worse, they encourage and inflame the chauvinism and jingoism required by the imperialist system to escape its greatest ever crisis collapse – the great unfolding Catastrophe which surfaced fully in 2008 - in the only way it has ever known how, through devastating inter-imperialist trade war and then shooting war.
They break apart the necessary internationalism of the working class, and are another facet of the divide-and-rule tactics that are a major instrument for continuing ruling class dominance (alongside racism, anti-“Baby boomer” ageism, regionalism, sexism (male and feminist), religion, etc etc).
And they foster the same kind of small-minded and narrow hatred for “others” that is being stirred up by the “war on terror” demonisation, condemnation and blitzkrieging of Third World “jihadist” revolt.
Virtually all these nationalist upheavals fall on the same spectrum as the chauvinist and nationalist reaction erupting elsewhere too, in the eastern side of increasingly powerful German imperialism under the alt-Deutschland neo-nazi banner, the Trumpite “Make America great again” trumpeting, in neo-fascist movements in France,Italy and other European countries, and through Brexit Little Englander backwardness.
Supporting any of this upheaval because of some declared universal moral principle of a “right to self-determination”, (or “regaining sovereignty”) as much of the fake-“left” is doing over Catalonia or the Iraqi Kurd region, with its usual posturing, is to be at best distracted from seeing the real problem in the world, capitalism itself and at worst to cynically play along with imperialism’s Balkanising rackets.
Confusion and capitulation on these issues once again delivers valuable lessons to the working class about the bankruptcy and hopelessness of the fake-“left” with its dull-brained illusions about bourgeois “democracy", either falling for this diversionary nonsense through academic “principles” and moralising, or failing to challenge it.
Formally speaking Marxism has always recognised the “right” to self-determination.
Such a “right” is a guide to grasping and understanding world upheavals, and judging the correct tactics in relation to them - beware treading on such sensitivities as Lenin warned numerous times (see quotes in EPSR issue No866 13-08-96 eg).
But this is hugely misleading if it is regarded as some overriding or universal principle taken in an absolute sense.
There are self-determination nationalist struggles which are perfectly valid expressions of anti-imperialism or fights to get out from under oppression and tyranny, even when they are not working class and communist linked.
Marxism has always recognised that they are part of world development throwing off the backwardness of primitive tribal and feudal societies, and/or rising against colonial oppression.
And it recognises that much movement forwards and against imperialism might take a nationalist form initially, often led by petty bourgeois class forces.
Among the most obvious in modern times are the nearly 70 years of dogged resistance and uprisings of the endlessly persecuted and genocidally harassed Palestinians against the Nazi-Zionist landtheft colonial occupation of their country; the still unfinished business of the long running and heroic Irish national-liberation cause which has pushed back the British imperialists with victories for first the 26 counties, and then the titanic IRA/Sinn Féin struggle which is now on the way to completing the expulsion of fading British imperialist dominance from the artificial colonist “Northern Ireland” entity (violently imposed by bayonets and thuggery in 1921 “for ever” but now being steadily dismantled after the Good Friday Agreement British imperialist retreat); the now achieved anti-apartheid aspect of the revolution in South Africa, opening the way eventually for the crucial socialist revolution to come; and more recently the Crimean and east Ukrainian “self-determination” movements against the CIA-Western manipulated Nazi-coup regime, installed in Kiev by years of well-funded counter-revolutionary skulduggery.
That this latter, swastika-infested, reactionary “Great Ukrainian” government declares itself for “nationalist independence” too, (currently banning use of Russian in schools for example), only underlines the complexities of “self-determination” and the need, as Lenin emphasised in numerous works, to look closely at the concrete details of any such struggle.
They can only be measured and assessed by seeing such struggles in relation to the worldwide class war against imperialism itself.
Ukrainian nationalism, for all that it might have some claim on respect for its language and past history and sovereignty (well enough recognised in fact in the time of the Soviet Union, which allowed and encouraged more flourishing of local and national culture than had ever been possible under the Tsarist Great Russian “prison-house of nations”) now plays a role entirely as stooge and instrument for Western imperialism.
The eastern Ukraine demand for independence nestled within that, like (appropriately) a Russian doll, fights against the Ukrainian Kiev fascists and the Western plotting that stands behind them.
But even then, or in the case of other struggles which are pushing against monopoly capitalist domination, it is not the nationalism as such that wins any support from Marxists, as the EPSR has long explained (No. 863 23-10-96):
the more crucial needs of that wider anti-imperialist revolution must be seen as potentially taking precedence over any nation’s right to self-determination seen as an absolute principle of struggle. The Leninist Revolution was sensitive to the national question more than any regime in all previous recorded world history, but the importance of the security of the whole Soviet Revolution required many national self-determination movements within Soviet boundaries to be challenged “enthusiastically”. Equally, Tibet’s self-determination claim is obviously being used today by world imperialism solely to try to undermine the Chinese workers state.
It is the Irish national-liberation movement’s enormous success in humiliating British imperialism which deserves the “enthusiastic support”, not its “struggle for self-determination” as such.
Lenin states it another way, which is that:
Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the “most just”, “purest”, most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity, a unity that is growing before our eyes with every mile of railway line that is built, with every international trust, and every workers’ association that is formed (an association that is international in its economic activities as well as in its ideas and aims).
