From a disco on Facebook…

To recapitulate:

R, you made some comments about state repression of anarchists under the Bolsheviks, the status of the death penalty, and recommended Serge (‘The Bolsheviks’ pet anarchist’) on Kronstadt. I pointed out that the first major Cheka action against anarchists took place in April 1918: that is, prior to the re-introduction of the death penalty. I also noted that I’d read Serge on Kronstadt (‘Exchange of Views on Kronstadt’ (pp.124–141) in Kronstadt, V.I. Lenin & Leon Trotsky, Monad Press, 1979), and quoted him on the Cheka.

On a point of clarification: the Cheka did not, apparently, murder 40 anarchists during the raids, but this is the number est to have been killed OR wounded (hundreds more were arrested) by Avrich. Further, while Avrich provides a v brief description of the context (which I quoted), Maximoff (The Guillotine At Work, Vol 1: The Leninist Counter-Revolution, Cienfuegos Press, 1979 (1940), p.57) writes:

On the night of April 12 [1918], an armed force, acting upon government orders, smashed the Anarchist organizations of Moscow. Against those organizations the government forces threw in action not only rifles and machine guns, but also cannons. This “military expedition” resulted, according to M. Y. Latzis, “in 30 casualties–killed and wounded–on our part–12″[.] All that was done under the slogan of fighting “banditry in the Anarchist ranks”, but the real cause lies elsewhere. It was laid open by Lenin in his, “A letter to the Comrades” (issued September, 1917) in which he wrote that: “All agree in characterizing the prevailing mood of the masses of people as one nearing despair and as one giving rise to the generally acknowledged fact of growing Anarchist influence”.

In addition to the eighteen killed and wounded Anarchists, it is rather difficult to ascertain the exact number, the Che-Ka killed the arrested Anarchist Khodounov, during an alleged “attempt to escape”. From that time on persecutions of Anarchists continued at an ever growing rate and by the use of all kinds of means and methods.

In any event, there’s a long disco on my blog on the subject of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution here.

More broadly, the question is (or was): are anarchists socialists? The title of the meeting implies not. However, you wrote that, in a broad sense, yes, anarchists might be considered socialists; a position Vincent Kolo maintains in his essay on anarchism–an important document if only in the sense that it appears to constitute the fullest expression of the CWI’s position as a whole. As noted, according to Kolo: “Anarchism represents a pre-socialist ideology”, a “fundamentally middle-class perspective with the individual rather than the position of social classes as its focus.”

So, @R:

Inre yr questions and comments:

1. By definition, anarchism is not ‘petit-bourgeois’, terrorist, unorganised or undemocratic. This is not to suggest that some anarchists have such social origins (that is, the lower-middle class), have not engaged in political violence (they have), are ‘unorganised’ or hostile to ‘democracy’.

As I see it, the argument being advanced by Kolo et al (it’s quite common among Marxists, of var hues) with regards anarchism being a petit-bourgeois ideology has to do with Marx and Engel’s understanding of ideology as being a reflection of class interests (cf. ‘The German Ideology’: 1845). Thus, while anarchism represents the interests of a 19th C social strata (the artisans or skilled, semi-independent workers), Marxism, it is argued, is, or should be properly considered as being, the ideology of the industrial working class (proletariat). This idea is also closely-related to the status of Marxism as a science as opposed to an ideology, one taken up w great gusto by Engels in, eg, ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ (1880).

2. A recent survey of the movement in Britain is Rebel Alliances: The Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms by Benjamin Franks (2006). John Quail’s The Slow Burning Fuse: The lost history of the British Anarchists (1978) is a good source on the movement’s origins in the mid- to late-19th C.

3. Bakunin’s role in the IWMA is hotly-contested. Paul Thomas’s Karl Marx and the Anarchists (1980) is worthwhile reading.

4. Anarchism has had a presence in the working class of many countries in addition to Spain. Eg: Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Portugal and Russia. On the origins of Spanish anarchism, George Esenwein’s Anarchist Ideology and the Working Class Movement in Spain (1989) is good.

