Lenin In Zurich

Lenin did a lot of Mischief

1916 Zurich was the setting for two revolutionary events; one political the other artistic. At a house in Spiegelgasse, Lenin dreamt of a Russian revolution; he planned insurrection, violence and a grab for power. Within walking distance of Lenin’s home, through the small café-lined squares and alleys of the old city, the Dada group of artists and poets set-up the Cabaret Voltaire in which to present a programme of “anti-art” as a reaction to the First World War. Both Lenin and the Dadaists, in their own respective way, wanted to change the world but they both failed; and in Lenin’s case, made matters worse.

The Bolshevik’s failure to secure a socialist revolution, following their coup d’etat in October 1917, was commented upon by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. As early as August 1918 an article appeared in the SOCIALIST STANDARD commenting upon the economic underdevelopment of Russia and its unsuitability for the establishment of socialism:

Is this huge mass of people, numbering about 160,000,000 and spread over eight and a half millions of square miles, ready for Socialism? Are the hunters of the North, the struggling peasant proprietors of the South, the agricultural wage –slaves of the Central Provinces, and the industrial wage-slaves of the towns convinced of the necessity, and equipped of the knowledge requisite, for the social ownership of the means of life? Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred immensely more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is “No!”

A quarter of a century later the SPGB made the following telling point:

Their great and unsolved problem has been one which arises from the condition of Russia and of its people, that the peasants – the great majority of the population – did not and do not understand or want Socialism … (A) large majority of the town workers also were and still are lacking in an understanding of Socialism… (Every) step by the Bolshevik Party that has ignored these conditions has been brought sharply against the solid opposition of the non-socialist majority. It is in order to emphasise a very important lesson,… that we have insisted from the first it was impossible for them to institute Socialism in Russia (QUESTION OF THE DAY, 1942 pp 61 – 62, Socialist Party of Great Britain)

In the Preface to his pamphlet, IMPERIALISM: THE HIGHEST STAGE OF CAPITALISM, written in Zurich, Lenin wrote of how: “…imperialism is the eve of the socialist revolution” (Penguin edition p. 1) Nothing could have been further than the truth. Lenin’s “socialist” revolution became nothing more than a capitalist revolution setting the ground for mass nationalisation, collectivisation of agriculture, gulags, dictatorship and war. Contrary to the belief of the Trotskyists, there was no damp proof course between Lenin’s base and Stalin’s superstructure; just a seamless construction that was to end in the political rubble of 1991.

Lenin claimed that capitalism had changed since Marx wrote CAPITAL. Industrial capital and banking capital had merged into “Finance Capital” while competition between capitalists had led to a monopoly of trusts and cartels. Unable to find markets within their own countries monopoly capitalists had to export capital to colonial or developing countries abroad thereby creating “super-profits” a part of which went to, what Lenin called, “the aristocracy of labour”. This, mischievously and erroneously implied that privileged workers in one part of the world were taking part in the exploitation of other workers.

Although cartels and combines were new development, they were also met by the legislative power of the capitalist state. The US government used anti-trust legislation to break the cartels while other capitalist governments used the threat of nationalisation. Lenin’s “new stage of capitalism” was highly exaggerated as was the profit rate with the developed capitalist countries and the colonies. Competition still existed between capitalist companies while industrial capital was still largely autonomous from banking capital. Lenin also underestimated the sectional interests of the capitalist class, particular between those interests of the exporters and those of the importers. They and their respective politicians do not represent a united capitalist class any more than the industrials and bankers do.

And there is another deeper question to be asked of Lenin and those who came after him. If “the export” of capital is the hallmark of capitalism’s highest stage, what of the USSR? In a book review of Rudolf Hilferding’s FINANCE CAPITAL: A STUDY OF THE LATEST PHASE OF CAPITALIST DEVELOPMENT, a writer in the SOCIALIST STANDARD (), noted in passing a comment made of THE STATESMAN'S YEAR BOOK for 1962:

After the Second World War the USSR has become one of the biggest creditor countries in the world. Between 1955 and January 1961 economic aid in the form of 2 per cent and 2 1/.2 per cent loans has been advanced for over 520 industrial and agricultural enterprises in socialist countries (MARKETS, MONOPOLY AND WAR, 1st July 1985).

These credit loans were continued right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union when all the accumulated debt owed had to be written off by the new regime.

As for the working class; they were exploited within “Imperialist” countries just as ruthlessly as they were exploited elsewhere in the world producing what Marx called “surplus value”. “The aristocracy of labour” was a convenient piece of fiction used by Lenin to split the working class along nationalist lines and was to become official Soviet policy after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

Can Art change society in a revolutionary way?