The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.
The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the “positive” activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.
To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.
Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture’ in general?—Of course not. The economic development of capitalist society presents us with examples of immature national movements all over the world, examples of the formation of big nations out of a number of small ones, or to the detriment of some of the small ones, and also examples of the assimilation of nations. The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.
Oct.1913 Critical remarks on the national question
Is there anything progressive in the current demands by the Catalans for secession from Madrid, that would directly aid or at least indirectly open up avenues for proletarian struggle against capitalist crisis?
Just the opposite; it reeks with a petty bourgeois opportunism and reaction in every way possible, from the obvious middle class and local business bourgeois character of much of its support, to its political aims.
These are not to strike blows against capitalist crisis impositions so much as to reduce tax and finance contributions that it makes, as one of the wealthier regions, hoping to take the edge off the Slump impositions it has been forced to make itself; as far as the working class is concerned this means gaining some relief only by letting those in other regions take the brunt.
It also aims to distract attention from the crisis with these national democracy demands.
Of course there is a separate language and culture to some extent in Catalonia but the regional autonomy provisions of the Spanish state already recognise that; but there is no history of non-stop colonial oppression, such as there is with Britain’s brutal domination of Ireland or Spain’s still partially extant domination in North Africa.
Its closest relatives are the Tartan Tory SNP in Scotland, and even perhaps such self-interested breakaway movements as the Lega Nord in Italy, which barely bothers to disguise its fascist nature.
As with the Scottish and Welsh bourgeoisies there is a centuries long history of merging of first feudal and then bourgeois classes into the main national ruling class and a shared participation in its imperialist expansion across the world for three centuries.
Historically there has also been little separation this century. In the late 1930s Spanish Civil War, Catalonia fought as part of the national republican resistance to Franco’s fascist invasion and the separatist elements, if anything, tilted towards reaction; the extreme Catholicism and anti-communism of the bizarre architect Antoni Gaudi, designer of the Sagrada Familia, is typical of many.
As with Scotland, a breakaway “independent” Catalonia would be just as dominated and in thrall to international capitalism, just as subject to the worldwide economic collapse and just as exploited and driven down into Slump as it will be as part as part of Spain as a whole; in fact it would be even more vulnerable which is why the Catalan separatists have been pleading with the European Union to keep them as members - desperate to remain within the European monopoly capitalist bloc as some kind of “defence” against the international corporations and finance markets which will eat them alive otherwise.
Either way imperialism will dominate the working class (exactly as is true on a larger scale for “Brexit Britain” in or out of the EU).
All this is not altered by the brutal antics of the Francoist sympathising throwback Madrid government which is even more reactionary. Its crude police violence to suppress the (illegal) referendum and heavy-handed suppression of Barcelona’s provocations has enflamed the situation, and clearly intends to stir the even more reactionary “Great” Spanish nationalist sentiment, even more cynically than the separatists themselves, again to distract from the crisis.
Of course that means it is using some of the “force and privilege” Lenin refers to, and that has pushed some previously neutral outrage in Catalonia towards the nationalist cause.
But the answer to that is not to support the nationalist petty bourgeois racket nor even to call for “negotiations and a proper referendum” as assorted Labourite “lefts” like the Guardian’s Owen Jones do, declaiming the nationalist “right to decide” but declaring against a breakaway.
Even less does it mean fighting for “national rights” in Catalonia but on a “Spanish national scale” as the Trot Weekly Worker-ites (CPGB) declare; though (correctly) they assert the struggle should be kept as unified as possible, that cannot be simply to properly implement some supposed “democratic principle” as the WW puts it, overriding its own earlier points about the reactionary and exclusionary nature of this nationalism and suggesting that it is the only
acceptable socialist policy to fight for these national rights.
The CPGB’s fetishes about some abstract “democracy” to thereby be “fully consummated” (because post-Franco Spain is only halfway there) completely muddies the water, as always treacherously tying the working class back bourgeois parliamentarianism just as much as Labourites like Owen, when more than ever the need is to spell out the class dictatorship nature of capitalism’s rule and the only possible way it can be overcome, which is through class war to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Of course the reactionary near-fascism of Mariano Rajoy’s government needs to be challenged across the board, including its repressive measures against the Catalans.
But that is not done by supporting the nationalists as such, nor even implying that working class struggle is served by devolution or full secession.
That would only continue to suggest that the working class would make some advances this way; and while in the far future of a socialist world, local autonomy and contributions to society will be desirable, they are not the best way forwards in a raging hurricane of international crisis collapse.
What is needed is the greatest possible unity of the working class against the whole of the capitalist system.
That requires a revolutionary class war perspective beginning with an understanding of the world imperialist crisis and its ever worsening degeneration into trade war and war.
And that is the last thing that any of the “lefts” are putting forwards.
The best way to fight the Madrid government’s repressions is to recognise that they are deliberate provocations to distract from the crisis, and to divide and rule, and so are the Barcelona actions; taking sides is simply to be diverted and manipulated just as taking side in the Brexit debate prevents the higher picture being grasped and understood, that the wage cuts, stagnation, welfare restrictions, austerity and debt are the consequences of the collapsing capitalist order and that the working class needs to direct its fight that way.