5. Afaik, I’ve not made any ref to the CNT.

6. I’m aware of the distinction b/w the early (EPM) and later Marx; there are many debates regard this supposed ‘epistemological break’ (cf. Althusser).

7. EH Carr’s 1937 bio of Bakunin is one of a number of (English language) bios: its status as an accurate portrayal is also hotly-contested by (among others) Mark Leier in Bakunin: The Creative Passion (2006).

8. The activities of anarchists and others on demos in the UK is another story, and I don’t feel obliged to defend the perspectives of ‘UK Uncut’. Note that this is not to suggest that these aren’t worthy of disco; rather that it departs from the focus of our own.


1. I understand yr point (I think) about Lenin not being in full control of events, and it therefore being unreasonable to assume he personally was responsible for all of the actions carried out by or in the name of the Bolshevik regime while he was leader. I also agree that the newly-formed Russian state evolved over time, and its policies and constitution were the subject (which is to say outcome) of multiple forces, both internal and external. In other words, the subject should be approached in the critical spirit with which any history should.

That said:

1. Part of this history (the history of the Russian Revolution) is the history of the Russian Social Democrats, which requires an understanding of its internal structure, as well as its policies, including the ones which Lenin advocated. I maintain that this structure was highly-authoritarian, and consciously so. Partly, this is (or was) a product of the circumstances of Tsarist Russia, and the brutality w which the regime acted against its political opponents. It was under these circumstances that the doctrine of ‘democratic centralism’ developed.

2. No, Lenin didn’t hold absolute power. But he did hold a good deal of power and authority as head of state, and moreover did a good deal to help construct a totalitarian political system, one which Stalin inherited from him. That Lenin engaged in furious polemics during the period 1917–1924 (in fact for his entire adult life) does not detract from these facts.

3. You write that you support the actions of the Bolshevik regime in suppressing the Left-SRs in July 1918. Supposedly, their revolt was triggered by the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. However, repression of the SRs began prior to this revolt. In May their eighth conference in Moscow was dispersed and in June both they and Menshevik delegates were expelled from the ‘All-Russian Executive Committee of the Soviets’ (Maximoff, pp.73–74). I’m not esp familiar with this event (the assassination or revolt) or those surrounding it, but this essay offers some insight: Lutz Hafner, ‘The Assassination of Count Mirbach and the “July Uprising” of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries in Moscow, 1918’, Russian Review, Vol.50, No.3 (July, 1991), pp. 324–344 [PDF]. It casts some doubt on the official line.

4. The r/ship of the SP to the Bolsheviks is another matter, but it may be placed in a particular context, which is the dev of post-WWII Trotskyism, esp in the UK, the history of the Revolutionary Socialist League/Militant Tendency and Ted Grant. How precisely the contemporary SP in Australia could be “mapped onto” the Bolshevik/Communist Party during the period 1917–1921 is a question I’ll leave it up to you to answer.

5. That Lenin and the Bolshevik regime made mistakes is an uncontroversial proposition. It’s also not one that’s in dispute. In other words, what is really at issue, I think, is not this or that policy but Bolshevik doctrine as a whole. Rightly or wrognly, the Bolsheviks actively suppressed their opposition, and in doing so created a one-party state (“the ones that took political power in the soviets, and tried to construct a state capable of defending the revolution”). You and the SP “don’t regard [‘Stalinism’] as a natural extension of Bolshevism” whereas I do. The ‘excesses’ of the Cheka, for example, were not ‘excesses’ or extra-ordinary but routine and systematic.

Regarding the ‘degeneration’ of the regime, as suggested, I think Aufheben provides a useful summary of the var debates regarding the nature of the Soviet Union.

And oh yeah:

In 1937, when the first German prisoners were assembled on the Ettersberg to cut down the beech forest, the system of the corrective labor camps, the Gulag, in other words, the great hurricane of that terrible year, was about to be unleashed on the USSR.

There have been different stages of the terror in the USSR. Certain thresholds were crossed before the terror reached its heights under Stalin. The year 1937 is undoubtedly one of those thresholds.