Did Lenin ever venture into the Cabaret Voltaire? The French writer Dominique Noguez imagined Lenin as a member of the Dada group in his satire; Lénine Dada (1989) although one of the founders of Dadaism, Hugo Ball believed Lenin must have heard their music from his house. Another member of the group, Richard Huelsenbeck recalled that Lenin did pay a visit to the Club (Helen Rappaport, CONSPIRATOR: LENIN IN EXILE, p.256, 2009). Yet while Dadaism looked beyond war and nationalism Lenin’s revolution would embrace both in the Great Patriotic War of June 1941.

In February 1916 Hugo Ball founded the "Cabaret Voltaire" where he was joined by Arp, Janco, Tzara, and later Huelsenbeck and Serner. His intentions with regard to the "Cabaret Voltaire" he defined in the following words:

…It is necessary to clarify the intentions of this cabaret. It is its aim to remind the world that there are people of independent minds - beyond war and nationalism - who live for different ideals (Why I founded the Cabaret Voltaire from the publication "CABARET VOLTAIRE," Zürich, 1916)

Art might be able to highlight, question, criticise and engage with social reality but it cannot change it in a revolutionary way anymore than Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks could make reality his dreams of a socialist revolution in a backward and largely peasant strewn country like 1917 Russia. A revolutionary critique of capitalism requires politics not art; a politics which can create a bridge between what needs to be abolished and what needs to be established. In becoming just nihilistic criticism and not a socialist movement, Dadaism’s fate was to be assimilated into capitalism’s art market where even the most revolutionary and avant garde “ism” can be tamed and commodified.

And artistic dissent too has its limits. In the winter of 2001 a group of artists describing themselves as neo-Dadaists occupied the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich to protest against its planned closure but the occupation was quickly suppressed by the police. Under capitalism private property ownership is sacrosanct and trumps artistic freedom of expression. Now the building is a mere tourist café where the manager, fearful of infringing copyright law, is afraid to sign the glazed earthenware urinals with the signature “R. Mutt”!

Dadaism was an artistic revulsion against the First World War and the “civilisation” that underpinned it. However it was merely an expression of impotent rage against the slaughter taking place in Europe; an anarchic scream of dissent are now avariciously collect as a convenient vehicle to temporarily park their social wealth. You cannot escape war and nationalism through the sanctuary of artistic production and the art gallery. The tragic legacy of Dadaism is the endlessly shallow and safe academic works produced today by the art school establishment exemplified in Tracy Emin’s My Bed installation (the installation recently changed hands - but not the bed linen - for an estimated £2.5m).

There are some recent artistic installations informed by the principles of Dadaism which carry useful and telling political criticism of capitalism. The Nowhere gallery recently exhibited an auto-destruct piece; H2SO4. Through a glass pipette, via a plastic cone, concentrated sulphuric acid would drip hourly onto a slowly dissolving pile of metal coins contained in a large chemical resistant industrial glass bottle. The installation for the artist was a critical commentary upon the hidden social relationships of class symbolised by money and the fetishism of commodities which reduces social labour to things to be sold on the market for a profit.

Another politically informed art installation in the spirit of Dadaism is Surplus Value recently exhibited at the Arco Art Fair by the Cuban artist Tanya Bruguera as part of her “The Promises of Politics” series (http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/tania_bruguera). The installation Surplus Value is a comment on the class exploitation which takes place in any capitalist country, whether the US or Cuba. In the installation Surplus Value – a word taken from Marx’s CAPITAL - she reconstructs the entrance sign to Auschwitz, originally made by a Polish prisoner of war, and interrogates it’s cultural and market importance to capitalist society.

The metal sign, “Arbeit macht frei “ (“work makes you free”), was first adopted, ironically, in 1928 by the Weimer government led by the Social Democratic Party, as a slogan to reflect their policy of large-scale public work programmes in a fruitless attempt to end unemployment. The sign now has a monetary value to the Polish government as a state icon with historical significance; it has a black-market price to some nefarious art collectors who were recently prepared to buy the object as stolen property; and it has an instructive lesson in the production and reproduction of surplus value as a partially completed object. Within the gallery space, an audience is asked by the artist to work on the reproduced sign with various tools which have been left on the floor along with raw materials as though making a commodity in the precise and scientifically Marxian sense of the word; that is labour power producing value and surplus value.

If Dadaism still has the ability to produce politically art useful in the critique of capitalism then same cannot be said for Lenin’s dire legacy for the 21st century reflected in his pamphlet MONOPOLY CAPITALISM. When radical Islamists from developing capitalist countries violently organise against the “Great Satan” across the Atlantic, there in the back ground is the dead hand of Lenin’s theory of Imperialism. The irony, though, is that where there was once the red flag with its hammer and sickle flying over the world’s nationalist struggles it has now been replaced with the black flag of Jihad. In this historical “clash of nations” between fat and bloated bandits on the one hand and lean and hungry bandits on the other, the only loser has been the world’s working class.


