Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

THE 1917 BOLSHEVIK COUP D’ETAT - ITS CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES:
100 YEARS OF SOCIALIST OPPOSITION – part 2

PREFACE

NOTE: this piece is based on one of two SPGB lectures given in London in 2017 to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Because of time limitations we were not able to deal with the subject comprehensively but hope to have addressed the main points where the Socialist Party of Great Britain has had to battle against the false, misleading ideas with which Lenin’s revolution and his followers infected the world, from 1917 onwards. We owe a huge debt to generations of past Socialists of the SPGB who answered the claims of supporters of ‘Russian Communism’ in the columns of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, from 1918 on. Many historic and significant articles were collected and re-published in the 1948 SPGB pamphlet, RUSSIA SINCE 1917, a major source for this work. Our work on this continues in SOCIALIST STUDIES.

The main issues raised by the Russian Revolution 100 years ago included the problem of definition: - what it is we as Socialists and Marxists mean by ‘Socialism’. The Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) has from the start always stated that its object is a system of society based on the common ownership of the means of producing wealth “democratically controlled by and in the interest of the whole community”. We have never supported state ownership or ‘public ownership’ as forms of socialism, or Lenin’s idea of ‘Socialism’ as a ‘transition’ stage between capitalism and Communism. State ownership still retains the wages system, hence the continued exploitation of the workers. That is not Socialism but a form of capitalism.

The Russian revolution also raised the question of how Socialism can be achieved. Marx argued on the basis of the class struggle, the self-emancipation of the working class, and saw the working class as a “revolutionary class”, capable of developing its own political class-consciousness and organising itself as a Socialist party. That too is the SPGB’s argument. But Lenin and his followers had a top-down notion of a vanguard party, leading the ignorant masses, the result being a minority coup, resulting in dictatorship and one-party rule.

The SPGB argued from the start that the logic of the situation meant that, having seized power in 1917 as a minority, the Bolsheviks could only hold onto power by force, as a dictatorship.

Lenin had studied the French Jacobins, especially their use of terror to hold onto power. Bolshevik party purges followed soon after the Russian revolution. In a short document signed by Lenin in December 1917 (but only published 10 years later), the Cheka was set up to cover spying, repression, and a “fighting section”:

The Commission shall keep an eye on the press, saboteurs, right Socialist Revolutionaries and strikers. Measures to be taken are confiscation, imprisonment, confiscation of cards, publication of the names of the enemies of the people, etc..
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION AND THE STATE 1917-1921: Documents ed. Martin McCauley, 1975, pp181-182

Control of the media was essential for the Bolshevik dictatorship. Confiscation of ration cards at the time was equal to a death sentence. Any workers who dared to go on strike were to be equated with saboteurs and labelled the “enemies of the people”. And all this came just a few weeks after the great proletarian Socialist revolution!

The Red Terror

To those who allege that Marxism is responsible for the Bolshevik Terror and dictatorship, we answer that Marx and Engels were fiercely opposed to dictatorship, secret police and censorship. For instance, Engels wrote a letter to Marx describing contemptuously those who ruled by terror:

We think of the ‘reign of Terror’ as the reign of people who inspire terror; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.
MARX AND ENGELS SELECTED CORRESPONDENCE, 4 Sept 1870, p303

After Lenin’s death, to secure his own position, Stalin had Trotsky exiled and murdered. Most photos of the period were airbrushed, wiping out Trotsky and many others. The news media were under strict control, and history books were doctored. The 1930s saw mass purges and a well-publicised show trial in August 1936, with major Bolshevik figures like Zinoviev and Kamenev accused of conspiring with Trotsky and foreign powers to overthrow the revolution and assassinate Stalin.

The published account of this show trial showed it was clearly a frame-up. The SPGB’s detailed article on this (October 1936 – see SPGB pamphlet, RUSSIA SINCEussia since 1917, 1948) showed many inaccuracies and inconsistencies, and exposed the propagandist nature of the speeches of the accusers and the supposed abject ‘confessions’ of the accused.