Shalamov’s book, which I was reading yesterday — I mean, the day before the day that I am now reconstituting through writing, that day in 1969, in London, when I suddenly found myself opposite a building where Karl Marx had once lived, which gave rise to this apparent digression — the chapter in Kolyma Tales that I was reading yesterday, and whose title was ‘How It All Began,’ deals specifically with the threshold crossed in 1937 in the historical world of the terror, in the very history of the Gulag.

‘In the whole of 1937,’ Varlam Shalamov writes, ‘two men, out of an official work force of two to three thousand, one prisoner and one free man, met their death in the Partisan mine (one of the mines in the Kolyma zone). They were buried side by side, under a tumulus. Two vague obelisks — a slightly smaller one for the prisoner — were erected over their graves … In 1938, an entire brigade worked permanently digging graves.’ For the whirlwind struck the Kolyma camps, and the whole of Soviet society, at the end of 1937. On orders from Colonel Garanin, who was eventually shot as a ‘Japanese spy,’ just as his master, Yezhov, who replaced Yagoda (also shot) as head of the NKVD, was eventually to be shot, and replaced by Beria, who, in turn … Colonel Garanin, as I was saying, unleashed over the Dalstroy, the concentration-camp zone of Kolyma, the insane whirlwind of 1937.

On orders from Colonel Garanin, the prisoners in the camps of the Great North were shot in the thousands. They were shot for ‘counter-revolutionary agitation.’ And what exactly does counterrevolutionary agitation consist of in a Gulag camp? Varlam Shalamov tells us: ‘To say aloud that the work was hard, to murmur the most innocent remark about Stalin, to remain silent when the crowd of prisoners bawled out: ‘Long live Stalin!” … shot! Silence is agitation.’ One was shot ‘for committing an outrage against a member of the guard.’ One was shot for ‘refusing to work.’ One was shot ‘for stealing metal.’ But, says, Shalamov, ‘the ultimate offense, the one for which prisoners were shot in waves, was for not meeting the norms. This crime took entire brigades into a common grave. The authorities provided the theoretical basis for this strict regime: throughout the country the five-year plan was broken down into precise figures for every factory, for every work team. At Kolyma, requirements were drawn up for each placer, each barrow, each pick. The five-year plan was law! Not to carry out the plan was a counterrevolutionary crime! Those who failed to carry out the plan were soon got rid of!’

The Plan, then, the tangible proof, it was said, of the superiority of Soviet society, the Plan that made it possible to avoid the crises and anarchy of capitalist production, the Plan, then, an almost mystical notion, responsible not only in civil society, so to speak, but also in that quite uncivil case of a despotism of unremitting labor — because it bound the worker to his place of work, whether this was a factory or a penal colony — the Plan was simultaneously the cause of a refined doubling of terror within the Gulag camps themselves. The Plan was as lethal as Colonel Garanin. In fact, you couldn’t have one without the other.

But, Shalamov tells us, ‘the eternally frozen stone and soil of the merzlota rejects corpses. The rock has to be dynamited, hacked away. Digging graves and digging for gold required the same techniques, the same tools, the same equipment, the same workers. An entire brigade would devote its days to cutting out graves, or rather ditches, where the anonymous corpses would be thrown fraternally together … The corpses were piled up, completely stripped, after their gold teeth had been broken off and recorded on the burial document. Bodies and stone, mixed together, were poured into the ditch, but the earth refused the dead, incorruptible and condemned to eternity in the perpetually frozen earth of the Great North …’

Yesterday, when I read those lines — that is, not yesterday, but the day before that spring ten years ago in London — when I read those lines yesterday, that image burned itself into my eyes: the image of those thousands of stripped corpses, intact, trapped in the ice of eternity in the mass graves of the Great North. Graves that were the construction sites of the new man, let us not forget!

In Moscow, at the Mausoleum at Red Square, incredible, credulous crowds continue to file past the incorruptible corpse of Lenin. I even visited the mausoleum myself once, in 1958. At that time, Stalin’s mummy kept Vladimir Ilyich company. Two years before, during a secret session of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party, Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev set fire to the idol, which, like all his peers, he had worshipped and venerated. And in 1960, in Bucharest, Khrushchev suggested to Peng Chen that Stalin’s bloody mummy be taken to China. It was finally removed from the mausoleum after the Twenty-second Congress of the Soviet Party. But in the summer of 1958, Stalin was still in his red marble tomb beside Lenin. I can testify to that. I saw them both. At peace, intact, incorruptible: all they lacked was the power of speech. But, fortunately, they did not have the power of speech. They just lay there, the two of them, silent, lit up like fish in an aquarium, protected by members of the Guards, standing motionless like bronze statues.