Markets, Monopoly and War

A new edition of Rudolf Hilferding’s FINANCE CAPITAL: A STUDY OF THE LATEST PHASE OF CAPITALIST DEVELOPMENT has been published in a new translation and with a useful introduction and notes by Tom Bottomore (Routledge and Kegan Paul, £8.95). It provides an opportunity to consider whether the theories advanced by Hilferding and others have been confirmed in the years since the work was first published in 1910

Towards the end of the 19th century there was a growing tendency towards the formation of trusts and combines associated with what came to be known as imperialism. Among the other books on the subject were J. A. Hobson’s IMPERIALISM (1902) and his earlier EVOLUTION OF MODERN CAPITALISM, Lenin’s IMPERIALISM: THE HIGHEST STAGE OF CAPITALISM and L. B. Boudin’s SOCIALISM AND WAR (1916). Later on J. M. Keynes had something to say in his GENERAL THEORY (1936). Hobson held that monopolistic industries restrict output in the home market, in order to raise prices and profits, and therefore have to seek foreign outlets for investment and markets. For this purpose they get governments to colonise territories (EVOLUTION OF MODERN CAPITALISM, page 26). Lenin made use of Hobson for his own Imperialism, and gave high praise to much of his works. Keynes saw in Hobson many features of his own theories set out in his GENERAL THEORY.

Hobson, unlike Lenin but like Keynes, offered a remedy.

If the whole gain of improved economies passed, either to the workers in wages or to large bodies of investors in dividends, the expansion of demand in the home market would be so great as to give full employment to the productive forces of concentrated capitalism, and there would be no self-accumulating masses of profit…demanding external employment

. Keynes (in Chapter 24) saw “the competitive struggle for markets” as a predominant factor in “the economic causes of war”. But, said Keynes, if governments followed Keynesian policies to increase demand at home and this maintain full employment, the competitive struggle for markets as a main cause of war, would disappear.

Lenin and Hilferding gave detailed accounts of the supposedly unstoppable growth of monopoly in industry and banking but carried it much further, crediting the banks with dominating industry and the cartels with fixing prices and dividing up world markets among themselves. Lenin wrote: “Cartels become one of the foundations of the whole economic life. Capitalism has been transformed into imperialism.”

Some social-democrats, including Kautsky, thought that the end result would be “a single world monopoly…a universal trust”, followed by socialism. Hilferding thought that this single world monopoly was “thinkable economically, although socially and politically such a state appears unrealisable, for the antagonism of interests…would necessarily bring about its collapse”. But Hilferding (page 343) thought that world cartels would result in “longer…periods of prosperity” and shorter depressions. The long depression of the 1`930’s and the long depression since 1979 belie this.

It was Boudin in his SOCIALISM AND WAR who put in its most crude form the theory of imperialism and war. He argued (like Hobson and others) that the turning point was the replacement of such industries as textiles by iron and steel. He wrote (page 64):

Modern imperialism…is the expression of the economic fact that iron and steel have taken the place of textiles as the leading industry of capitalism, and imperialism means war. Textiles, therefore mean peace, iron and steel – war”.

The argument was that exports of textiles and similar consumer goods are paid for at once but iron and steel exported to build railways, factories, ports and so on are long-term investments needing the protection provided by the home government turning importing countries into colonies. Boudin’s theory to explain competition for markets (page 55) was:

The basis of all capitalist industrial development is the fact that the working class produces not only more than it consumes, but more than society as a whole consumes”.

Therefore, said Boudin, developed countries cannot find markets inside the capitalist world but only on the fringes of capitalism, first in primitive agriculture at home and, when that too is developed, only in the countries not yet developed. These countries themselves develop and have to seek non-existent markets for their “surplus” products.

It is necessary to look at what actually takes place to see that Boudin’s theory is demonstrably false. The working class do not produce more than society itself consumes. Or rather, they alternately produce more than society currently consumes and then less than society currently consumes. At the onset of a depression stocks pile up of the goods some industries have overproduced for their markets but later on, as recovery begins, stocks run down again, as they did early in 1985. In 1983 British exports totalled £60, 534m. According to Boudin this was all “surplus” to demand in the home market. Who then bought the £65,933m of imports that were sold in this country? In the same year, 77 per cent of British exports went to countries officially classified as “developed countries” – which Boudin said was impossible. Hilferding, Lenin and Hobson all failed to allow for the sectional divisions of interest in the capitalist class. Hilferding treated the monopolist industries as representing a united capitalist class.