The chief prosecutor, Vyshinsky, made wildly paranoid, unbelievable, accusations:

From their gloomy underworld, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev issue the despicable call: Put out of the way, kill! The underground machinery begins to work, knives are sharpened, revolvers are loaded, bombs are charged, false documents are written and fabricated, secret connections are established with the German political police, people are sent to their posts, they engage in revolver practice, and finally they shoot and kill.

That is the main thing! The counter-revolutionaries not only dream of terror, they not only devise plans for a terroristic plot, or for terroristic attempts, they not only prepare to commit these foul crimes, they commit them, they shoot and kill!

[Report of Court Proceedings, The Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre , The People’s Commissariat of Justice of the USSR, Moscow, 1936, pp 129-130]

Vyshinsky’s paranoid arguments and his hyped-up rhetoric echoed the very similar language and arguments used by the French Jacobin, Robespierre, in his 1793 speech arguing the necessity for Terror:

The foreign courts have, for a long time, vomited onto France all the clever villains they have in their pay. Their agents still invest our army. They prowl around us; they capture our secrets by surprise; they flatter our passions; ... Treat them kindly, they conspire publicly; menace them, they conspire in the shadows, and under the mask of patriotism. Yesterday they assassinated the defenders of liberty; today they insert themselves at their funeral ceremonies...

Yes, the perfidious emissaries who speak to us, who flatter us, ... they are the accomplices of the ferocious henchmen who ravage our crops ... who have massacred our brothers...

[Eli Sagan CITIZENS AND CANNIBALS - THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND THE ORIGINS OF IDEOLOGICAL TERROR, 2001, pp 358-359]

Both Robespierre and Vyshinsky spoke almost hysterically of terrorist conspiracies, of foreign plots, of sabotage, of murder most foul! With their paranoia came the same purple prose, the same heightened, over-the-top, rhetoric. With a minority coup, lacking majority support within the country and fearing attack from other states, paranoia was inevitable, and this led to the Soviet Terror and mass purges.

Russia’s Peasants, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation

Throughout the 1920s, Russian cities were close to starvation while the peasants were unwilling to surrender their grain to Communist requisitioning gangs, even with the New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin in 1921. So the peasants remained a problem.

Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan 1928-1932, meant both a Great Leap forward in industry, and the state’s ruthless takeover of agriculture. Stalin’s ruthless methods meant enforced collectivisation – land was seized from the peasants, and millions were deported or liquidated, while others fled from the starving villages to seek work in the new cities and industrial plants.

Grain procurement left many peasants without even any seed-grain; horses and livestock were slaughtered to prevent them being seized for the state and collective farms (sovkhozy and kolkhozy). The statistics alone tell a horror story – e.g. Kazakhstan’s sheep and goats were almost wiped out and the Kazakh population fell by over 20% between 1926 and 1939 [see Alec Nove, AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE SOVIET UNION, Penguin 1969, p 175]. In Ukraine’s villages, the abandoned children of deported ‘kulaks’ were left to starve as desperate neighbours were unable or simply too afraid to offer help.

In thinking about this, you recognize the description Marx gave of Primitive Accumulation, of the creation of the working class in many countries, by the expropriation of the peasants, which Marx identified as the historical process which laid the foundations of capitalism.

In 1877, Marx sent an important letter about this to a Petersburg journal. He quoted from CAPITAL where he had described the process of primitive accumulation, the capitalist revolutions which had first occurred in England and were later happening in a number of other European countries, the process which transformed subsistence farmers into a new property-less class, a class of wage-slaves.

... the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators [which] after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly flings them on the labour market.

Marx also predicted how such a development would look if applied to Russia:-

... [Russia] will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians... if Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries.
MARX AND ENGELS SELECTED CORRESPONDENCE, p353-354

In CAPITAL (vol. 1), he had written:

The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labour... The so-called primitive accumulation... is nothing else but the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production... And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.

He also pointed out the role of state force in every case:

These methods ... all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production in to the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition.

Class Struggles in ’Classless’ Russia

In 1920-21 there were revolts by starving peasants in many rural regions (e.g. Tambov). But Moscow’s tight censorship and the lack of any foreign observers meant little information got out, and during 1921 the columns of the SPGB’s SOCIALIST STANDARD carried nothing at all about these struggles.