Encouragingly, it seems from the great mass of ordinary people that demonstrated on the 8th October against the secessionists, – and which has clearly restrained their immediate declarations of independence, – that much ordinary class feeling is against the breakup.
Despite the Spanish flags being waved in that demonstration the vox pop comments on TV and press reports, suggest this mass was not so much swept along by (Madrid) Spanish nationalism behind the reactionary Rajoy government, as against the nationalist fragmentation.
But without a revolutionary lead, even relatively sound class instincts can be diverted.
The complications of this unfolding nationalism need further thought but more light is thrown on it by the almost simultaneous and in some way similar “illegal” self-determination referendum held at the end of September by the Iraqi Kurds, now being bullied into acquiescence by economic blockade by the Turks, Baghdad, Syria and “international community” pressure .
But while at first sight there seems to be greater justification for this to be supported as a “right”, it is even more reactionary.
Of course the Kurds are one of the major national injustices on the planet, almost continuously harassed, bombed, persecuted, suppressed and denied their own language and culture, the entire “democratic free world” turning a blind eye to their oppression and dispossession, particularly in Turkey where the greatest section of the Kurdish inhabited land is incorporated (with sections in Iran, Iraq, and Syria).
But the particular section in the oil-rich north of Iraq has long been dominated by petty bourgeois elements dominated by two semi-tribal and rival groupings which have taken a major stooge role in the region for decades, colluding with US imperialism, in particular joining in with the US attacks on Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Historically, in the light of the notorious poison gas attacks on Hallabja blamed on Saddam (though denied) that might be understandable, but such has been the gangster mafia character of the two “dynasties” that in the 1990s:-
one of them, Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP), based in Irbil, even committed the ultimate sin of inviting Saddam’s tanks to come up and help him push back the forces of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK),
according to press reports quoted by the EPSR (No 1244 03-08-04). Recent reports suggest they have been squabbling just as much over the referendum and its potential spoils.
Then and since they have also been taking funds and arms from Zionist Israel, which has been trying to get military cooperation there, forming its own intrusive enclave (a “mini-Israel” ) as a base for monitoring and attacking the region and particularly Iran.
The current “self-determination” manoeuvre is less to do with the general Kurdish fight for freedom than a means for these petty bourgeois to claim a “reward” for their latest bout of stooging for the US; their peshmerga troops having been used to bolster the civilian-butchering Western suppression of the ISIS’ anti-imperialist anti-Baghdad revolt.
But like the hopeful Saddam himself, invading Kuwait in 1990 as a “reward” for the ten year long Iraq war waged on Iran on behalf of the US they are getting short shrift:
Kurdish politicians, in particular Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, now sense their moment is nigh amid the upheavals and conflicts roiling Iraq and Syria. And they see a government in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, that has turned cold toward the Kurds and is barely able to protect its own people.
But some critics within the notoriously fractious KRG see the referendum as a bid by Barzani and his ruling party to consolidate power. Two rival prominent Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Movement for Change, grumbled about the referendum but eventually got on board.
“Both parties see the referendum as a power grab by Barzani, whose grip has been weakened by a prolonged economic downturn triggered by the fall in global oil prices,” wrote Amberin Zaman in Al-Monitor.
Even the United States, which has historically done a great deal to boost the Iraqi Kurds, is dead set against the referendum. U.S. officials fear that a Kurdish independence push now will undermine the campaign against the Islamic State and harm the reelection campaign of Abadi, their favored candidate, in April. Now is not the time, they argue, to rock the boat.
Abadi has deemed the referendum “illegal,” while governments in Turkey and Iran also refuse to recognize the vote’s result. The Turkish government has worked closely with Barzani, but now warned of dire repercussions should the secession movement gain much more steam.
“After this, let’s see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, warning that Turkey could block the KRG’s oil exports. “We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done.”
The Iraqi Kurds do have one conspicuous source of support — the Israelis have long seen the Kurds as useful allies on the Iranian border and have been vocal advocates for their independence in the buildup to the vote.
None of which will stop part or all of the fake-“left” from declaiming this as another moral “self-determination” cause to be supported,revealing again their academic detachment from the real world, and the pressing need for a revolutionary perspective as the crisis intensifies by the day.
The same for the Rohingya in Myanmar, a tragic mess being used by imperialism to escalate its warmongering under cover of “concern” for national and human rights.
But none for the seven million starving and endlessly blitzed Yemenis, blown apart to keep the warmongering on the boil that is the endpoint of capitalist Catastrophe.
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Trotskyist hostility...capitalises on the centenary of the heroic 1917 October Revolution to pour out yet more poison on the historic legacy of the Soviet Union.