Ten years later, in London, after reading that passage in Varlam Shalamov’s book, I remembered the tomb in Red Square. It occurred to me that the true mausoleum of the revolution was to be found in the Great North, in Kolyma. Galleries might be dug through the charnel houses — the construction sites — of socialism. People would file past the thousands of naked, incorruptible corpses of prisoners frozen in the ice of eternal death. There would be no guards; those dead would not need guards. There would be no music, either, no solemn funeral marches playing in the background. There would be nothing but silence. At the end of the labyrinth of galleries, in a subterranean amphitheater dug out of the ice of a common ditch, surrounded on all sides by the blind gazes of the victims, learned meetings might be organized to discuss the consequences of the ‘Stalinist deviation,’ with a representative sprinkling of distinguished Western Marxists in attendance.

And yet the Russian camps are not Marxist, in the sense that the German camps were Nazi. There is a historical immediacy, a total transparency between Nazi theory and its repressive practice. Indeed, Hitler seized power through ideological mobilization of the masses and thanks to universal suffrage, in the name of a theory about which no one could be in any doubt. He himself put his ideas into practice, reconstructing German reality in accordance with them. The situation of Karl Marx, vis-à-vis the history of the twentieth century, even that made in his name, is radically different. That is obvious enough. In fact, a large segment of the opponents of the Bolsheviks, at the time of the October Revolution, claimed allegiance to Marx no less than did the Bolsheviks themselves: it was in the name of Marxism that not only the Mensheviks, but also the theoreticians of the German ultra-left criticized the authoritarianism and terror, the ideological monolithism and social inequality that spread over the USSR after the October victory.

The Russian camps are not, therefore, in an immediate, unequivocal way, Marxist camps. Nor are they simply Stalinist. They are Bolshevik camps. The Gulag is the direct, unequivocal product of Bolshevism.

However, one can go on a little further and locate in Marxist theory the crack through which the barbaric excesses of Correct Thought — which produces the corrective-labor camps — were to flood, the madness of the One, the lethal, frozen dialectic of the Great Helmsmen.

On March 5, 1852, Karl Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer, who published in New York Die Revolution, a periodical of uncertain frequency, because of financial difficulties, like most of the socialist journals of the time. It was for Weydemeyer’s journal that Marx was finishing, in those rainy days at the end of the London winter, his articles on the Eighteenth Brumaire, which were to appear in an issue of Die Revolution under the title slightly altered by Weydemeyer — Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon, instead of Bonaparte — published at the Deutsche Vereins-Buchhandlung von Schmidt und Helmich, at 191 William Street.

So, on that March day in 1852, Karl Marx was writing to Weydemeyer. Two days before, he had received five pounds sent him by Frederick Engels, from Manchester. The Marx family must have eaten more or less their fill that week, after paying off their most pressing debts to the grocer and doctor. Now Karl Marx glanced out of the window of his flat. He looked absent-mindedly over at the narrow doorway of the building across the street. He saw nothing of particular interest. Indeed, there wasn’t anything of particular interest at that time: the film company had not yet moved in. He went down to sit at his desk. In his almost indecipherable writing, he wrote the date at the top right-hand corner of the sheet of paper. Under the date, he added his address, 28 Dean Street, Soho, London.

It was in this letter to Joseph Weydemeyer that Marx explained his own contribution to the theory of classes and of the class struggle. After admitting that bourgeois historians had already described the historical development of this class struggle, and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of classes, Marx went on to explain what was new in his contribution: was ich neu tat. ‘What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.’

This is an extremely well-known passage, one that has been interpreted this way and that, which generations of learned commentators have dissected, which brilliant polemicists have thrown in one another’s faces for over a century. And yet one can still come back to it. It still provides matter for reflection. One can still find something new in it: etwas Neues.