But that year a series of articles by Gilmac on WHERE RUSSIA STANDS examined this Bolshevik ‘Marxist’ revolution. He quoted an article by Lenin [Workers’ Dreadnought, 22 Jan 1921 – Socialist Standard June 1921] which set out clearly the way the Bolsheviks controlled the trade unions:

As a matter of fact all the executive bodies of the vast majority of the Trade Unions... are composed of Communist Party members who carry out all the instructions of the Party.

Gilmac also cited the very severe Labour Code fines and other penalties for ‘labour desertion’. They included “publishing a column of desertion fines, the formation of labour detachments of deserters under fine and, finally, internment in concentration camps” [Resolutions etc of the 9th CONGRESS OF THE RUSSIAN COMMUNIST PARTY, Moscow, March-April 1920].

So any class struggle by factory workers was to be effectively made almost impossible. If workers decided to take strike action, they could end up as “deserters”, doing forced labour and even being interned in concentration camps! And it’s important to note that even as early as 1921 the Bolsheviks had already set up some concentration camps – so soon! And this of course was Lenin’s work, done long before the wicked Stalin took over.

Later, Stalin’s Labour Codes became even more draconian, especially when the 2nd world war broke out.

Marxists, Not Leninists

Today we argue that it is important to note how, down the decades, the SPGB was quick to expose the many ways in which this so-called ‘Socialist’ revolution was anything but.

In July 1920 the Party quoted Lenin’s statement in his pamphlet The Chief Tasks of our Times that State Capitalism would be “a step forward” for Russia:

Reality says that State Capitalism would be a step forward for us; if we were able to bring about State Capitalism in a short time it would be a victory for us... To bring about State Capitalism at the present time means to establish the control and order formerly achieved by the propertied classes. We have in Germany an example of State Capitalism, and we know she proved our superior.... If we possessed it in Russia the transition to complete Socialism would be easy, because State Socialism [sic] is centralisation, control, socialisation – in fact, everything we lack.
A Socialist View of Bolshevist Policy, July 1920,
see Russia Since 1917, SPGB pamphlet 1948, p 20

Evidently Lenin recognized that backward, war-torn, peasant Russia was in no position to establish Socialism. But the SPGB argued that his argument did not apply in the more advanced capitalist states where forms of ‘state capitalism’ were no step forward towards Socialism but simply a part of modern capitalism.

In 1930, the SPGB noted that this so-called ‘Socialist’ Russia was trading on world markets with other capitalist countries, its industries were making profits, and loans to Russian industry from foreign banks and investors were being repaid with interest. Soviet Russia had agreed to repay foreign property-owners their losses and allied Governments their debts. This meant the continued exploitation of Russian workers to pay foreign exploiters.

It is this economic organisation, possessing all the usual features of exploitation (rent, interest and profit, a working class, and a property owning class, a stock exchange, etc) which the Communist parties describe as “Socialism”!
Russia: Land of High Profits, Sept 1930 – RUSSIA SINCE 1917, p44

So much for the Soviet propaganda about ‘Socialism in one country’!

Post-war Class Struggles in Soviet Russia

In spite of continued severe censorship, the state’s totalitarian control of information began to break down, especially after Stalin’s death in 1953. As a result, some information began to leak out about incidents of mass protests and strikes.

On 1 June 1962, after sudden and big price increases in meat and dairy prices:

[These were] greeted with fury everywhere. There were sit-down strikes, mass protests, demonstrations on factory premises, street demonstrations, and in several cities large-scale rioting... [There was] turmoil in Grosny, Krasnodar, Donetsk, Yaroslav, Zhdanov, Gorky and even in Moscow {WORKERS AGAINST THE GULAG, Pluto Press, 1979].

In Novocherkassk the protest was noted for the speed by which it spread from the locomotive works to the town’s women textile workers; for the solidarity of the whole town; and for the extreme ruthless violence with which it was repressed. In spite of an official blanket of silence it was still known of, far and wide. 15 years later and over 1000 miles away, workers considering a strike were cautioned against action: “If the whole town protests they’ll simply mow us down with machine guns as they did in Novocherkassk in 1962!” [ibid.}

By the end of the 1970s, strikes became more frequent – typically triggered by low pay, piece rates, speeding up, and food shortages. Due to fear of repression strikes were commonly spontaneous, many in the form of an occupation strike, as was described in WORKERS IN THE GULAG (p75).

