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Two Years of Wandering. A Menshevik Leader in Lenin’s Russia. Fedor Il’ich Dan. Review.

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Two Years of Wandering. A Menshevik Leader in Lenin’s Russia. Fedor Il’ich Dan. Translated, Edited and Introduced by Francis King. Lawrence and Wishart.

Fedor (Theodore) Dan was a leading figure in Russian social democracy. A prominent Menshevik during the 1917 Revolutions, he had chosen their side after the 1903 split with the Bolsheviks in the RSDLP (Russian Social-Democratic Workers; Party). During the Great War, King notes, Dan was a “Siberian Zimmerwaldist”, that is he opposed the conflict while under administrative exile in Russia’s far East and during his compulsory mobilisation as a Doctor in Turkestan. King writes, that Dan was described by Nikolai Sukhanov as, “one of the most major figures in the Russian revolution, one of the most outstanding actors in both the Russian workers’ movement and the events of 1917.” (Page 9)

Known to many on the left as the author of The origins of Bolshevism (in English, 1964), this is the first translation into any language of Dan’s Two Years of Wandering. Francis King is the Editor of Socialist History. His introduction outlines Dan’s background and his role in the crises of 1917. Dan, in conditions of political freedom, was part of the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet. Still calling for a “general peace” he took the Menshevik line of ‘revolutionary defencism”, which committed the country to continue fighting until this could be reached and support for a coalition Provisional Government.

This policy, opposed by its left wing around Martov, played a key role in the ‘end’ of Dan’s career in Petrograd. Bolshevik victory in October was not the only indication of their political dead-end. In the All-Russia Constituent Assembly elections of 1917 they won just 3% of the vote.

Continuing to support, “the idea of popular sovereignty, universal suffrage, and the Constituent Assembly” and demanding an end to terror for economic liberalisation, the Mensheviks tried to work within the new soviet structures. But what had begun in the Spring and Summer of 1918 with the “arrests and harassment of non-Bolshevik activists”. In June 1918, they, and the Socialist revolutionaries, were removed from the Soviet CEC. Yet they continued political activity. They focused on the defence of “the rights of labour” and the “defence of trade unions, with as a backdrop plans to make unions agents of “labour discipline” and “compulsory labour service” or the “militarisation of labour” exalted by Trotsky in Terrorism and Communism (1920). With their position set out in What is to be done: The Menshevik Programme July 1919 they had had a wider echo, Marcel Liebman and others record, within the official bodies (1)

For Trotsky the Mensheviks had in 1917, “together with the bourgeoisie, declared civil war against the Soviets”. In the Winter of 1920-1 the Mensheviks were systematically suppressed. (2)

In Lenin’s Gaols.

Dan’s serious travails began in 1919, when he spent 3 months in the Butyrka prison. Mobilised, again, in his medical capacity, he was put in charge of the Surgical Subsection of the Department of Medical Supplies. This was impossible task, faced with general chaos, the “constant inference of organs of the Cheka”, the sabotage of those who hoped for a return to private ownership and the prevalence of bribery. After protests, in an atmosphere of increasing hostility to the Mensheviks, Dan was reposted in what he describes as “official exile” to Ekaterinburg (Yekaterinburg), where he continued his “work service”. Further “wanderings”, which took him back to Moscow, then to Minsk and the Front in assault on Warsaw and finally to Petrograd, his native city, where Dan was finally caught in the Bolshevik repression and sent to Peter-Paul Fortress.

Two Years of Wandering is shot through with insights into those years of upheaval, the gaoling and exile of “thousands of socialists and non-party workers who (had) been so bold as to doubt the divine infallibility of the Bolshevik authorities, with all their fantasies, scandals, petty tyranny and occasional 180-degree turns. “(Page 53) From the famous 1920 visit of the British delegation to a meeting addressed by Printers’ leaders and Mensheviks, which criticised the “terrorist dictatorship of the minority”, the last Congress of Soviets at which the opposition was reluctantly tolerated, to the crackdown after the Kronstadt (1921) which marked the beginning of systematic elimination of dissent, the Mensheviks were disorganised. (3) A party that “had adapted all its tactics to the struggle for an open existence despite the Bolshevik terror.” was unable to mount any effective challenge (Page 98).

Dan was in prison during the Kronstadt revolt, which, when the news of this, following a strike wave, reached them, convinced those arrested that they were about to be shot. There were indeed mass killings. A gaoler, ‘S’ regaled Dan with tales of massacring whites. He also had this anecdote, “some Jewish trader they had arrested on suspicion that the leather he was carrying in his cart had concealed weapons under it. There were no weapons, but before letting the trader go, he wanted to have his ‘little joke’ at the expense of the ‘bourgeois’ so he stood him against a wall and ordered that he be shot – but they fired blanks. They did this three times – just to they could bring a little happiness to their prisoner when they told him he was free to go – although he could easily have died of heart failure.”(Page 121)

Sent to Remand gaol, Dan observed waves of new arrivals. Protests and demonstration were followed “on each occasion, a few intellectuals and party workers, together with hundreds of grey, non-party workers, would pass through the prison. There were tramway workers, workers from the Skorokhod, Obukhov, Putilov and Rechkin factories – all of working class Petersburg.”(Page 138) Conditions deteriorated, but perhaps what was most striking is that “once entering a Soviet prison, nobody can know even approximately how long he will be in there and how the imprisonment will end.” (Page 142)

Dan met an American ‘K’, identified by King as Adolf S Carm, arrested at the Third Congress of the Communist International “According to him he had been arrested on the strength of a denunciation by another American delegate, Haywood, in revenge for a polemical pamphlet K, had published against him in America. K was obviously very frightened and repeatedly stressed his devotion to everything the Bolshevik government did, including the practices of the Cheka.”(Page 155) Carm was released a couple of months later….

Dan was then sent to Butyri, a Cheka ‘internal prison’, a place where the “smell of human blood” was in the air. “the most dreadful aspect of it is the ordinariness of the circumstances in which this mass slaughter of people is taking place, where it has become an everyday occurrence.” (Page 145)

Hunger Strike and Exile.

For Two Years of Wandering hunger strikes, and a campaign “waged in the workers’ parties and working-class press of Europe” rather than kindness towards people who “had been in the same organisation at the Bolsheviks” The first response of the Bolshevik leadership came to them in the shape of the news that the All-Russia Cheka Presidium had sentenced all Mensheviks to be exiled for one year, and members of the party Central Committee for two years. As negotiations proceeded, their strike ended with the alternatives of, for imprisoned Mensheviks, either administrative exile in remote areas, or departure from Russia (Pages 179- 80) He chose Germany and arrived in Berlin in the winter of 1922.

As Francis King writes in his introduction – a significant contribution to the history of Menshevism in its own right – “it is the immediacy of this book which makes it so valuable” (Page 36). Dan shows understanding towards a variety of people, including anarchists, and a grasp of the plight of even imprisoned ‘whites’, that demonstrates the highest “common decency”. But Two years of Wandering is more than a personal memoir; it illustrates the “creation of a “large body of political of political police, operating with few constraints” built to enforce the governing monopoly of one party, the Bolsheviks” (Page 37).

Nevertheless, the Menshevik project of creating a ‘bourgeois’ democratic regime without a bourgeoisie that backed it was far from a viable alternative to the Bolsheviks, lacking, as King observes, both the “will” to govern and the instruments to do so. Dan’s evolution towards a form of “reform communism” also missed the tide of history. Yet, apart from its striking honesty, the book, smoothly translated, is a powerful antidote, written from the losing side of history, to the view that the early years of Bolshevik rule were only a joyous carnival of the oppressed.