What, then, is the contribution that Marx declares he has made in this theory, at the concrete level of history and of the class struggles that make history? It is to have shown (or demonstrated: Marx uses the verb nachweisen, which may be interpreted in both senses; but in both senses it is used wrongly by Marx, who never showed or demonstrated what he advanced, as we shall see) a certain number of points.

Let us leave to one side the first, that concerning the historicity of the very existence of classes. This question belongs to a philosophy of history with which I am not concerned for the moment. The idea that mankind, in order to pass from a classless society, to that of primitive Communism, to another society of the same kind, but in a developed form, swimming in the butter of abundance, is destined to go through a long historical purgatory of ruthless, indecisive class struggles — always producing, moreover, real effects different from those that Marxist theoreticians, beginning in this case with Marx himself, had foreseen — such an idea leaves me completely cold. It no longer excites anybody, the idea that there was once, and that therefore there will be again, in the depths of history, ideal idyllic societies, communities without states. I am well aware that to set this idea, expressed concisely enough in Marx’s first point, to one side is somewhat arbitrary. I am well aware that the sub-Hegelian philosophy of history that underlies the idea contained in Marx’s first point also underlies the other two points. But one may, nevertheless, for purely methodological reasons, exclude this first point from our present analysis, temporarily bracket it out.

Whatever one may think, therefore, of the question of the historicity, of the relativity of classes, it is easy to see that the next two points listed by Marx do not belong to historical science — if science it be — but to prediction. Or even to prophetic teaching. That the class struggle should necessarily lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat is no more than a hypothesis, perhaps a pious wish. But neither the hypothesis nor the pious wish has been verified or fulfilled anywhere by real history. The dictatorship of the proletariat, in the Marxist sense, has never existed anywhere. A century after Marx’s letter to Weydemeyer, it still hasn’t come about.

At this point, of course, I can hear the indignant cries from the distinguished Marxists at the back of the hall. (There are only two or three fools in the whole world who haven’t realized that when one writes, one always puts oneself on public display, whether one likes it or not. And if one is putting oneself on public display, one can imagine the hall in which it takes place.)

The Marxists all squawk at once.

‘What about the Paris Commune?’ someone yells out. I was waiting for that one. In a tone suggesting that nothing more is to be said on that matter, someone quotes Frederick Engels: ‘Well, gentlemen, do you want to know what a dictatorship is like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Well, gentlemen, look at the Paris Commune, but look at it carefully. You will see some very fascinating, very instructive things, but you will never see the dictatorship of the proletariat. Forget Engels and the high-flown words with which, twenty years after the events, he ends his introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, forget Engels’s literary fabulations, come back to the harsh truths of history, and you will not find the dictatorship of the proletariat. Read the writings of the period, beginning, of course, with the contemporary accounts of the sessions of the Commune itself, and you will see that the attempted coup of the Paris Communards, at once grandiose and pitiful, heroic and petty, seeped in a just vision of society and shot through with the most confused ideologies, has got nothing to do with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But I am not allowed to continue my demonstration (Nachweisung, Marx would say: yet I have the advantage over him of speaking with my back to history, of trying to explain it; I have no need to fantasize, and can therefore demonstrate, or show, what history has demonstrated). I am interrupted: voices rise up on all sides.

Very well, I shall continue at another time, perhaps in another place. But above the din of Marxist voices, I shall say just a few words, even if I have to raise my voice, on Marx’s third point, namely, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a mere transition — a state that would be already an antistate — toward a classless society, toward the suppression of all classes.

Here, too, we are confronted with a mere postulate: a petitio principii. Real history has demonstrated — nachgewiesen — quite the contrary. It has shown the continual, implacable reinforcement of the state, the brutal exacerbation of the struggle between the classes, which not only have not been suppressed, but, on the contrary, have crystallized still further in their polarization. Beside the veritable civil war unleashed against the peasantry in the USSR in the early 1930s, the class struggles in the West are gala dinners. Compared with the stratification of social privileges in the USSR — functional privileges, certainly, bound up with the status and not, or not necessarily, with the individual — real social inequality, that is to say, relative to the national product and to its distribution, is in the West nothing but a fairy tale.