A common variant is the so-called ‘Italian strike’ in which workers turn up to the factory but in practice do no work. ... As a rule, once a strike breaks out, the workers’ demands are satisfied. And for that very reason, they are soon followed by repression against the organisers. [But they lack] contact with world opinion through contact with foreign reporters. So strike organisers often simply disappear into mental hospitals without a trial, or else provocateurs are used in order to charge them with assault or hooliganism.

By the late 1970s there was an attempt to set up a Free Trade Union Association, and documents about this were published in the West (see WORKERS AGAINST THE GULAG, Pluto Press, 1979). Some of the documents produced by these desperate and determined workers expose the hollow sham of the fraudulent claims that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state.

For instance, Klebanov, a mining engineer, had protested since 1958 over frequent management violations of the Labour Code (e.g. the 1956 decree about the 6-hour working day and the 6-day working week), incorrect wage payments, concealing industrial injuries in official reports, denial of proper compensation for miners who suffered injuries through the fault of the management, bribery, the theft of materials “by men in important industrial and Soviet positions”, and so on.

In a letter appealing for recognition of their Free Trade Union Association, the group described some of their complaints:

... poor working conditions, low pay, high rates of injury at work, speed-up and increased output norms, ...

We are the great army of Soviet unemployed, thrown outside the factory gates for exercising our right of complaint... in our free country no-one will stand up in our defence and make known the hunger and destitution suffered by us and our children.

... wherever a worker works, wherever he lives, whatever institution he complains to, in the last analysis all roads lead to the same functionaries and to the repressive measures which they bring to bear on citizens seeking justice or protection from the law.

We consider that only through a union of our own.... can we force our government to respect the ordinary workers.

WORKERS AGAINST THE GULAG, pp 38-9

The same tactic of an ‘Italian strike’, also called an ‘occupation strike’, was also used later by Polish miners when Jaruzelski crushed the Solidarnosc movement: the miners stayed underground at the end of their shift, until they were starved out and were shot when they finally emerged. Arthur Scargill, the Communist leader of the NUM, actually wrote and spoke in approval of this slaughter of coal-miners!

In modern Russia, the official trade unions are controlled as before by Putin’s people, so they are generally ineffective and definitely not seen as representing the workers’ interests. But workers can still find ways to organise themselves. In recent years, MOSCOW TIMES reported on a truckers’ protest. They lined up their trucks in car-parks and service stations, besieging Moscow and other major cities, with no food or diesel or other supplies moving, in a protest at a sudden increase in fuel duty and road tax. This was organised by using social media and proved very effective.

This echoed similar protests by French farmers, with their tractors blocking motorways and besieging cities like Paris. Likewise in the UK, truck-drivers protested about high fuel costs – going slow on motorways and besieging oil refineries.

Politics, Post-Stalin

After Stalin’s death in 1953, in February 1956 Khrushchev made his famous ‘secret speech’, attacking Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ and Stalin’s ‘excesses’ of the 1930s. This speech came as a huge shock to Party delegates: many were sobbing and some had heart attacks, and there were consequences in and outside the Soviet Union. Even so, Khrushchev pulled his punches. He emphasized that Lenin could not be held responsible for these ‘excesses’. He also focused on the harm done to the Party, leaving aside the many helpless victims among the peasants and workers.

This however marked the start of a lengthy period of gradual change and relaxation of the Party’s dictatorship. Just months later, in November 1956, the Hungarian revolt was crushed by Soviet tanks. In Poland and Czechoslovakia there were also several abortive revolts and attempts to liberalise the regime in subsequent years. The Polish Solidarnosc rising– which started as an occupation strike in the shipyards and then spread to other industries and regions – was ultimately crushed by armed force, with Soviet backing.