(Continued - Part 2/5 see last issue). [Discusssion]
Faulkner wrongly ascribes the “bitter controversy” that arose within the Russian Social Democrats following the 1905 revolution to “confusion” over Marx and Engels’ analyses of the nature of revolutionary process because they stopped using the phrase ‘permanent revolution’ not long after the 1848 revolutions had ended:
[Marx], and to a greater extent Engels, later retreated from this conception [‘permanent revolution’] and there seems to be little trace of it in late nineteenth-century Marxism. The Russian Social Democrats were therefore confused about the nature their own imminent revolution – to the point of bitter controversy. (Summary of quote used in Part 1)
Confusion over Russia’s revolution emanated from Trotsky and the petty-bourgeois opportunist Mensheviks he followed at that time, not the Bolsheviks. Their (Trot) muddled positions, which Faulkner repeats in a more lightminded and throwaway manner, stems from a failure to recognise the specific social and economic conditions in Russia, which differed from the rest of Europe, and which drove the revolutionary process.
This confusion of theirs, arising from their privileged class positions as petty bourgeois intellectuals, led ultimately to the split in 1912 between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Lenin battled against their confusion-mongering to provide clarity to the Social Democrats and the wider working class and peasantry.
In the following polemic of Lenin’s against slanderous articles written by Trotsky (and Martov, the leader of the Mensheviks), he argued that the split within the Social Democrats resulted from Russia’s economic circumstances, not, as Trotsky argued, the success or otherwise of any particular theoretical position in influencing the proletariat. Lenin saw this as an idealistic position which has nothing to do with Marxist philosophy. Faulkner’s argument that the split arose over confusion about theoretical matters is equally idealistic.
The split was the highest expression of the hostile relations between the proletariat and the liberal bourgeoisie that arose because of the economic conditions of the 1905 revolution, as Lenin explained:
Trotsky declares: “It is an illusion” to imagine that Menshevism and Bolshevism “have struck deep roots in the depths of the proletariat”. This is a specimen of the resonant but empty phrases of which our Trotsky is a master. The roots of the divergence between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks lie, not in the “depths of the proletariat”, but in the economic content of the Russian revolution. By ignoring this content, Martov and Trotsky have deprived themselves of the possibility of understanding the historical meaning of the inner-Party struggle in Russia [ea]. The crux of the matter is not whether the theoretical formulations of the differences have penetrated “deeply” into this or that stratum of the proletariat, but the fact that the economic conditions of the Revolution of 1905 brought the proletariat into hostile relations with the liberal bourgeoisie—not only over the question of improving the conditions of daily life of the workers, but also over the agrarian question, over all the political questions of the revolution, etc. To speak of the struggle of trends in the Russian revolution, distributing labels such as “sectarianism”, “lack of culture”, etc., and not to say a word about the fundamental economic interests of the proletariat, of the liberal bourgeoisie and of the democratic peasantry, means stooping to the level of cheap journalists [emphases added]. [Lenin, Historic Meaning of the Inner Party Struggle in Russia, Diskussiony Listok No.3, 1910]
Lenin then demonstrated how this failure to start from economic circumstances led Trotsky (and Martov) to mix up different historical periods when comparing Russia (which still required a bourgeois revolution) with Europe (who, by 1905, had long completed their bourgeois revolutions):
… For the same reason Trotsky’s argument that splits in the international Social-Democratic movement are caused by the “process of adaptation of the social-revolutionary class to the limited (narrow) conditions of parliamentarism”, etc., while in the Russian Social-Democratic movement they are caused by the adaptation of the intelligentsia to the proletariat, is absolutely false. Trotsky writes: “While the real political content of this process of adaptation was limited (narrow) from the standpoint of the socialist, final aim, its forms were unrestrained, and the ideological shadow cast by this process was great.”
This truly “unrestrained” phrase-mongering is merely the “ideological shadow” of liberalism. Both Martov and Trotsky mix up different historical periods and compare Russia, which is going through her bourgeois revolution, with Europe, where these revolutions were completed long ago. In Europe the real political content of Social-Democratic work is to prepare the proletariat for the struggle for power against the bourgeoisie, which already holds full sway in the state. In Russia, the question is still only one of creating a modern bourgeois state, which will be similar either to a Junker monarchy (in the event of tsarism being victorious over democracy) or to a peasant bourgeois-democratic republic (in the event of democracy being victorious over tsarism). And the victory of democracy in present-day Russia is possible only if the peasant masses follow the lead of the revolutionary proletariat and not that of the treacherous liberals. History has not yet decided this question. The bourgeois revolutions are not yet completed in Russia and within these bounds, i.e., within the bounds of the struggle for the form of the bourgeois regime in Russia, “the real political content” of the work of Russian Social-Democrats is less “limited” than in countries where there is no struggle for the confiscation of the landed estates by the peasants, where the bourgeois revolutions were completed long ago. (emphasis added) [Lenin, Historic Meaning of the Inner Party Struggle in Russia, Diskussiony Listok No.3, 1910]
The historical process is driven by material conditions, from which a revolutionary consciousness begins to develop. It is not, as the logic of Trotsky’s position leads to, driven by the ideas any particular party is able to put in people’s heads (being determines consciousness). It does however require a revolutionary party to correctly describe that historical process for the revolutionary consciousness to crystallise.
Because he failed to take account of the social and economic conditions of Russia at that time, Trotsky (and Faulkner following him) took a great leap into abstraction to argue that the working class must independently take power independently of the peasantry and establish a workers’ state.