In brief, what Marx claims is new in his contribution to the theory of classes and of the struggle between them has nothing theoretical about it, nothing that throws light on reality and enables one to act on it. It is no more than prediction, wishful thinking, an expression that must have been used quite often at 28 Dean Street.

And it is here, on this precise point of the Marxist theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an inevitable transition towards [a] classless society, that the lethal madness of Bolshevism took root and nourished the terror. It was in accordance with these few points dryly listed by Marx one day in 1852 — listed, moreover, as if they were self-evident — that all the Great Helmsmen have begun to think — and, worse still, to dream at night — as if inside the heads of the proletarians. It was in the name of this historic mission of the proletariat that they have been crushed, deported, dispersed, through labor — free or forced, but always corrective — millions of proletarians.

An idea underlies these points — these theoretical novelties — which Marx pedantically enumerates: the idea of the existence of a universal class that will be the dissolution of all classes; a class that cannot be emancipated without emancipati[ng] itself from all other classes of society and without, consequently, emancipating them all. One might have recognized the trembling voice of the young Marx announcing, in 1843, in an essay that he wrote, not on Dean Street, but on the Rue Vaneau in Paris, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’; the epiphany of the proletariat. But this universal class does not exist. The lesson of the hundred years that separate us from Marx is, if nothing else, that the modern proletariat is not this class. To continue to maintain this theoretical fiction has enormous practical consequences, for it paves the way for the parties of the proletariat, the leaders of the proletariat, the corrective labor camps of the proletariat: that is to say, it paves the way for those who, in the silence of the gagged proletariat, speak in its name, in the name of its supposed universal mission, and speak loud and clear (to say the least!).

So the first task of the new revolutionary party that would not speak in the name of the proletariat, but would regard itself only as a temporary structure, constantly disintegrating and being reconstructed, as a focus of receptivity and awareness which would give organic weight, material strength, to the voice of the proletariat — its first task would be that of re-establishing the theoretical truth, with all the consequences that this involves, about the nonexistence of a universal class.

But this blind spot in Marx’s theory, through which it is linked to the aberrational realities of the twentieth century, is also its blinding spot: the focal point at which the entire grandiose illusion of the revolution shines. Without this false notion of a universal class, Marxism would not have become the material force that it has been, that it still partly is, profoundly transforming the world, if only to make it even more intolerable. Without this blinding, we would not have become Marxists. We would not have become Marxists simply to demonstrate the mechanisms of the production of surplus value, or to reveal the fetishisms of mercantile society, an area in which Marxism is irreplaceable. We would have become teachers. It was the deep-seated madness of Marxism, conceived as a theory for universal revolutionary practice, that gave meaning to our lives. To mine, in any case. As a result, there is no longer any meaning in my life. I live without meaning.

But this is no doubt normal enough. In any case, isn’t it dialectical?

~ Jorge Semprun, What A Beautiful Sunday!, Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, Abacus, London, 1984. Originally published in French under the title Quel beau dimanche! in 1980 by Editions Grasset et Fasquelle.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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9 Responses to SP v SB

  1. David says:

    Hi again,

    There is a lot more that we agree on than I expected. Generally the points you’ve addressed to me are things I would agree with in broad outline (though we could have another whole argument about the SRs and the Mensheviks).

    The central point I wanted to make, and I hope it has come across, was that we aren’t starry-eyed about everything that happened during the 1917-1924 period, nor do we agree with absolutely everything the Bolsheviks did. It was also to make clear that we consider Stalinism something which developed, not something which appeared wholesale upon Lenin’s death. One big thing I don’t think we will agree on was the nature of the banning of other parties.

    Re: Semprun’s essay on Marxism, it seems more like poetry than history. He takes a few half-hearted swipes at straw men that I find it difficult to identify with.