(1) Trotsky’s reply to the Menshevik was, “If it were true that compulsory labour is unproductive always and under every condition, as the Menshevik resolutions says, all our constructive work would be doomed to failure. For we can have no way to socialism except by the authoritative regulation of the economic forces and resources of the country, and the centralised distribution of labour-power in harmony with the general state plan. The labour state considers itself empowered to send every worker to the place where his work is necessary.” Page 153. Terrorism and Communism. Leon Trotsky. New Park Publications. 1971. Pages 249 – 251. Leninism Under Lenin. Marcel Liebman. Merlin. 1980.

(2) Page 15. Social Democracy and the Wars of Intervention. Russia 1918 – 1921. Leon Trotsky. New Park Publications. 1975.

(3) King reproduces the speech of the Socialist-Revolutionary leader Viktor Chernov to this meeting with the British Labour delegation in Appendix 1. Liebman called his invitation ”an act of provocation” Liebman. Op cit. Page 251.

See Socialist History Society Newsletter.

Also, What is to be done: The Menshevik Programme July 1919

Economic Measures

1. The peasants should retain, on a collective or individual basis as they may freely decide, the public and privately owned lands which they seized and parcelled out at the time of the Revolution. Other lands, not as yet distributed, should be leased on a long-term basis to needy peasants and peasant associations, except for those lands on which large-scale model husbandry is being, and can continue to be, carried out by the state or by leaseholders. The decrees abolishing the Committees of the Poor should be put into effect without exception.

Agricultural communes should not be established by force, either directly or indirectly. Government-held supplies, agricultural implements and seed should be equitably distributed not only among communes but to all peasants who need them on communes and soviet lands.

2. The present food supply system should be replaced by one on the following basis:
a. The state should purchase grain at agreed prices involving a large application of the barter principle; it should then be sold at low prices to the poorest dwellers in town and country, with the state making up the difference. The state should make purchases through its agents, co-operatives or private traders on a commission basis.

b.  The state should purchase, at a price equal to the cost of production, a certain proportion of the grain surpluses held by the better-off peasants in the more fertile provinces, the proportion being decided with the advice of freely elected representatives of the local peasantry.

c. Grain should be purchased by co-operatives and workers’ organisations, who should at the same time make over the stocks they have procured to government organs concerned with food supply. The state retains the right to requisition supplies from large landowners who are deliberately hoarding them for speculative purposes. Transport arrangements are under the primary control of the state, co-operatives and workers’ organisations. All anti-profiteer detachments should be disbanded. The transfer of foodstuff from a particular locality shall not be prohibited save in exceptional circumstances and by a decision of the central legislature.

The state shall assist, materially and by administrative measures, the transfer of workers and their families from places where food is scarcest and their resettlement in fertile areas.

3. The state should retain control of major industrial enterprises that are fundamental to economic life, such as mines, metallurgical plant, the chief branches of the metal-working industry, etc. However, in all places where this seems likely to improve or animate production or to extend its range, recourse may be had to organising such enterprises by a combination of state and private capital, by the compulsory formation of a trust under state control or, in exceptional cases, by means of a concession.

All other large industrial enterprises except where state control is desirable for fiscal or other reasons and would not be deleterious to production, should as a rule be gradually transferred into private hands, by leasing to a co-operative or a new entrepreneur, or to the former owner on  condition that he accepts the obligation to restore and organise production. The state shall regulate the distribution of fuel and raw materials to different branches of production, enterprises and areas.

4. Small-scale industry should in no case be nationalised.

5. The state shall regulate the distribution to different areas, in accordance with a fixed plan, of the chief articles of mass consumption such as textiles, farm implements, salt, lighting materials etc with the aid of co-operatives and private traders.

6. As regards trade in other articles of the firs necessity and also in luxuries, the state should refrain from imposing restrictions and should allow co-operatives and private enterprises to function freely except in cases where regulation or even monopoly is desirable on account of the extreme scarcity of the product, e.g. medical supplies.

7. The credit system should be so reorganised as to facilitate in every way the use in trade and industry of available funds accumulate by producers in town and country and to afford scope for private initiative in trade, industry and agriculture.

8. The repression of speculation and trading abuses should be left to the courts and governed by specific legal provisions. All arbitrary acts of requisition, confiscation and the detention of goods should be punished. The law should protect rights of ownership in the case of all industrial and commercial concerns that are released from nationalisation. In future, when expropriation is required by the public interest it should take place on the basis of a decision by the supreme legislative bodies and on conditions determined by them.

9. Workers’ unions, in addition to taking a direct part in the work of regulatory bodies, are also and primarily representatives of the interests of the proletariat vis-a-vis the sate and private entrepreneurs. In this latter capacity they should be wholly independent of any state bodies.

10. Wage rates in state enterprises should be raised and minimum rates fixed for private enterprises in accordance with the commercial price-level for necessary goods….

11. The decree on consumers’ communes should be revoked. Workers’ and general co-operatives should be preserved as autonomous organisations, without the imposition of appointees or other interference in their internal affairs. They should also have the right to carry on non-commercial activity such as publishing, education, etc.

Political Measures

The right of voting for members of soviets should be extended to all workers of both sexes. Town and village soviets should be elected by all workers, with a secret ballot and freedom of canvassing by word of mouth and by the press. Soviets and Executive Committees should be subject to re-election at fixed intervals. Soviets shall not be entitled to exclude individual members or groups from their midst on political grounds. All officials and public bodies shall be subordinate to local soviets and Central Executive Committees.all workers of both sexes. Town and village soviets should be elected by all workers, with a secret ballot and freedom of canvassing by word of mouth and by the press. Soviets and Executive Committees should be subject to re-election at fixed intervals. Soviets shall not be entitled to exclude individual members or groups from their midst on political grounds. All officials and public bodies shall be subordinate to local soviets and Central Executive Committees.

2. The Central Executive Committee of Soviets should once more function as the supreme legislative and administrative body, its proceedings being open to public observation. NO law shall come into force without being discussed and approved by the CEC.

3. Freedom of the press, of assembly and of association should be restored, and any party representing the workers shall have the right and be allowed to use premises for meeting, paper supplies, printing workers. Etc. Any restriction of this right that may be necessitated by the war against counter-revolution shall be established and clearly defined by the legislature; it shall not infringe the basic liberty and shall be applied only by the courts and institutions under their direct control.

4. The Revolutionary Tribunals shall be reorganised in such a way that the judges are elected by all the workers. Together with their subordinate investigatory commissions they shall have sole responsibility for combating counter-revolution. All officials should be directly liable to prosecution before these Tribunals for illegal acts committed in the execution of their duties, at the suit of the injured party in each case. Terror shall be done away with as an instrument of government; the death penalty be abolished , and likewise all investigatory and punitive organs independent of the courts, such as the Extraordinary Commission (CHEKA).

5. Party institutions and cells should be deprived of state authority, and party members of all material privileges.

6. The bureaucratic apparatus should be simplified by the extension of local self-government.

7. A policy of understanding should be pursed vis-a-vis the nationalities which have for any reason broken away from Russia, in order to put a speedy end to the Civil War an restore the unity of the state on a basis of national self-determination. The Cossack districts – Don, Kuban, Tersa, The Urals, Astrakhan, Orenburg, etc – should be allowed the widest possible autonomy and there should be no interference in their internal affairs or system of land tenure. Siberia should have regional self-government, and the independence of Finland and Poland should be recognised.

Central Committee of the RSDLP, 12 July 1919
Sotsial-demokratiia i revolutionsiaa. Sbornik dokumentov (Odessa, 1920), pp 9-15.