This permanent revolution “theory” is not to be confused with Lenin’s much profounder materialist understanding of uninterrupted revolution, whereby the workers and peasantry, under their revolutionary democratic dictatorship, would fight to hold onto power until material conditions are at such a level of development that a socialist revolution becomes necessary to bring about further progress.
Contrary to the bourgeois revolutions of Europe, the 1905 Revolution, had weakened rather than strengthened the bourgeoisie. The inability of the liberal bourgeoisie to carry through its revolution pushed the peasantry towards the working class. The bourgeoisie, in fear of the growing influence and power of the proletariat, relied more and more on the counter-revolutionary forces of the Tsar.
The bourgeoisie faced a proletariat which was concentrated in large scale industries. It was, despite its limited numbers, highly organised and sophisticated, and steeled by the struggles against some of the worst forms of capitalist exploitation and police repression.
Alongside this, despite the development of capitalism in the countryside (which Lenin understood deeply having studied it in great detail), huge sections of the agricultural economy were still dominated by remnants of brutal feudal serfdom and vicious landlordism.
All this gave impulse to an alliance between the peasantry and workers in the absence of a strong bourgeoisie, the peasantry’s natural allies.
The economic conditions of Russia needed to develop further in a revolutionary way before the majority of the revolutionary strata of the people (the urban petty bourgeoisie and poor peasantry as well as the proletariat) were ready to accept the leadership of the Bolsheviks and the fight for a workers’ state. A bourgeois revolution to free capitalism from autocratic constraints was necessary to bring this about.
By 1914 Russia had experienced a period of rapid industrialisation in the cities. In the countryside Tsarism, following the pressure of the 1905 revolution, had embarked on a belated and limited process of aiding the development of capitalist relations in the countryside and breaking up the old semi-feudal agrarian system because it had become a barrier to further progress (Stolypin’s repressive reforms). However, the result of those reforms was a rapid escalation of the impoverishment of the peasantry. Throughout this period, Lenin correctly argued that the only way forwards was for a peasant revolution in alliance with the proletariat to overthrow the Tsar, break up landlordism and establish a bourgeois democratic republic under the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants.
This revolutionary process accelerated dramatically as a consequence of the inter-imperialist world war, which sharpened the contradictions within the capitalist system globally.
The rapid success of the February bourgeois revolution of 1917 arose because of the objective material conditions created by the collapse of the imperialist world order and the intensifying contradictions within Russian society.
As Lenin explained in the first of his Letters from Afar, the bourgeoisie were almost in power by 1917. They had already gained control of many of the key institutions of the state. The result of February Revolution was that state power passed over in its entirety into their hands.
The revolution demonstrated in practice the correctness of Lenin’s theory of the historic necessity of the bourgeois stage of history:
The first revolution engendered by the imperialist world war has broken out. The first revolution but certainly not the last.
….The combination of a number of factors of world-historic importance was required for the tsarist monarchy to have collapsed in a few days. We shall mention the chief of them.
Without the tremendous class battles and the revolutionary energy displayed by the Russian proletariat during the three years 1905–07, the second revolution could not possibly have been so rapid in the sense that its initial stage was completed in a few days. The first revolution (1905) deeply ploughed the soil, uprooted age-old prejudices, awakened millions of workers and tens of millions of peasants to political life and political struggle and revealed to each other—and to the world—all classes (and all the principal parties) of Russian society in their true character and in the true alignment of their interests, their forces, their modes of action, and their immediate and ultimate aims. This first revolution, and the succeeding period of counter-revolution (1907–14), laid bare the very essence of the tsarist monarchy, brought it to the “utmost limit”, exposed all the rottenness and infamy, the cynicism and corruption of the tsar’s clique, dominated by that monster, Rasputin. It exposed all the bestiality of the Romanov family—those pogrom-mongers who drenched Russia in the blood of Jews, workers and revolutionaries, those landlords, “first among peers”, who own millions of dessiatines of land and are prepared to stoop to any brutality, to any crime, to ruin and strangle any number of citizens in order to preserve the “sacred right of property” for themselves and their class.
Without the Revolution of 1905–07 and the counter-revolution of 1907–14, there could not have been that clear “self determination” of all classes of the Russian people and of the nations inhabiting Russia, that determination of the relation of these classes to each other and to the tsarist monarchy, which manifested itself during the eight days of the February-March Revolution of 1917. This eight-day revolution was “performed”, if we may use a metaphorical expression, as though after a dozen major and minor rehearsals; the “actors” knew each other, their parts, their places and their setting in every detail, through and through, down to every more or less important shade of political trend and mode of action.
For the first great Revolution of 1905, which the Guchkovs and Milyukovs and their hangers-on denounced as a “great rebellion”, led after the lapse of twelve years, to the “brilliant”, the “glorious” Revolution of 1917—the Guchkovs and Milyukovs have proclaimed it “glorious” because it has put them in power (for the time being). But this required a great, mighty and all-powerful “stage manager”, capable, on the one hand, of vastly accelerating the course of world history, and, on the other, of engendering world-wide crises of unparalleled intensity—economic, political, national and international. Apart from an extraordinary acceleration of world history, it was also necessary that history make particularly abrupt turns, in order that at one such turn the filthy and blood-stained cart of the Romanov monarchy should be overturned at one stroke.