    A statement on what is probably the central thing that we will no doubt continue to disagree on (as far as history is concerned): While there was an evolution into Stalinism, it was the evolution of one thing into its opposite. Lenin’s democratic centralism required that open debate precedes a course of action, and when a course is agreed on, it must be pursued for the party to be effective; under Stalin, party members just upheld the decisions and edicts of leadership. Lenin reacted to his own mistakes and discussed them openly – the discussion of faults & mistakes made by the party & its leadership was taken for granted; Stalin practised idolatry toward Lenin after his death and nurtured the cult of personality, and inherited – and expanded upon – measures that clamped down on internal debate. Lenin’s party was not a club open to all, nor was it identified with the state (soviet, trade union, and party were three separate entities); Stalin’s party was more-and-more the administrative machinery of the state, and joining it was a way to show loyalty and advance your career. Changes in the composition of the party, changes in the power relations between different soviet institutions, changes in the nature of intra-party debate, and changes in censorship were all required to turn Lenin’s party into Stalin’s. Again, these changes didn’t occur wholesale in one go, they evolved (and some of them began with errors made by Lenin), but they were concrete changes from the party we practice and advocate nonetheless.

  2. @ndy says:

    Hi David,

    The quote by Semprún is taken from a novel, so it has a literary quality usually absent in academic writing. But I think the point about historical interpretation and class is interesting, and raises, in a slightly oblique fashion, the q of the relationship b/w Marx’s historical materialism and democratic thought.

    Anyway, yes, we disagree about the relationship of Bolshevism to Stalinism, or the nature of the transition b/w Lenin and Stalin’s rule. As I see it, the principle features of Stalin’s rule were established in the period 1917–1924, and thus this later period should be seen in terms of it being a culmination rather than an antagonism. In other words, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. From October 1917, the party was v much identified w the state, and its policies were aimed at destroying opposition to its rule, inc the soviets/workers’ councils.

    As I think I noted prev, Brinton’s essay on ‘The Bolsheviks and workers’ control: the state and counter-revolution’ (1970)–which provides a fairly detailed chronology of relevant events during the years 1917–1921–as well as the arguments put by Gabriel and Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the final chapters of Obsolete Communism (1968) are germane. In essence, the evidence they (and esp Brinton) present suggest that there was no radical departure upon Stalin’s assumption of power, but rather that the subordination of society to the state, the state to the party and the party to its leadership were all present in the theory and practice of Bolshevism. In seeking to understand the course of events, Brinton writes:

    Between March and October the Bolsheviks supported the growth of the Factory Committees, only to turn viciously against them in the last few weeks of 1917, seeking to incorporate them into the new union structure, the better to emasculate them. This process, which is fully described in the pamphlet, was to play an important role in preventing the rapidly growing challenge to capitalist relations of production from coming to a head. Instead the Bolsheviks canalised the energies released between March and October into a successful onslaught against the political power of the bourgeoisie (and against the property relations on which that power was based). At this level the revolution was ‘successful’. But the Bolsheviks were also ‘successful’ in restoring ‘law and order’ in industry[:] law and order that reconsolidated the authoritarian relations in production, which for a brief period had been seriously shaken.

    Why did the Party act in this manner? To answer this question would require a much fuller analysis of the Bolshevik Party and of its relation to the Russian working class than we can here attempt. Again one would have to steer clear both of mythology (‘the great Bolshevik Party’, ‘the weapon forged by Lenin’, ‘the spearhead of the revolution’, etc.) and of anti-mythology (‘the Party as the embodiment of totalitarianism, militarism, bureaucracy,’ etc.), seeking constantly to understand rather than to rant or rave. At the superficial level both the Party’s ideology and its practice were firmly rooted in the specific historical circumstances of Tsarist Russia, in the first decade of this century. Illegality and persecution partly explain (although they do not justify) the Party’s organisational structure and its conception of its relationship to the class. What is more difficult to understand is the naïveté of the Bolshevik leaders who don’t seem to have appreciated the effects that this type of organisation and this type of relationship to the class would inevitably have on the subsequent history of the Party…

    The SP and other parties of its type (derived from the Trotskyist milieu) are obv in a v diff posi to Lenin’s Bolsheviks. But insofar as they seek to reproduce some attenuated form of this model and its program (the diffs remain somewhat obscure to me but I’m sure you can enlighten me) one would expect the same or similar results.