Written by Andrew Coates

September 17, 2017 at 12:28 pm

Russian Revolution: when workers took power. Paul Vernadsky. Review: ‘1917 and problems of democracy’.

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1917 and problems of democracy.  Solidarity. 6th of September. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The historian of the French Revolution, François Furet, wrote in 1995 wrote that that after the fall of the USSR, the October Revolution had ended its journey. Unlike the first French Republic, Soviet power, and Lenin, “left no heritage”. Over 800 pages later the critic of the Jacobins concluded that while it was hard to “think” of another kind of society, democracy manufactured the need for a world beyond “Capital and the Bourgeoisie”. If the figure of the Bolshevik party had disappeared, the “idea of communism” could be reborn in new forms.1

Twenty-two years later, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, much debate on the left remains about how to assess the legacy of the Bolsheviks. Many reject Lenin’s party, arguing that movements for socialism or communism should seek novel constituencies, structures and objectives. In contrast to these judgements, Paul Vernadsky begins The Russian Revolution by asserting, “The Russian revolution of 1917 was the greatest event in political history so far. It was the first occasion that working class people took political power and held it for a significant period.”

He states, “In October 1917 the Russian working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP, Bolshevik party), took power through their mass, democratic soviets (councils).” The lessons of the revolution remain relevant to working class politics today.2 Vernadsky tells the story of 1917, from the slaughter of the First World War, initial protests and strikes, to the February Revolution and October.

The Bolshevik resurgence faced with a Kerensky-led government determined to continue the war, the July Days when the state was on the brink of a hard-right clampdown, to the dissolution of the elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and its replacement by Soviet Power. Celebrating the Carnival of the Oppressed, the “creative transformations” unleashed by the workers “ruling their own state”, he outlines the progressive decrees issued by the new Soviet government, beginning with the delivery of the slogan: “all land to the peasants”. “Without the RSDLP, the Russian Revolution would not have occurred.”3

The Russian Revolution is not just a history of events.

Vernadsky offers a valuable introduction to debates about this party, the Bolsheviks, much of which was stimulated by Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Other writers covered include Lenin enthusiast Paul le Blanc, and Tom Twiss’s measured account of Trotsky’s evolving, contradictory, views of the development of bureaucracy in the wake of revolution. There is a strong section on the Women’s Revolution, paying special attention to the “futuristic vision of Aleksandra Kollontai, as illuminated by studies of “Bolshevik feminists”.

Other areas in which members of Workers’ Liberty have contributed important debate figure in this context. Of particular interest are the critical sections on Lenin’s theory of imperialism in the chapter ‘War and the Myth of Defeatism’, inspired by Hal Draper’s studies. Unlike knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialists’ the author cites Trotsky: “working-class policy on war is not “automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only he opposite sign…”4 One imagines that same quarters will reject the passages on nationalities, including the Jewish Question. In his conclusion Vernadsky is clear that “Israeli Jews are a nation and they should have the right to self determination today like any other nation.”5

Lih argued that the Bolsheviks were a lot more than, as the party leader Zinoviev put it in his lectures in 1923, a “hierarchical, closely knit organisation”, run from the top-down to enlighten the workers. It was not a “party of a new type”, but in the mould of democratic Marxist based organisations of the Second International, above all the German Social Democrats (SPD). Although it had its own stamp by operating in autocratic conditions, Lenin was, in key works such as What is to be Done? “directly inspired” by the German “model”. In more detail Lenin’s strategy was designed to bring together the “purposive worker” and the social democratic worldview conveyed by practical-minded activists, by the “power of a genuinely sound explanation.”

The Bolsheviks, if this account stands, were very far from political outriders, a messianic party-sect, but part of the mainstream of European socialism.6 Lih saw this as the basis for “fighting for democracy to the end” as a precondition for workers’ power, and socialism. For Lih this “old Bolshevik” stand guided Lenin right up to October and the overthrow of the Provisional government, “to carry out a thorough-going democratic transformation”. Vernadsky enters into the — lengthy — debate on this claim. He states that Lenin’s assessment of the growth of the soviets and soldiers’ committees meant that his call for the overthrow of the Provisional government meant that Lenin took “steps towards permanent revolution”.

That is, an acceleration of revolutionary “stages” towards, he contentiously asserts, a position where the victories of the Bolsheviks, “deconstructed capitalist relations of production and put in place an economic system where the imperative was social need, not private profit.” It is undeniable that this prospect inspired millions inside and outside Russia, with the hope that socialism was on the agenda. For many of us that wish still burns.7 Yet, many unresolved issues remain to be discussed from this thought-provoking book.

Two could be signalled; questions about the body that “led” the Russian working class, and the direction it began to take them in the aftermath of October. If we accept the view that the Bolsheviks were a democratic party with open debate and a real base in the working class and popular masses, what kind of template had Lenin and his tendency adopted? A critical description of the pre-1914 SPD “oligarchy” by Robert Michels developed themes already circulating on the left in Germany itself, and internationally by “revolutionary syndicalists” like the French writer George Sorel. In light of the monstrous oligarchy of Stalinist bureaucracy these limits inside Lenin’s “model” apparatus might inspire further reflection.

Only Lenin’s most uncritical admirers would deny problems about the practices of “committee people”, however small in number they may have been initially, brought into the “smashed” state machine.8

The next is that even supporters do not argue that in power the Bolsheviks were always democratic. Many would also question as to how far they respected the workers’ democracy they contrasted to “formal” Parliamentary pluralism. The well-documented cases of human rights abuses, which began with October, and were accelerated by the creation of the Cheka, cannot be explained away by “external conditions”, the civil war, and the need for Red Terror to stave off the very real threat of a far-right regime that would have drowned the revolution in blood.

The need for independent law, in however difficult circumstances, respect for the people’s rights, was denied during the dictatorship of the proletariat. What kind of political instrument can introduce non-capitalist relations of production with these limits on democratic decision-making? Socialism was, and is, far from a self-evident thing. How can a transitional mode of production to communism be formed without free debate about what kind of economy, what kind of production, what social goals people are working towards?

Outlawing opposition papers, bourgeois, then all non-Bolshevik parties, ignoring the voices of “non-party” workers, stifled not just conflicting views but fostered the belief that those doing the outlawing knew better than anybody else. It was under Lenin that Soviet democracy was finished off. It was in the early 1920s that the acceptance of a military and political police entered into what would become the established doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat — the first, far from “temporary”, stage to socialism. This is a very negative lesson from the Russian revolution.9


1. Pages 8 and 809. Le passé d’une illusion. François Furet. Éditions Robert Laffont. 1995.

2. Pages 9 and 19. The Russian Revolution. When the workers took power. Paul Vernadsky.

3. Page 114. Paul Vernadsky Op cit.

4. Page 197. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

5. Page 346. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

6. Page 398. Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Brill. 2005.

7. On Lih Pages 163-9. Next quote, Page 19. Paul Vernadsky Op cit. Political Parties. Robert Michels. Transaction Publishers. 2009 (originally published, 1911.) Georges Sorel in 1902 had already written of the SPD’s “spirit of authoritarianism and bureaucracy in a New Church run like an huge civil service (“administration”) page 188. L’illusion du politique. Georges Sorel et le debate intellectuel 1900. Schlmo Sand. La Découverte, 1984.

8. “La démocratie soviétique a été définitivement étouffée au moment de l’interdiction des partis soviétiques, après la guerre civile, et non pas lorsque l’alternative était soit capituler devant les Blancs, soit défendre la révolution par tous les moyens. Elle fut donc étouffée après la victoire, alors qu’aucune armée blanche n’était plus présente sur le territoire de la Russie des soviets. Ernest Mandel. Octobre 1917 : Coup d’Etat ou révolution sociale ? La légitimité de la révolution russe. Cahiers d’Etudes et de Recherches, n°17/18, 1992.

9. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper. Monthly Review Press. 1987.

Extract from Paul Vernadsky’s book: The opening days of the Russian Revolution.


Written by Andrew Coates

September 7, 2017 at 11:26 am

Left Socialist Revolutionaries Win Backing in Leftist Poll on 1917.

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Socialist Revolutionary Party.

There is a popular  quiz, circulated at the moment on Facebook,  on “Who are you in 1917 Russia? Take our test, “Political Compass of the Revolution,” to find out who you would have been 100 years ago – an Anarchist, a Cadet, a Right SR, a Bolshevik or a member of the Black Hundreds.”

No doubt important international leaders of the proletariat, like Tariq Ali, Alex Callinicos, Lindsey Germain and John Rees, would have found that would have been key advisers of the Bolsheviks, commanders of the Red Army and People’s Commissars.

But many people, and not the least, have found that they would have been Left Socialist Revolutionaries.

This is odd, I’d have expected to turn out a Internationalist  Menshevik.

Or this:

But like many I got, Left SR…..

The SR’s, of all stripes, were in favour of continuing the war.

Apart from that many of their policies were not at all bad.


At the 5th All-Russia Congress of Soviets of July 4, 1918 the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries had 352 delegates compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total. The Left SRs raised disagreements on the suppression of rival parties, the death penalty, and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Then there was this:

The Left SR uprising or Left SR revolt was an uprising against the Bolsheviks by the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party in July 1918. The uprising started on 6 July 1918 and was claimed to be intended to restart the war with Germany. It was one of a number of left-wing uprisings against the Bolsheviks that took place during the Russian Civil War.

But are there more details on who the left SRs were?

LibCom has this interesting article: Literature and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries.

Revolutionary organizations in Russia in 1917-1921.

At the peak of the political influence the number of organization members were approaching 200 thousands. The Left SRs supported the autonomy of the workers’ councils and the federal structure of the country. They criticized Bolshevik Party for the establishment of the dictatorship.

A very sad fact is that when people talk about the poets and the writers of Russia who accepted and supported Russian Revolution, they immediately associate them with Bolshevism. But supporting Russian revolution and supporting Bolshevism is two different things.

For example, the poet Yesenin was a member of the PLSR and sympathized with Makhno. Yevgeny Zamyatin is an author of the novel “We”, written in 1920. This book is one of the great anti-utopias of the 20th century, along with the works of George Orwell. Zamyatin was subjected to repression in the Soviet Union because of this book. In this novel anti-state rebels are fighting for the “fourth revolution”, which aims to liberate people from the power of the totalitarian state: an allusion to the concept of the “third revolution”, anti-totalitarian anti-Bolshevik Revolution of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists.

In 1919, Zamyatin, along with many well-known artists (Block, Remizov, Ivanov-Razumnik) was arrested during the Left SRs strikes in the factories of Petersburg. The Left SRs were not peaceful legal strikers: their struggle was not limited to economic demands, they fought for free elections to the councils and wanted the elimination of the violent political monopoly of the Bolsheviks. Strikes were carried out by radical methods: factory’s Left SRs militia used weapons. While all of these cultural figures were not related directly to the performances of the Petersburg workers, they had a direct link with the Left SRs.

Since 1916, an informal group of “Scythians” began to form around the famous writer Ivanov-Razumnik, which gravitated toward the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries. It included Andrey Beliy, Alexander Blok, Klyuev, Lundberg, Forsh etc. In the years 1919-1924 in Russia the Free Philosophical Association, WOLFILA, was patronized by the Left SRs. It worked even with a wider circle of writers, artists, social thinkers. Some of them cooperated in the newspapers published by the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, “The Banner of Labour” and the magazine “Our Way”.

Of course, we can not say that they were all standing on party positions, although, for example, Ivanov-Razumnik was a member of the Central Committee of PLSR. But all of them in one way or another sympathized with the revolutionary-socialism LSR based on the ideas of self-government and individual freedom. Aleksandr Blok’s poem “Scythians” is a great anthem of the Russian revolution, which is nothing else than a poetic statement of Left SRs program.

If the concept of “revolution” is ever to be cleaned from the USSR flavour, then, perhaps, the work of poets, writers, scientists, philosophers of the Scythians and WOLFILA would become closer and more understandable to many people.

P.S. Important role in the discovery of the influence of the Left SRs on Russian literature belongs to the modern historian Yaroslav Leontiev.

Alexander Blok. The Scythians

Millions are you – and hosts, yea hosts, are we,
And we shall fight if war you want, take heed.
Yes, we are Scythians – leafs of the Asian tree,
Our slanted eyes are bright aglow with greed.Ages for you, for us the briefest space,
We raised the shield up as your humble lieges
To shelter you, the European race
From the Mongolians’ savage raid and sieges.Ages, yea ages, did your forges’ thunder
Drown even avalanches’ roar.
Quakes rent Messina and Lisbon asunder –
To you this was a distant tale – no more.

Eastwards you cast your eyes for many hundred years,
Greedy for our precious stones and ore,
And longing for the time when with a leer
You’d yell an order and the guns would roar.

This time is now. Woe beats its wings
And every adds more humiliation
Until the day arrives which brings
An end to placid life in utter spoliation.

You, the old world, now rushing to perdition,
Yet strolling languidly to lethal brinks,
Yours is the ancient Oedipean mission
To seek to solve the riddles of a sphinx.

The sphinx is Russia, sad and yet elated,
Stained with dark blood, with grief prostrate,
For you with longing she has looked and waited,
Replete with ardent love and ardent hate.

Yet how will ever you perceive
That, as we love, as lovingly we yearn,
Our love is neither comfort nor relief
But like a fire will destroy and burn.

We love cold figures’ hot illumination,
The gift of supernatural vision,
We like the Gallic wit’s mordant sensation
And dark Teutonic indecision.

We know it all: in Paris hell’s dark street,
In Venice bright and sunlit colonnades,
The lemon blossoms’ scent so heavy, yet so sweet,
And in Cologne a shadowy arcade.

We love the flavour and the smell of meat,
The slaughterhouses’ pungent reek.
Why blame us then if in the heat
Of our embrace your bones begin to creak.

We saddle horses wild and shy,
As in the fields so playfully they swerve.
Though they be stubborn, yet we press their thigh
Until they willingly and meekly serve.

Join us! From horror and from strife
Turn to the peace of our embrace.
There is still time. Keep in its sheath your knife.
Comrades, we will be brothers to your race.

Say no – and we are none the worse.
We, too, can utter pledges that are vain.
But ages, ages will you bear the curse
Of our sons’ distant offspring racked with pain.

Our forests’ dark depths shall we open wide
To you, the men of Europe’s comely race,
And unmoved shall we stand aside,
An ugly grin on our Asian face.

Advance, advance to Ural’s crest,
We offer you a battleground so neat
Where your machines of steel in serried ranks abreast
With the Mongolian savage horde will meet.

But we shall keep aloof from strife,
No longer be your shield from hostile arrow,
We shall just watch the mortal strife
With our slanting eyes so cold and narrow.

Unmoved shall we remain when Hunnish forces
The corpses’ pockets rake for plunder,
Set town afire, to altars tie their horses,
Burn our white brothers’ bodies torn asunder.

To the old world goes out our last appeal:
To work and peace invite our warming fires.
Come to our hearth, join our festive meal.
Called by the strings of our Barbarian lyres.