This all-powerful “stage manager”, this mighty accelerator was the imperialist world war.…The imperialist war was bound, with objective inevitability, immensely to accelerate and intensify to an unprecedented degree the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie; it was bound to turn into a civil war between the hostile classes.
…That the revolution succeeded so quickly and—seemingly, at the first superficial glance—so radically, is only due to the fact that, as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings have merged, and in a strikingly “harmonious” manner. Namely, the conspiracy of the Anglo-French imperialists, who impelled Milyukov, Guchkov and Co. to seize power for the purpose of continuing the imperialist war, for the purpose of conducting the war still more ferociously and obstinately, for the purpose of slaughtering fresh millions of Russian workers and peasants in order that the Guchkovs might obtain Constantinople, the French capitalists Syria, the British capitalists Mesopotamia, and so on. This on the one hand. On the other, there was a profound proletarian and mass popular movement of a revolutionary character (a movement of the entire poorest section of the population of town and country) for bread, for peace, for real freedom.
…This new government, in which Lvov and Guchkov of the Octobrists and Peaceful Renovation Party, yesterday’s abettors of Stolypin the Hangman, control really important posts, vital posts, decisive posts, the army and the bureaucracy—this government … this government is not a fortuitous assemblage of persons.
They are representatives of the new class that has risen to political power in Russia, the class of capitalist landlords and bourgeoisie which has long been ruling our country economically, and which during the Revolution of 1905–07, the counter-revolutionary period of 1907–14, and finally—and with especial rapidity—the war period of 1914–17, was quick to organise itself politically, taking over control of the local government bodies, public education, congresses of various types, the Duma, the war industries committees, etc. This new class was already “almost completely” in power by 1917, and therefore it needed only the first blows to bring tsarism to the ground and clear the way for the bourgeoisie. The imperialist war, which required an incredible exertion of effort, so accelerated the course of backward Russia’s development that we have “at one blow” (seemingly at one blow) caught up with Italy, England, and almost with France. We have obtained a “coalition”, a “national” (i.e., adapted for carrying on the imperialist slaughter and for fooling the people) “parliamentary” government. [Lenin, Letters from Afar: The First Stage of the First Revolution, March 1917]
In writing about the February Revolution, Faulkner throws in numerous comments designed to give the impression that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were “behind the curve”, unprepared, and unable to give direction, thereby implying it that it would have been possible for workers to leap over the bourgeois revolution and establish socialism had there been a better leadership and better organisation.
Mysteriously, he does not explicitly say anything about the need for a “permanent revolution” in relation to February 1917. If Trotsky’s philosophic revelation, which Faulkner claims put him on a higher level of scientific understanding than Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was relevant in 1905, why would it not have had greater relevance in February 1917 given that 12 years of social and economic development has passed? And if it was even more relevant in 1917, why not highlight it as proof of the ‘genius’ Trotsky’s supposed scientific “insight”???
As Lenin explained in the above quote, the rapid collapse of Tsarism in February 1917 only happened as soon as it did, and as quickly as it did, because the world war had intensified the class struggle to the point of civil war. The entire historical experience of revolution and counter-revolution from 1905 to 1917 was necessary to reach the point of a victorious bourgeois revolution.
Trotsky’s empty-headed demands for a workers’ state and ‘permanent revolution’ in 1905, at the start of this process, are completely exposed by the movement of history as an utterly shallow piece of posturing grandstanding. Maybe this explains the “mystery”.
Misquoting Lenin again, Faulkner writes:
No-one expected it. Lenin, in exile in Zurich, told a meeting of young socialists beforehand that “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of the coming revolution”. No-one planned or called it. (Chapter 5)
Presumably this would also include Trotsky.
Although it was not possible to predict the precise time or form of the February uprising, the idea that Lenin had not expected it is nonsensical. Since the 1905 Revolution, he had been explaining the necessity of a second bourgeois revolution before socialism could be achieved and built the revolutionary party that argued for this understanding amongst the working class and peasantry.
What Lenin was speculating on in Faulkner’s brief quote from a lecture he gave in January 1917, just before the uprising, was the prospects for socialist revolution in Europe, and the significance of Russia’s bourgeois revolution as a prelude to that. He was talking about was the “decisive battles” of this Europe-wide socialist revolution, not Russia’s own revolution. It is not evidence of his supposed unpreparedness for revolution in Russia.
Lenin was making the argument that, although proletarian-led uprisings would break out across Europe, there could potentially be a lengthy period of civil war upheavals before the socialist revolution would finally be completed. This contradicts Trotsky’s permanent revolution “theory” that the revolution in Russia would immediately spill over into socialist revolutions across Europe:
We very often meet West-Europeans who talk of the Russian revolution as if events, the course and methods of struggle in that backward country have very little resemblance to West-European patterns, and, therefore, can hardly have any practical significance.
Nothing could be more erroneous.
The forms and occasions for the impending battles in the coming European revolution will doubtlessly differ in many respects from the forms of the Russian revolution.