Backed by many Leftwing Western workers, the Solidarnosc movement’s founding documents showed that this was a reformist political movement with aims which stopped at typical Labour Party demands – better housing, transport, education, etc. It was not a Socialist movement, aiming for the abolition of the wages system and class exploitation, but one which would be content with mere reforms.

In the Soviet Union during the decades after 1956, there was a growing loss of the Soviet Party’s claim to ideological legitimacy, and an increasing amount of, non-Party, dissidents’ writings, circulating widely but unofficially in the form of samizdat (self-publication). Gorbachev, in power from 1985 to 1990, while retaining one-party rule and the dictatorship of the Party, had policies of glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (structural reform), with tentative steps towards reforming the unwieldy bureaucratic, top-down, running of the economy.

Yeltsin‘s chaotic decade in power brought, along with the end of one-party rule, rampant corruption and ‘crony capitalism’. The ‘oligarchs’ came into their ill-gotten riches at this time, stealing state assets and using their gangs of mafia thugs to fight off business rivals. Murders and kidnappings were common business practice, and no-one dared collect taxes from such dangerous Mafiosi. This unstable ‘gangster capitalism’ brought the collapse of the currency, with trade reduced to barter as workers were ‘paid’ with parts of the products they had made, and many, close to starvation, were reduced to begging.

Putin, by contrast with the drunken, corrupt and incompetent Yeltsin, was thought to be a strong leader who would fight against terrorism and corruption, and would promote unifying ideas of nationalism, patriotism, and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church’s patriarchal values are now enshrined in state laws, such as those which make it legal for husbands to beat their wives and which express hostility towards homosexuals and atheists. The Church’s wealth and power are now on a par with that it enjoyed before the Revolution, under the Tsars.

Putin has done his nasty best to control the media, to eliminate, suppress or simply take over any independent TV networks, especially those that carry carries news reports. He has marginalised any voluntary groups, charities and NGOs, especially those who receive any foreign funding. Meanwhile he and his corrupt circle of oligarchs have enriched themselves, with most of their funds stashed away in offshore tax havens, in London or New York real estate, in super-yachts, and palaces.

There have been many conspicuous and notorious murders of his critics, e.g. Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and more recently Boris Nemtsov. Now as Putin puts himself forward in 2018 for yet another term as President, it is obvious that the Russian state is simply a dictatorship, with de facto one-man rule. And that man is a notorious kleptomaniac – a kleptocrat.

During the 20th century, the working class in Russia emerged while the peasants as a class were forcibly transformed into wage-slaves. As Marx had argued a century earlier:

If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries... – she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians...

There is no way a minority party by means of a coup, without majority support, can achieve anything other than a dictatorship. The tragic history of 20th-century Russia has demonstrated this and the SPGB argument has been shown to be sound: ”There is no easier road to Socialism than the education of the workers in Socialism and their organisation to establish it by democratic means”. The SPGB was right in 1920 to argue the need for education and organisation, as we still do. There are no shortcuts to Socialism.

Enemies of Socialism: The Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)

In 1921, the Comintern set up Communist parties in Europe and other countries. The CPGB, in turn set up Left ‘front’ organisations and wielded cultural influence. Their tactics were dictated by Moscow, at first by Lenin. It was his idea to employ the divisive tactics of ‘entryism’ – aiming to gain control of the Labour party and the trade unions. Initially Lenin hoped to bring about revolutions so that the Russian experiment would no longer be isolated.

The CPGB were delighted when the 1926 General Strike took place but this proved a disappointment, even though the Moscow-based leadership of the Comintern sent an envoy to London to organise the ‘British revolution’. Later the CP’s members became active in movements of the unemployed, in the Peace Pledge Union, and in a number of the 1930s anti-Fascism groups.

World War Two and the CPGB’s incredible reversals

The SPGB was the only ‘Socialist’ party to oppose the first World War from the start to the bitter end, on grounds of principle, on grounds of class internationalism. In 1939, the SPGB again was the only political party to take this stand and hold it consistently.

Not so the CPGB. Having campaigned against Fascism through the 1930s, it was obvious that in September 1939, when war was declared, the CPGB would proudly abandon the Marxist principle of internationalism and declare their support for this war which they immediately did, declaring it a “war against fascism”.