30 January 1918


Corbyn and the “Actuality of the Revolution” – Counterfire on Georg Lukács and Labour.

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Image result for IPswich workers militia

Ipswich Workers’ Militia: Ready for the ‘Actuality of the Revolution’. 

“The actuality of the revolution: this is the core of Lenin’s thought and his decisive link with Marx. For historical materialism as the conceptual expression of the proletariat’s struggle for liberation could only be conceived and formulated theoretically when revolution was already on the historical agenda as a practical reality; when, in the misery of the proletariat, in Marx’s words, was to be seen not only the misery itself but also the revolutionary element ‘which will bring down the old order’.”

Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought. Georg Lukács.  1924. (1)

Counterfire publishes this:

While thousands across the country have been attending rallies for Corbyn, and while the Labour establishment is in unprecedented disarray, some “thoughtful” and prominent former supporters of Corbyn have succumbed to self doubt and pessimism. This article will argue that the arguments they use reflect a way of thinking that has – throughout the last century – meant that many movements with the objective strength to defeat the right have floundered and failed. We will call this way of thinking vertigo and we will show how the great Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs identified the cure for vertigo at the heart of Lenin’s thought.

In  Corbyn: momentum meets vertigo Counterfire’s Dave Moyles has no doubt that the main problem of the left is those infected by “doubt and pessimism”.

Standing on the ledge of a great peak, they look at the abyss beneath and not upwards to the heavens.

The fears driving them can be easily summarised:

The waverers typically make two key points. First that when they backed Corbyn for leader last year they never expected him to win, but rather to “shift the terms of debate”.

Second, now that he has won, they argue, we are teetering on the edge of a precipice. The wave of enthusiasm could easily turn to despair. Just as defeat of Michael Foot laid the groundwork for Tony Blair (in a very telescoped, teleological view of history) so will this success be followed by defeat that could see the whole left destroyed. And the cliff on which we are standing is crumbling in the face of attacks from the media, the PLP and the Tories. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Take courage comrades! Look, he asks us, at the Russian Revolution! Or just The Revolution.

The Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs identified the cure to vertigo as the core uniting principle behind Lenin’s thought: the actuality of the revolution.


…seen from the perspective of the actuality of the revolution, the question is how do we maximise the level of political organisation, confidence and radicalism across the mass of ordinary people; how do we turn what has traditionally been the second party of British capitalism into a transformative force; how do we weaken the power of the British state to resist this movement. Then the answer is very clearly Corbyn – and the mass rallies, mass membership, organisation of resistance to the PLP that is going on as part of the Corbyn movement. Then a question like Scotland is easy to answer – don’t be so blinkered as to worry about numbers in Westminster – the Scottish question is about fundamentally weakening the British state.

No need to worry about the bourgeois SNP….nationalism…

It’s all about the ‘state’.

Where to to now?

Counterfire is there to help sort things out..

Counterfire today argues for its members to be at the heart of the movements at the same time as focusing on the big picture – and we ask our members to discuss and debate the best strategy for these movements. Our website and our paper connect the struggle and point to a socialist strategy within them. But it is clear an organisation of the sort Lenin envisaged would have to be far bigger and incorporate many activists who today are part of no organisation – as well as some who are currently part of other organisations. We will need this if the energy and desire for change captured by the Corbyn movement is going to be able to keep rising and achieve real transformative change.

Lukacs and Lenin teach us to be more ambitious – we should be storming the gates of heaven.

Counterfire’s long-standing strategic faults are laid bare in this lyrical article.

They have a common source, Lenin as read through Lukács.

Not just Moyles but their leader Rees has written that we need to grasp “the laws of historical development; to detect the part in the whole and the whole in the part; to find in historical necessity the moment of activity and in activity the connection with historical necessity.” (1)

This approach means that in every “concrete analysis of the concrete situation” one can trace the operation of an inexorable dialectic. Inside of which a revolution is about to burst reality asunder. 

Rees has something in common with John Holloway’s views in Crack Capitalism (2010), that capitalism produces an endless series of ‘cracks’ in which revolutionary sparks fly.

The major difference is while Holloway is only too glad to let every sparkle shed its own light, Rees considers that it is the task of the Revolutionary Party/Network to gather them up. It is a kind of filter that collects together all the rational elements of revolt, binds them together, and hurls them against capitalism. It is the fuse that once lit enables the working class to become the ” absolute subject-object of history.”

It is, in short, a practical-theoretical embodiment of class consciousness.

Behind this is a  fundamentally awry take on Marxism.

Whatever the merits of Rees’s magnum opus on dialectics, and his analysis of Lukács, from Lenin to History and Class Consciousness, the application of the ‘dialectic’  is not only barely ‘mediated’ by politics, (or more crudely, reality) it is “expressive” at every moment.

Moyles expresses this to the point of caricature: from Corbyn Rally to Revolution it is but a step.

Can we dismiss the weight of right-wing ideology, nationalism, the views of the general public, the rightward drift across the whole of our Continent, the decades long hegemony of conservative ‘neo-liberal’ ideas affecting social democracy itself , the present Tory Government,  the lack of actually existing  successful example of  economic alternatives to capitalism, not to mention the Fall of Official Communism,   the failure of ‘anti-imperialism’, the power of Capital? 

Are they all about the vanish faced with the cunning of Proletarian Reason?

That the revolution is both actual (in the English sense, real) and ‘actuel’, in the sense used in many European languages, present?

Does anybody else seriously believe that the present disputes in the Labour Party will end with Jeremy Corbyn heralding the Revolution?

That “an organisation of the sort Lenin envisaged” is about to emerge?

People involved with the, the People’s Assembly, the anti-austerity alliance dominated by Counterfire leadership, not to mention the Stop the War Coalition in which the same group is heavily involved, should perhaps be informed of how Rees, German and Moyles consider their role in creating this “organisation”.

And no doubt the ‘Corbyn movement’ as well.

Although given that Rees and mates, echoed in the dwindling People’s Assembly, have claimed that the Tories threatened a “coup” during the last General Election, that the Brexit vote was a great “opportunity” for the ‘left”, it’s unlikely that there are many people around who take this lot seriously.



(1) Counterfire’s Jon Rees outlines his highly individual account of Lukacs in The Algebra of Revolution. The Dialectics and the Classical Marxist Tradition. John Rees. Routledge 1998. See the indulgent review by  Alex Callinicos The Secret of the Dialectic (1998).

(2) John Rees (Extracts) Strategy and Tactics: how the left can organise to transform society. Counterfire’s Site). 2010.


Written by Andrew Coates

August 28, 2016 at 12:45 pm

Obsolete Leninism: the Left-Wing Alternative.

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Obsolete Leninism: the Left-Wing Alternative.

“Corporate bodies are more corrupt and profligate than individuals, because they have more power to do mischief, and are less amendable to disgrace of punishment. They feel neither shame, remorse, gratitude, nor good-will.”

William Hazlitt. On Corporate Bodies.

The SWP Special Conference is over. An initial assessment states, it “was extremely disappointing, even for those of us who didn’t expect much by way of surprises. The opposition was weak and scant; the level of debate very low and the CC was hardly pressed at all on any single count.” “The problem is not the numbers, comrades, but the party’s deeply entrenched culture of obedience to a (less and less) “charismatic” leadership.” The Corporate body could do not wrong…..

Others are more dramatic,

And so it is that the rigged conference has taken place, the leadership has secured its victory (though it may well be a Pyrrhic victory) and the opposition has been crushed. Rage and despair will be the natural reactions; however, it’s a good time to pause a moment and take stock.