Certainly the export industries have an interest in getting the government to promote exports. But most capitalists have no such interest. British exports represent under a third of total production; for America and Russia about 10 percent of total production. At their conference last year the Confederation of British Industries defeated an executive resolution calling on the government to lower the exchange rate of the pound in order to promote exports. The industries making profit by selling imports rather than pay more for home products, want the exchange rate to be higher, not lower.

At a time when the Thatcher government was declaring that they wanted the pound exchange rate not to fall but to rise, and asking Reagan to help bring it about, the Financial Times published an article (14 January 1985) with the title “Industry Delighted At fall Of Pound”. It was true only of export industries not having to import raw materials, but in the article there were examples of industries having to import materials which wanted the pound rate to rise and not to fall. The British steel Corporation told the FINANCIAL TIMES that “every pone cent decline in the value of sterling costs us £4 million).

The failure to recognise sectional capitalist interests applies particularly to monopoly, which raises selling prices and consequently profits for the monopolies and is viewed very differently by the rest of the capitalists, who object to being held to ransom.

But in America the method used was to control monopoly by the Anti-Trust laws, which have resulted in heavy fines and sometimes imprisonment. American Telephone and Telegraphs controllers of the near-monopoly Bell telephone system and described as the largest and richest corporation in the world, has recently fallen foul of the law and has been broken up into separate organisations, all open to competition. In Britain, the Tory government has gone over to the American system. Along with partial de-nationalisation, the Telecommunication services have lost their monopoly and been thrown open to competition. The same applies to bus services. British governments long ago halted further amalgamation of the big commercial banks who now face competition from the development of ordinary banking services by the building societies, the Trustee Savings Bank and others. How far this process will go remains to be seen, but the belief of Hilferding and Lenin that competition is dead, has been disproved.

It is equally clear that Boudin and Keynes were wrong in their belief that the competitive struggle for markets results from an inbuilt deficiency of demand in the home market. The profit motive behind the search for overseas markets by the export capitalists is no different from the profit motive behind the home producers for the home market, and the import capitalists.

What then are the causes of international conflicts of interest and war? Some, but not many, wars are fought over markets. For example the opium wars, when British traders were able to get the government to go to war to compel China to allow the import of opium. In the modern world markets take place to strategic issues. The conflict between America and European countries on the one side and Russia on the other illustrates this point. It is not Russia but Japan, America’s ally which has flooded American and European markets with their cheaper products. The point was put in proper perspective by Professor Edwin Cannan in 1915:

Commercial interests seem to me to appear in international quarrels as a cover for strategic interests. Where they are not supposed to be divergent interests, no amount of divergent or supposedly divergent commercial interests produces either war or preparations for war” (AN ECONOMISTS' PROTEST, page 26).

This exactly fits the relationship between America and japan because the latter is held to be strategically so important to America’s control of the Pacific against Russia.

The most frequent cause of conflict and war is the effort of national sections of capitalism to obtain control of needed overseas sources of food and other materials and to protect transport routes. Petrol products have bulked large in this century. It has not been competition by oil producing countries to send their oil that has threatened war but the importing countries’ need to have dependable supplies. Two years ago, America threatened military action if the Middle East oil producing countries organised an embargo on exports to America and Europe.

Discussing the question Engels, in a letter dated 27 October 1890, pointed out that it was the search for gold which led to the Portuguese to Africa, and it was not exports to India but imports from India which led to the conquest of India by the Portuguese, Dutch and English between 1500 and 1800: “Nobody dreamed of exporting anything there”. Exports came later.

Lenin made a valid point in his IMPERIALISM about some annexationist wars. He wrote that sometimes the powers try to annexe regions “not so much for their own direct advantage as to weaken an adversary and undermine its hegemony”. Lenin and Hilferding both saw the growth of monopoly and its resulting wars as a prelude to socialism, and insisted that socialism was the only answer. But Hilferding found himself acting as Finance Minister in a German coalition government, trying vainly to solve the problems of German capitalism. And Lenin’s “socialism” has resulted in Russia becoming a capitalist super-power.

Lenin saw “the export of capital” as the hallmark of capitalism’s highest stage. It is interesting to note the role now played by Russia. THE STATESMAN'S YEAR BOOK, 1962 had this to say:

After the Second World War the USSR has become one of the biggest creditor countries in the world. Between 1955 and January 1961 economic aid in the form of 2 per cent and 2 1/.2 per cent loans, has been advanced for over 520 industrial and agricultural enterprises in socialist countries”.

This foreign loan policy has continued since 1961

“H” (SOCIALIST STANDARD 1st July 1985).

“H” was the pen name of Edgar Hardcastle who, along with other sound socialists, was expelled from the Socialist Party in May 1991 for carrying out propaganda in the full name of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.