Nevertheless, the Russian revolution—precisely because of its proletarian character, in that particular sense of which I have spoken—is the prologue to the coming European revolution. Undoubtedly, this coming revolution can only be a proletarian revolution, and in an oven more profound sense of the word: a proletarian, socialist revolution also in its content. This coming revolution will show to an even greater degree, on the one hand, that only stern battles, only civil wars, can free humanity from the yoke of capital, and, on the other hand, that only class-conscious proletarians can and will give leadership to the vast majority of the exploited.
We must not be deceived by the present grave-like stillness in Europe. Europe is pregnant with revolution. The monstrous horrors of the imperialist war, the suffering caused by the high cost of living everywhere engender a revolutionary mood; and the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie, and its servitors, the governments, are more and more moving into a blind alley from which they can never extricate themselves without tremendous upheavals.
Just as in Russia in 1905, a popular uprising against the tsarist government began under the leadership of the proletariat with the aim of achieving a democratic republic, so, in Europe, the coming years, precisely because of this predatory war, will lead to popular uprisings under the leadership of the proletariat against the power of finance capital, against the big banks, against the capitalists; and these upheavals cannot end otherwise than with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, with the victory of socialism.
We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution. But I can, I believe, express the confident hope that the youth which is working so splendidly in the socialist movement of Switzerland, and of the whole world, will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win, in the coming proletarian revolution. [Lenin, Lecture on the 1905 Revolution, January 1917]
The Bolsheviks’ correct appraisal of revolutionary developments (due to Lenin’s leadership) had a major influence on the proletariat during the 1917 February revolution despite the vicious persecution, arrests and exile experienced by the Bolsheviks and its leadership.
The workers and peasantry were inspired by the Bolsheviks demands for bread, peace, a republic and the complete destruction of Tsarism (the bourgeois democratic revolution), and were sympathetic (but not yet won over as a majority) to socialism. The Bolsheviks assisted them in their struggle during the February upheavals:
Kerensky and Chkheidze are compelled to reckon with the Social-Democratic Party of the Central Committee by the influence it exerts on the proletariat, on the masses. Our Party was found to be with the masses, with the revolutionary proletariat, in spite of the arrest and deportation of our Duma deputies to Siberia, as far back as 1914, in spite of the fierce persecution and arrests to which the St. Petersburg Committee was subjected for its underground activities during the war, against the war and against tsarism.
“Facts are stubborn things,” as the English proverb has it. Let me remind you of it, most esteemed English Guchkovite! That our Party guided, or at least rendered devoted assistance to, the St. Petersburg workers in the great days of revolution is a fact the English Guchkovite “himself” was obliged to admit [ea]. [Lenin, Letters from Afar: The New Government and the Proletariat, March1917]
Lenin followed this with a quote from 1915 as proof of correctness of the Bolsheviks’ appraisal of the class forces within the bourgeois revolution and the tactical position the proletariat would need to take should the vacillations of the petty-bourgeoisie and its chauvinist elements lead the petty bourgeoisie to enter the provisional government with the pro-war bourgeoisie (as they did):
And he was equally obliged to admit the fact that Kerensky and Chkheidze are oscillating between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The Gvozdyovites, the “defencists”, i.e., the social-chauvinists, i.e., the defenders of the imperialist, predatory war, are now completely following the bourgeoisie; Kerensky, by entering the ministry, i.e., the second Provisional Government, has also completely deserted to the bourgeoisie; Chkheidze has not; he continues to oscillate between the Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie, the Guchkovs and Milyukovs, and the “provisional government” of the proletariat and the poorest masses of the people, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party united by the Central Committee.
Consequently, the revolution has confirmed what we especially insisted on when we urged the workers clearly to realise the class difference between the principal parties and principal trends in the working-class movement and among the petty bourgeoisie—what we wrote, for example, in the Geneva Sotsial-Demokrat No. 47, nearly eighteen months ago, on October 13, 1915.
“As hitherto, we consider it admissible for Social-Democrats to join a provisional revolutionary government together with the democratic petty bourgeoisie, but not with the revolutionary chauvinists. By revolutionary chauvinists we mean those who want a victory over tsarism so as to achieve victory over Germany—plunder other countries—consolidate Great-Russian rule over the other peoples of Russia, etc. Revolutionary chauvinism is based on the class position of the petty bourgeoisie. The latter always vacillates between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. At present it is vacillating between chauvinism (which prevents it from being consistently revolutionary, even in the meaning of a democratic revolution) and proletarian internationalism. At the moment the Trudoviks, the Socialist-Revolutionaries, Nasha Zarya (now Dyelo), Chkheidze’s Duma group, the Organising Committee, Mr. Plekhanov and the like are political spokesmen for this petty bourgeoisie in Russia. If the revolutionary chauvinists won in Russia, we would be opposed to a defence of their “fatherland” in the present war. Our slogan is: against the chauvinists, even if they are revolutionary and republican—against them and for an alliance of the international proletariat for the socialist revolution.” [Lenin, Letters from Afar: The New Government and the Proletariat. March 1917]
Lenin’s quote provides one piece of proof that the revolution was expected and prepared for, from amongst numerous others contained in 11 volumes of Lenin’s scientific analysis from 1907 to February 1917, aimed at arming the proletariat and its leadership with the theory necessary to guide their practice during the bourgeois revolution and after.