But within weeks, in October, they reversed their position and opposed the war as “an imperialist war”. Moscow had reminded them of the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact, and Russia’s policy required all its Comintern parties to keep in step. The CPGB duly complied, burying their past opposition to fascism. But there was to be yet another U-turn when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941.

An ironic summary of this confusing zigzagging of the CPGB’s ‘vanguard’ policy was given in a post-war SPGB pamphlet, our centenary edition of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

[After June 1941] the Allies welcomed Russia with open arms... Russia became the white-headed boy of the Allied family. Again the unlucky Communists were thrown into consternation, but with blitheful spirits and brazen effrontery they hastened to proclaim that the war had changed its ideals overnight and changed into a war against Fascism and they sternly admonished the workers to step up the war effort and convert themselves into cannon fodder as rapidly as possible.
THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, 1948, p42

The CPGB were so gung-ho about supporting the war that in 1944 they even sternly ordered striking Welsh miners to “GO BACK TO WORK!” [DAILY WORKER 11 March 1944 - SPGB THE SOCIALIST PARTY AND WARr, 1950, p 72]

And in 1943 the DAILY WORKER'S editor, Bill Rust, wrote: “our advice [is] that in the interests of national unity the workers should vote for Government candidates in by-elections” [BRITISH COMMUNISM - A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY, ed. John Callaghan & Ben Harker, 2011, p 158]. This CP policy meant even, horror of horrors, voting for a Conservative candidate!

What with the twists and turns – the repeated U-turns on first supporting a ‘war against Fascism’ then just weeks later opposing it as an ‘imperialist war’, and then again supporting it, by 1945 the Communist. Party had lost both morale and members. For instance, a Midlands branch demanded at the CP’s 1945 Congress (November 1945):

[That this Congress requests] that a commission be set up to investigate the reasons for the recent loss in membership and loss of enthusiasm among members and to report on the reasons for any mistakes in policy which have contributed to this situation.
[BRITISH COMMUNISM, p161]

The reasons were pretty obvious – as the SPGB pointed out:

They voted for Tory MPs in by-elections in opposition in some cases to anti-war candidates, denounced strikes, and urged the workers to go all out for maximum production at whatever cost. ... In peace as in war, in domestic struggles and in foreign policy, the British Communist Party is a loyal supporter of the Russian State and an enemy of the working class and of Socialism.
[THE SOCIALIST PARTY AND WAR, 1950, pp 72, 74]

The CPGB’s decline continued as more and more members left. The exodus from the party was especially bad after significant events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, such as:

* The shock effect of Khrushchev’s 1956 speech exposing some of the 1930s atrocities and ‘excesses’ done under Stalin;
* The ruthless crushing of the November 1956 Hungarian revolt meant another loss of members:- approximately 9000 members left, and the DAILY WORKER readership fell by 20% [BRITISH COMMUNISM, p189]. This led to the emergence of the New Left groups set up those by now disillusioned with the Moscow line. The New Left increasingly took up identity politics, e.g. Women’s Lib, gender and race issues;
* 1960s and 1970s – revolts in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Finally, the so-called ‘collapse of communism’ in 1989, as CP regimes fell throughput eastern Europe.

Post-war changes in the Soviet Union and the CPGB’s confusion during the war, meant the CPGB lost morale, credibility and support. At the end, when its dwindling and disillusioned members finally decided to dissolve the discredited party, hardly anyone even noticed!

CP Tactics and Legacy

The CPGB made constant and remarkably successful efforts to maintain its control of the trade unions by ensuring that key TU posts, from shop stewards to general secretaries, and key positions in the TUC , etc. were held by its members. The disastrous and divisive legacy that this tactic of ‘entryism’ has left behind means that, even now decades later, many workers are still suspicious of any outspoken activists in the unions, and all too many workers are still suspicious of trade unionism altogether.

That is unfortunate since workers do need effective trade unions. But it is important that the unions should be responsive to their members’ interests and be democratically organised.

As the CPGB and its various successor groups declined, they tried to gain some ‘street cred’, by latching onto a mass movement or attaching themselves to various protest groups, then claiming to have ‘led’ these movements.