The leadership is morally bankrupt

Let’s be blunt. The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this – is it a safe place? On the face of things, no; on the face of things, the majority of delegates today don’t think that is at all important.

The Party’s underlying difficulties remain. The SWP, culture or not, is the largest left organisation to the left of the Labour Party, and is important within many protest campaigns, and, to a lesser degree, in some trade unions. But it has never come close to offering the ‘leadership’ of the working class and oppressed to which it aspires. In over three decades it has not grown beyond a few thousand members. In recent years it has shrunk.

Weeks of debate on the left have shown that the SWP’s politics and organisational culture are widely challenged. Its inability to deal appropriately with allegations of sexual abuse in its own ranks, its bullying, its ad hoc changes in line, its ‘bureaucratic centralist’ methods to deal with dissent, have been talked over in pages of Web and printed criticism. Many have raised fundamental issues, about the SWP’s Leninism (with, or without, inverted commas), feminism, and the role of political parties in the socialist movement.

Now we are at point where some conclusions can be offered about the causes of this crisis. They indicate, as some have argued, that the Leninist political model that the SWP follows, has serious flaws. The view that an injection of democracy – “true” democratic centralism – can help is, this short piece will argue, not an answer to much deeper difficulties. These come from the impasse of the ‘revolutionary party’ project inspired by Lenin and Trotsky in present day Europe.

  • Since the 1980s the conditions in which European left politics operate have been fundamentally changing. The State, the instrument of reform, or something to be ‘overthrown’, has been transformed. The EU fulfils an important regulatory role, and the ‘markets’ shape fiscal demands. In every country the pattern of ‘market states’, in which governments do not just privatise utilities, but hive off a large part of their main functions to private companies, has spread. Political institutions continue to express the electorate’s views by representatives, but a large part of public policy is shaped elsewhere, by financial pressure, and by the organised lobbies of the new state funded bourgeoisie. In these conditions those who promote more markets, more funds for these companies, and more privileges for those with money promote their plans as modernising reforms. Against them left-wing genuine reformers and the revolutionaries who once wished to ‘smash’ the state are often united around the defence of the social democratic institutions of equal public services and welfare provision.
  • It is often sweepingly asserted that ‘market societies’, and what was once called ‘post-modernist’ culture, mean that the populations of the West have become politically fragmented, ‘atomised’, and resistant to the ‘grand narratives’ of the left. People turn in on their private lives, their families and friends, and lack the ‘ancient republican’ virtue of dedication to public things. Similar claims go back to the 1920s, if not back to the birth of bourgeoisie society. This may be partly rhetoric. But what has clearly altered nevertheless is the decline in mass participation in political and civil society organisations.
  • The disengagement from social and community involvement is harder to explain than a few words about individualism or the spin off from ‘commodification’. In the US one of the longest periods of civic engagement began with the pre-Great War Progressive Age, and even peaked during the 1950s Boom years. (Bowling Alone Robert D. Putnam. 2000) By the 1990s this had weakened, people no longer volunteered, and smaller and smaller numbers of people came along to take up positions in ageing organisations. He looked to change though a new generation of “social capitalists”. We could consider David Cameron’s – failed – experiment in the Big Society to be inspired by this call. Parts of Labour’s One Nation strategy, underpinned by initiatives such as Food Banks for the worthy needy backed by Policy Review chief, Jon Cruddas, are also part of this approach.
  • Putnam partly charged television with helping to draw people away from civic responsibility. ‘Social capital’ is now being accumulated in radically different ways, some of which may help re-engage people in more radical directions. Technology has been recast through the Web, (which I am using at this very movement) offering ways of connecting. This can give the impression that “it’s all kicking off” via the Net. This can sometimes be proved through real events (the Arab Spring); sometimes it bolsters less substantial movements, like Occupy! Every single day political initiatives are mobilised, meetings held, demonstrations planned, through this means, and people’s views are broadcast and challenged directly across wide geographical areas.
  • How do political parties connect to these developments? It would appear that there are reasons to think they may be obstacles. In Political Parties (1911) Robert Michels claimed that there was an “iron law of oligarchy’. Left parties were groups of a mixture of classes (despite their claims to represent the workers) with “special interests” that tended to form “stable and irremovable” leaders, the “domination of the elected over the electors” He based his judgement on the view that as organisations that aimed to capture state power they would adopt the structures of the public administration, of this.
  • More recently John Holloway has claimed that Leninist parties reproduce an oligarchy of knowledge, between the “knowers” in the party and the masses. The Party is equipped with Marxist science and the skills to lead. The rest, even if initially ‘self-organised’ are bidden to follow. This “monological political practice” goes against “non-fetishised, self-determining social relations.” (Change the World Without Taking Power. 2nd Edition. 2005)
  • There is nothing inevitable about political organisations operating in this way. The modern dominant paradigm for parties is not state administrative bureaucracy nor an all-seeing Knower but the company ‘flexible’ organigramme. The Parliamentary parties themselves are not US style Caucuses, or, miniature Republics of Barons on the model of the French 4th Republic. They are Leadership-run, subject to rare rebellion. The arms-length (proto-hived off) Civil Service Departments limit the Leader’s power, if only in framing the realm of the “possible”. There are some external democratic constraints. There are figures who would like to base their mass membership operations on a small policy team, alert to political marketing, and a loose, affiliated membership that would operate as their sales-teams and, partly, as collectors of public opinion. In the Labour Party a union and constituency influence persists which defies this trend. It has yet to show much success.
  • The SWP has not been able to offer an alternative. The Party’s Central Committee acts both as a semi-permanent oligarchy, and the Knower, determined to tell people what to do. In reality its ambitions over the years have become more modest. Public use of the Marxist phrase the ‘united front’ (now for party inner consumption only) gave way to the American expression ‘coalition’ (an alliance of pressure groups) for its campaigns. Its bizarre hostility to the Internet – evident in the Coherence where dissident Blogs were their major problem – is another indication of an inability to think boldly on the present day political terrain.
  • An alternative to the SWP, and other Leninist models on the left, would begin from democratic organisation in the era of the Internet. It would not be a Leadership run body, but a democratic socialist project that drew in the left around a bottom-upward synthesis of people’s experiences and ideas about socialism. Lenin is said to have talked of “practical workers” as the key to a socialist party, but today we can all become practical-theoretical workers. The minimum programme needed to transform the Market States of the world into socialist societies should dominate our political framework. In the absence of a ‘party’ we have our practice.
  • A project for a democratic ‘citizens’ revolution’, backed a variety of parties, and small groups. exists. In France. It is called the Front de gauche (left Front). It is not democratic centralist, but a bloc of independent bodies and individuals. We could begin by learning from this not from 1917.

Georges Sorel in La Décomposition du Marxism (1908) described the first ‘Crisis of Marxism’. Before the Great War he talked of the absence of a revolutionary proletariat and the growth of “constructive trade unionism”, that is mass reformism, and the support for “evolutionary socialism” this gave. Against this ‘reformist’ trend Sorel developed his theory of ‘myths’, heroic projections of the future that could not be falsified (L’illusion du poltiique. Shlomo Sand. 1984). Sorel fought against le politique, that is the routine administrative work of government, the compromises of state, for la politique a fundamental change in the world. How this was to come about, was left to action, not plans.

The most famous of Sorel’s myths, the General Strike, still has supporters on the United Kingdom left. Another is the Revolutionary Party. The SWP ISOP opposition declares, “The role of a revolutionary party is to fight for leadership in the class struggle. Democratic centralism is based primarily on conviction rather than discipline. The shared political perspectives required to underpin united political action are not something to be imposed, but are achieved through engagement in debate and argument and informed by experience.”