Whilst acknowledging the influential role of “second-ranking” Bolsheviks during the February uprising, Faulkner presents this as more or less incidental; and only in terms of organising meetings, marches, etc. He writes nothing of the guiding influence of Lenin’s theoretical analyses and leadership. He gives an impressionistic account of a leaderless “rank and file” revolt:
It had been one of the greatest popular revolts in history. The battle had been waged entirely through the mass action of the Narod, the common people of Russia. The bourgeoisie – the financial, commercial, and industrial capitalists – had played no part whatsoever. The middle class – the civil servants, the upper professionals, the intelligentsia – had watched events unfold from their balconies. The socialist leaders had either said nothing at all, or they said nothing that made any difference. There was no leadership of any kind ‘from above’. The workers and peasant-soldiers had made their revolution all by themselves, as it were ‘from below’, and the rest of plebeian Russia followed their lead. (Chapter 5)
The first thing to say here is that it was not necessary for the bourgeoisie to play a part in the uprising. As Lenin had explained in a previous quotation from his first Letter from Afar, the capitalist landlords and the bourgeoisie were already in charge of the economy, and from 1905 had taken over control over huge swathes of the state bureaucracy and political institutions. They were “almost completely” in power by February 1917 anyway.
The February Revolution was the next stage of the bourgeois revolution that began in 1905. By bringing down Tsarist rule, the workers and peasants had created the space for direct bourgeois rule. The question still remained who would better lead the process of dismantling the Tsarist institutions to ensure a decisive victory – the big bourgeoisie or the workers and peasants.
Secondly, the use of the term “socialist leaders” is imprecise. It blurs the lines between the proletarian Bolsheviks and the petty bourgeois opportunist circles that included the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (and Trotsky).
Leninist theory and leadership carried weight during the uprising. Because it was correct, it informed the thinking and activities of the Bolshevik “worker-activists”, and influenced the working class generally.
It would, however, be correct to say that the Russian proletariat was weaker and less organised than workers in the west European capitalist states. This was because Russia was still a predominantly peasant country and capitalism remained under-developed.
The February Revolution arose from the objective conditions of imperialist world war and capitalist breakdown, not from any subjective desires for socialism. Russian Tsarism’s military defeats and inability to meet the basic needs of the proletariat and peasantry triggered the revolts and pushed the Russia to the forefront of the world revolutionary struggle for socialism, but the bourgeois democratic revolution was still the best that could be achieved at that time:
To the Russian proletariat has fallen the great honour of beginning the series of revolutions which the imperialist war has made an objective inevitability. But the idea that the Russian proletariat is the chosen revolutionary proletariat among the workers of the world is absolutely alien to us. We know perfectly well that the proletariat of Russia is less organised, less prepared and less class-conscious than the proletariat, of other countries. It is not its special qualities, but rather the special conjuncture of historical circumstances that for a certain, perhaps very short, time has made the proletariat of Russia the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat of the whole world.
Russia is a peasant country, one of the most backward of European countries. Socialism cannot triumph there directly and immediately [ea]. But the peasant character of the country, the vast reserve of land in the hands of the nobility, may, to judge from the experience of 1905, give tremendous sweep to the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia and may make our revolution the prologue to the world socialist revolution, a step toward it.
Our Party was formed and developed in the struggle for these ideas, which have been fully confirmed by the experience of 1905 and the spring of 1917, in the uncompromising struggle against all the other parties; and we shall continue to fight for these ideas.
In Russia, socialism cannot triumph directly and immediately [ea]. But the peasant mass can bring the inevitable and matured agrarian upheaval to the point of confiscating all the immense holdings of the nobility. This has always been our slogan and it has now again been advanced in St. Petersburg by the Central Committee of our Party and by Pravda, our Party’s newspaper. The proletariat will fight for this slogan, without closing its eyes to the inevitability of cruel class conflicts between the agricultural labourers and the poorest peasants closely allied with them, on the one hand, and the rich peasants, whose position has been strengthened by Stolypin’s agrarian “reform” (1907–14), on the other. The fact should not be overlooked that the 104 peasant deputies in the First (1906) and Second (1907) Dumas introduced a revolutionary agrarian bill demanding the nationalisation of all lands and their distribution by local committees elected on the basis of complete democracy.
Such a revolution would not, in itself, be socialism. But it would give a great impetus to the world labour movement [ea]. It would immensely strengthen the position of the socialist proletariat in Russia and its influence on the agricultural labourers and the poorest peasants. It would enable the city proletariat to develop, on the strength of this influence, such revolutionary organisations as the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies to replace the old instruments of oppression employed by bourgeois states, the army, the police, the bureaucracy; to carry out—under pressure of the unbearably burdensome imperialist war and its consequences—a series of revolutionary measures to control the production and distribution of goods.
Single-handed, the Russian proletariat cannot bring the socialist revolution to a victorious conclusion. But it can give the Russian revolution a mighty sweep that would create the most favourable conditions for a socialist revolution, and would, in a sense, start it. It can facilitate the rise of a situation in which its chief, its most trustworthy and most reliable collaborator, the European and American socialist proletariat, could join the decisive battles. [Lenin, Farewell Letter to the Swiss Workers, March 1917]
(end of part 2 - to be continued) Phil Waincliffe
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