Among these down the decades were:

* Tenant occupations – e.g. in the mid 1950s the Kings Cross siege, a council tenants’ protest against forcible eviction for redevelopment;
* From the 1950s, the mass CND marches;
* The Anti-Apartheid movement;
* The Anti-Nazi League;
* The Right to Work Campaign.

And more recently:-

* The Stop the War Coalition;
* The Occupy! Movement;
* The Grenfell Tower protests, etc...

A poisonous legacy - cultural and political

The CP was keen to recruit prominent intellectuals and people of influence. There were many Left historians – the so-called Communist Party Historians Group such as A.L. Moreton, E.P Thompson, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm – a Stalinist to the end. Then there were the Trotskyists, like Tony Cliff, who had originally flirted with the idea of joining the Palestinian CP – author of A MARXIST HISTORY OF THE LABOUR PARTY. All these writers went out of their way to omit any mention of the SPGB. The apparently independent Left Book Club published only writers approved by the CP.

Publishers employed a good many people, and this meant the publication of George Orwell’s works was blocked – he wrote that he had found himself blacklisted. Libraries such as the Marx Memorial Library and the TUC library are likely to have little if anything about the SPGB but plenty about Lenin and Trotsky. In their Lawrence & Wishart anthology, SPOKESMEN FOR LIBERTY, Jack Lindsay and Edgell Rickword likewise exclude any reference to the SPGB, even in their section of anti-war writings (1914-1918). But they did have a quote from Lenin on the cover.

The CP’s political legacy means that even now the Left is almost instinctively, unthinkingly, anti-America, anti-NATO, and pro-Russia or China.

The CP’s legacy of ‘entryism’ means that even now the Labour Party is paranoid about extremist groups with their own agenda seeking to take it over. Neal Kinnock saw the Militant Tendency as a ‘party within the party’, and nowadays the Momentum group campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn is seen by many as a suspicious, ‘Left front’, outfit.

In short, the CP’s lasting legacy is one of dividing the working class, both in the trade unions and politically.

The International Legacy of the Soviet Union

Economically, the Soviet Union was widely seen as a successful model for less developed states, e.g. former colonies, to be copied for fast economic development. Mistakenly they also adopted the Soviet political model, and this meant a number of one party states, dictatorships and rule by terror – e.g. Pol Pot in Cambodia.

The politicians and mass media then labelled all these ‘Communist’ states – e.g China, Cuba, North Korea, etc. And as a result it is now widely held that Marxism or ‘Socialism’ means state capitalism or nationalisation, and is to be equated with the nastiest forms of totalitarian dictatorship.

Ideological Legacy

In political discussion, often there are very crude arguments about capitalism or Communism.

For instance, if Socialism means an inefficient planned economy, nationalisation, top-heavy with bureaucracy, then capitalism by contrast means wealth and success. Likewise if Marxism means Communism i.e. dictatorship, then capitalism by contrast means freedom.

Our Conclusion

We, as Socialists and Marxists, argued that Lenin’s Bolshevik theory of revolution with an elitist ‘vanguard’ party was not a Marxist approach, and that his minority coup could only lead to rule by dictatorship and terror. We opposed Lenin’s propaganda about a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as specious propaganda – the reality was the dictatorship of a small group or in fact of just one man.

In 1919, Rosa Luxemburg warned the Bolsheviks:

Freedom for the supporters of the Government only, for the members of one party only –no matter how big its membership may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always for the man who thinks differently.
WORKERS AGAINST THE GULAG, pp 1-2

Marx and Engels from the start, in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, had urged the Communist movement to look to the working class to organise itself to achieve its own revolutionary self-emancipation. They argued that:

... the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class... the class that holds the future in its hands... The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.

Forty years later, Engels wrote in his preface to the 1888 edition of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO: “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

Clearly Marx and Engels held views on this which are poles apart from those of Lenin and his vanguardist followers and, just for the record, the SPGB as a matter of principle shares Marx’s confidence in the revolutionary potential of the working class.

As this party argued in 1920: “There is no easier road to Socialism than the education of the workers in Socialism and their organisation to establish it by democratic means” [see RUSSIA SINCE 1917, p26].

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