This is a fundamental flaw in a great deal in the debate about the SWP and Leninism. Lenin’s Party and is ‘Democratic centralism’, figures as a ‘myth’ not a historical reality. Or rather when it is talked about historically it is confined to one ‘good’ period – whose date wavers. Rather than discussing what happened when that party, apparently a model, took power, does not get discussed in the tale of the Good Bolshevik Party. It considered largely a separate issue.

Cut way the fist two sentences comrades. We need shared experience. We need united political action. We have had ample opportunity to verify the mobilising myth of Democratic Centralisation.

It has failed.




This is also worth looking at: Is this the Turning Point for the British Far left?

Lenin. Lars T. Lih. Review: a ‘Heroic Scenario’.

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A ‘Heroic Scenario’. Lenin. Lars T. Lih. Reaktion Books. 2011.

“Revolutionary centralism is a harsh, imperative and exacting principle. It often takes the guise of absolute ruthlessness in its relation to individual members, to whole groups of former associates. It is not without significance that the words ‘irreconcilable’ and ‘relentless’ are among Lenin’s favourites. It is only the most impassioned, revolutionary striving for a definite end – a striving that is utterly free from anything base or personal – that can justify such a personal ruthlessness.”

Leon Trotsky (1)

The collected works of Lenin, Lars Lih observes, that line his study, make up an “intellectual mausoleum comparable to the corporeal mausoleum that still stands in Moscow.” (Page 7) If Lenin’s 55 tomes are read thoroughly, it is normally by people with a focused ideological or academic mission. Some continue to treat the writings as an encyclopaedia of Marxist knowledge; others as evidence for the prosecution against Communism. More often Lenin is cited without much fore or afterthought. The “leading political philosophers of the left” in The Idea of Communism (2010) pick from his corpus to embellish their heterodox communism. Slavoj Žižek uses Lenin’s “climbing simile”, no doubt to describe his long march through the media and academy. Bruno Bosteels ponders Lenin’s “clinical-pedagogical” attacks on “leftism”. It is fashionable to refer the ‘Leninist Party’ in terms of Alain Badiou’s critique of ‘Party-State’ form and his conception of the pure ‘Communist hypothesis’. Elsewhere John Holloway has rapidly dispatched Lenin and “the theory of the vanguard party” as the “logical conclusion” of “Engels’” view of scientific socialism. This “consciousness” has to be brought by “those who have this knowledge” into the working class. (2) More direct discussion of Lenin’s far more complex stand on the relationship between Marxism, the party, and the working class, has until recently, been largely moribund.

By contrast, Lih’s portrait of Lenin, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (2006) account of Lenin, is, even critics agree, at the very least, thorough. It is widely considered a landmark. Lih has shown himself less concerned to support his view by Lenin than to develop a contextual view of Lenin. For those of us unwilling or unable to pay Brill’s steep price for that book and have not ploughed through its dense argument, Lenin Rediscovered’s influence is nevertheless felt. Lih’s demolition of the ‘textbook’ view of Lenin, (reproduced by John Holloway) that those “in the know”, should bear Marxist knowledge to the ignorant working class, has become a reference point. Lih’s Lenin was supremely confident that the proletariat was ready for Marxism, that there would be no division between teachers and taught, and that socialism and the working class would ‘merge’. His presentation of the “broader historical data” about Lenin, Kautsky and 2nd International ‘Erfurtian’ Marxism, has an importance for any assessment of the Bolshevik’s relationship to other forms of socialism. This interpretation has also gained support from sections of the organised left. A large audience is now aware of its outline. (3)

Now, the lucid Lenin, a “biographical essay”, has appeared and introduces Lih’s (un-italiced) Lenin directly to a wider public. Despite Lih’s claim that its portrait of Lenin is not “particularly original”, he develops out of his earlier research much more than a conventional life of a “leading cultural figure” in the Critical Lives series. It is in many respects highly novel. Lenin offers a picture of a “romantic” Lenin, a “stubborn dreamer” as Lih cites Pisarev. He held to a “heroic scenario” of how socialists will overthrow the bourgeoisie. It is not just Lenin’s relationship to Kautsky, but also Lenin’s bond to an emotional and visionary self which makes up the Life.

But what came afterwards? How did Lenin, emotionally wedded to the importance of political freedom for socialism during most of his life, come, under his leadership of the Soviet Government, to deny political and social liberty? Lih considers that Lenin had an instrumental attitude towards democracy – that it is a means towards socialism. But here the difficulties begin. Lih compares the pre-great War Russian Social Democratic Party’s (RSDLP) division into two principal factions – Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer   in Season Five. The plot there revolved around Ben, a human, coexisting in the same body with Glorificus, a demon goddess (Page 111). As the RSDLP could be seen as containing two clashing persons, many consider that within Lenin there is a similar conflict within his frame: between the humane, if, as Trotsky indicated, “harsh” and “relentless”, supporter of workers’ democratic power, and the demiurge willing to create socialism at any anti-democratic cost. The post 1912 formalisation of the split in Russian socialism led eventually to the death of the Mensheviks; in Buffy both incarnations die. How did Lenin’s “dream”, invested in this organisation, contribute to a conquering political structure that singularly failed to build democratic socialism? The triumphant faction of the Russian socialist movement was consigned, as is often the case for monsters in Buffy, to Hell, that is to Stalin. What role did the tool used to achieve the victory of the Bolshevik Party, contribute to the eventual triumph of the bureaucratic autocrat?

Althusser once asserted that Lenin never offered a full theoretical account of his political practice. His texts were for “direct political use.” (4) Yet Lenin’s works (writings and acts), as presented by Lih, offer in a practical state material that suggests a real difficulty with democracy, and the nature of his ‘heroic’ projections, at the core of his politics. Trotsky flagged up Lenin’s “revolutionary centralism” as if it had purely personal results; it had effects on the Bolshevik political practice in government about which we still shudder. This essay will deal largely with these topics with a present-day bearing, and not cover the already burgeoning disputes over the historical details of Lih’s writings, which would require a much greater familiarity with the material than is available here. The ‘worry about democracy’ is, for left political activists, as will be seen, the most important issue that Lenin raises, and only begins to respond to.

Biographical Narratives.

“The aim of the present biographical essay is to keep the focus on both Ulyanov the flesh-and-blood personage and his rhetorical creation, N. Lenin.” (Page 13) Lenin’s chapters are laid out as if Lenin’s actions were part of an “enacted narrative.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Coates

May 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

Lenin Rediscovered and Politics Today.

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In the just issued Historical Materialism journal there is an important  ‘symposium’ on Lars Lib’s Lenin Rediscovered ( another useful Review by Mike Macnair here). I have not read the original book – maybe when I have the odd sixty quid to spare I will (revised: $210.00!).

The debate centres on Lenin’s What is to do Done? (1901 and February 1902), and its significance in the development of ‘Leninism’. Lib’s aim was to demolish the ‘myth’ of this text. For many, apparently, Lenin broke from democracy. His pamphlet against the Mensheviks on the need for a centralised structure of the Russian Social Democratic Party showed the germs of a future hyper-centralised and bureaucratic state-party machine. Lenin’s support for centralisation of policy-making and day-to-day decision-taking, along with control over the party paper and tight conditions for membership, was the basis of what later became known as ‘democratic centralism’.

Lib establishes (fairly convincingly) that WITB was did not mark a radical break from  2nd International social democracy. It did not turn towards absolute centralism, and a party monopolised by full-time revolutionaries-by-trade. A degree of centralism and dedication to party-work were part of the building-blocks of any mass movement with a reasonable chance of winning power. Lib argues Lenin’s famous formulation, that socialism has to be brought from ‘the outside’ to the working class is part of ‘Erfurtian’ orthodoxy. That is the form of socialism set out by Karl Kautsky most famously in his commentary on the German SPD’s Erfurt Programme, The Road to Power.