  3. LeftInternationalist says:

    This book quite effectively establishes the democratic credentials of Marx and Engels, through exhaustive evidence. It’s called Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough. I don’t think historical materialist ideas nullify democracy, the democratic instinct, or undermine it at all. Just like Bakunin, Marx and Engels were influenced by Enlightenment ideas about freedom. Bakunin’s ideas and relationship to democracy are well established, especially since he declared himself an anarchist. I don’t think it can be said he had undemocratic ideas or tendencies, or that his thought had the potential to contribute to that. I like this format, by the way. You should do more of this debating style post Andy. It suits your writing.

  4. LeftInternationalist says:

    Also David, if you want a critical socialist historical perspective on the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, I recommend you check out Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, which, most importantly I think among its other analysis, points out that the Bolshevik party was not made up of mindless automatons, following every edict of Lenin without critical appreciation or dissent, but in fact that there were very democratic, emancipatory and liberatory currents which never compromised on the centrality of workers’ democracy and social, not state, ownership of the means of production. And who spoke out against the suppression of the anarchists and others. And most of them would be murdered by Stalin or fled the country. Also, read The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 vol 1,2,3, [?] Leninism under Lenin, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and, for a specifically anarchist perspective, Voline’s The Unknown Revolution and Berkman’s The Bolshevik Myth and this article in Anarcho Syndicalist Review. That should be pretty exhaustive, and even if you don’t have time to read them all (and I certainly don’t, nor have I had a chance to read even half this list) you will discover all the complexities, contradictions, failures, mistakes, great exhilaration and hope, missed opportunities and fateful decisions of the Russian Revolution and all its players.

  5. LeftInternationalist says:

    I also encourage you to read Year One of the Russian Revolution by Victor Serge. He’s one of the most perceptive writers on this subject I think, considering his dual perspectives- anarchist and Bolshevik, since I think it’s pretty clear he retained anarchist insights but also took on some Bolshevik perspectives as well when he joined the party. And, just for balance and the anarchists getting annoyed at me for citing ‘the Bolshevik anarchist’ here is a criticism of Serge’s views by a fellow anarchist at the time.

  6. LeftInternationalist says:

    Serge locates the degeneration of the Bolsheviks from the moment the Cheka were set up, a form of illegitimate and unaccountable authority that did not save the revolution as intended, but helped facilitate its downfall, I should add.

  7. LeftInternationalist says:

    It appears the Orthodox Trots over at the IMT defended the anarchists’ reputation in Spain from Stalinist distortions (in the Morning Star paper in the UK) relating to the Spanish Civil War during the mid 90’s, reacting to a criticism of the film Land and Freedom by the then chairman of the Irish Communist Party, a former International Brigadier, and, apparently, still an unrepentant Stalinist.

    In the Morning Star of 1st September 1995, Michael O’Riordan, chairman of the Irish Communist Party and former International Brigader lambasted the film as a “distortion” under the title “Damn good anti-Communist stuff”. He says the film is based on George Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia, and proceeds to deride him: “Orwell went up to the hills, fires a few shots in the air and, with his book under his arm, left for Britain to be embraced by the Tory establishment…” In fact the picture described by Orwell is derived from his own personal experiences and is a crushing blow against the actions of the Stalinists in Spain, and its view is backed up by many historians, notably Hugh Thomas, as well as the classic contemporary account by Felix Morrow… In the Morning Star, O’Riordan stands things on their head. He accuses the anarchists of “antagonising the peasantry” by “a forcible collectivisation of peasants’ land down to the last shovel”. In reality, the anarchists favoured voluntary collectivisation. It was the Stalinists in the USSR that carried out a programme – against the warnings of the Left Opposition – of forced collectivisation between 1928-30 which led to the death of millions of people in the famine which followed. In fact, Soviet agriculture never recovered fully from this debacle. And now the Stalinists have the temerity to suggest it was the policy of their opponents!

  8. LeftInternationalist says:

    The relationship between Marxism and political freedom, and a critical approach to Lenin exploring his contradictions by Lars T Lih, Lenin biographer and scholar of early Soviet history

  9. Pingback: Yeah, Yeah, Blah, Blah, Blah. Whatever: On Women’s Rights. | slackbastard

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