This type of Marxist politics is  grounded on the development of history (class struggle), analysis of social structure, and the role of a workers’ party in changing people’s minds, and encouraging their participation in the  unfolding of socialist strategy.  Lenin, Lars considers (as do most of the other contributors) based himself, in this text and his practice of the period, was democratic. He recognised the complex interaction between mass movements and the need for a professional revolutionary party. But the nature of that relationship, as other participants in the symposium indicate, remains an open question.

There is much in this discussion that will interest only those thoroughly grounded in the history of the Bolshevik Party, and, above all, those wishing to defend this or that aspect of its politics. A few short sentences cannot properly summarise this rich, and largely rewarding, debate. Much turns on Lenin’s efforts to deal with political and working class  ‘spontaneity‘ through the famous ‘outside’ party intervention. This again comes down to translation (here), as Wikipedia notes,

Lih argues that even if we examine the controversial passages in WITBD we misunderstand them if we are not alive to the meanings of the words used. Some of these have been translated in such a way as to confuse or even to draw readers to the opposite of what Lenin’s real views were. Pages and pages of Lih’s book therefore are devoted to explaining why and how the word stikhiinyi, when translated as spontaneity, distorts his views; how konspiratsiia does not mean ‘conspiracy’; tred-iunionizm does not mean ‘trade unionism’ and revoliutsioner po professii should not be translated as ‘professional revolutionary.’”[4][5]

Some points which have more contemporary relevance should be borne in mind.

  • Lib makes much of his strategy of “making strange” What is to Be Done? through a new translation. This includes an effort to make clear that the key word ‘spontaneous’ has been used (and accept as standard) to stand for the Russian Stikhinost and stikhiinyi. The Russian words have connotations, he says, of “primitiveness, uncontrolled impulses, lack of organisation” and even “violence”.
  • These are a lot of connotations.  Spontaneity in English (and in other European languages which employ it) is  understood with a different range of meanings politically, to say, in ordinary life (if we use it). The spectrum of these everyday  references includes, “coming or resulting from a natural impulse or tendency; without effort or premeditation; natural and unconstrained; unplanned: a spontaneous burst of applause, “given to acting upon sudden impulses”. Then we have scientific layer (of natural phenomena) “arising from internal forces or causes; independent of external agencies; self-acting. “growing naturally or without cultivation, as plants and fruits; indigenous.” In left politics by contrast spontaneity refers largely to self-acted, self-driven and, by inference, unpredictable, since a spontaneous action can crop up any time, any place, within the context that shapes any act.
  • Lenin both supported and opposed self-activity. Political activity located in  individual decision-making t4nded to be conflated with an appeal to unpredictable reasons. The Party-form was defended as a kind of shiled against its contamination by bourgeois ideology.  Lenin always, rightly, underlined the collective and taking-sides nature of politics.  However, this was not just because of the negative shades of meaning attached to  stikhiinyi. In  Lenin’s equally important  text, One Step Fowards, Two Steps Back (February-May 1904), that he opposed another side of self-decided acts (that is beyond the Marxist party’s organisation) . This is the principle that however collectively elaborated politics needs a bedrock area of individual freedom to dissent and cause upsets. His writing, In One Step…as in many other places,  is littered with criticisms of this as ‘autonomism’  ‘anarchism’ and – later – liberalism. It is what became known as the contrary of ‘party-mindedness’. In time this would sanction the elimination of ‘factionalism’ when the strains of the early Soviet State (and its political militarisation) meant that the already weak sanctio for the space of a final autonomous area was swept away.
  • Lenin may have been as flexible as possible, within the framework of Erfurt socialism, towards the spontaneous actions of the masses (notably the 1905 Russian mass strikes, and thereafter). But he was marked by this continual side-taking against the self-activation of anyone who opposed his particular view of what socialism was.
  • This was shored up by a belief in the scientific basis, or objective truth, of his version of Marxism in a wide variety of fields. Critics of this aspect of Lenin’s organisational principles may have agreed, or agree, with his writings on say the Development of Capitalism in Russia (the class structure, and the conditions it laid out for socialist change, uniting democratic, working class and peasant demands). But a party-mechanism that is more than just wary of (bad) stikhiinyi  but hostile to the ‘self-organisation’ of forces outside and inside Russian social democracy puts ‘scientific’ truth (an important goal – though objective assessments would be a better description) first and neglects the inherently turbulent stasis (conflict) of politics. Lenin, and the Bolsheviks in power, came to define stasis, internal party conflict, through a shift already apparent in Aristotle, as subversion, as a sign of the enemy’s acts.

The problem than about Lenin, shown in What is to be Done? is then greater than this symposium suggests. It is that it showed Lenin attempting to deal with political conflict, opposition to his views on party organisation, throughly hostile to stikhiinyi   in a broad sense: the turmoil created by uncontrolled autonomy, of self-acting, of political stasis. Part of his  reaction was to support centralisation, backed up by an appeal to Marxist science as a source of authority (first and foremost). Another part was to promote the ideas of Erfurt in a broader way, to encourage people to think in socialist terms and to build a party which was more than a loose federation of the like-minded. This required a seriousness that party-mindedness helped.

The symposium establishes this positive side well. Lenin’s success owes a lot to the second line of march. But other factors, as we have indicated,  would later accelerate the importance of the former.

As is suggested by some of the contributors to this discussion Lib’s writings are no a true ‘Cambridge school’ attempt to unearth the contextual and historical meanings of the texts. The debate is dominated by the SWP’s efforts to find early breaks between Lenin and Kautsky – a topic Lars has no difficulty in showing is a dead-end. Lib points out, in the process, the shaky ground of SWP theory. Tony Cliff for example, smuggled in other people’s references to original Russian language sources and presented them as his own in his biography of Lenin.

If this shows how we cannot easily read the political past without our own concerns coming to the fore – perhaps it is impossible. In this potential mind-field there are not just mythologies but real power struggles at work.  The author of Lenin Rediscovered  does not grapple with the fact that, say, nobody has ever attempted to defend Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity as a guide to present day debates on religion and socialism, while Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-Criticism loomed large for a long time in discussions about Marxism and philosophy. One obvious reason is that Lenin gave his entire practical and written corpus the status of party-mindedness, and expected to draw up battle lines on anything he touched on. In this he laid down grounds that made it hard to advocate individual autonomous judgement on the whole gamut of political and theoretical problems that the Bolshevik, and later, the Communist movement confronted. This legacy is not a historical one.

Some consider that the Third International and Bolshevism, the resulting effects on all groups claiming a Leninist legacy, is marked by this tendency to be suspicious of a key aspect of democracy, individual judgement.

Which explains why, when people look at the actions of British left groups trying to create their own fronts for anti-cuts campaigns they refer to the Party deciding the Line, and to Democratic Centralism (all following Party decisions) – a myth maybe, but one made real. Party-mindedness is essential to politics, as are distinctions between friends and enemies, and the reciprocal relations (close to friendship) that a workers’ movement should foster. But Lenin beqeuthed  an unattractive feature: a distrust of spontaneity, whether he considered it in terms of stikhiinyi or (since he was discussing in terms of Kautsky’s  German SPD) as  Spontaneität  or  Ungezwungenheit  (that is the style of un-forced expression).  

Written by Andrew Coates

December 22, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Communism, Left, Marxism, SWP, Trotskyism

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