Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Class Struggle Continues...In Boston  

The Class Struggle Continues...In Boston  

The Class Struggle Continues...In Boston  

The Class Struggle Continues...In Boston 

***Watch Out For The Angry Ones- The Thin Man Series-William Powell and Myra Loy’s’ The Thin Man Goes Home- With Kudos To Dashiell Hammett

DVD Review
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
The Thin Man Goes Home, starring William Powell, Myra Loy and Asta, based on the crime detection novel by Dashiell Hammett, 1945
Recently I wrote the following which can apply to the Thin Man series film under review, The Thin Man Goes Home, as well:
“Long before Jaws, long before Halloween X, long before Ocean’s X  Hollywood has cashed in on sequelling any film idea that showed the least bit of staying power. One of the early example of that trend was the six (I believe) run Thin Man series starring William Powell, Myra  and of course their faithful dog Asta. While the subsequent four after the initial fairly straightforward film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime detection novel The Thin Man running from the mid-1930s into the early 1940s are a mixed bag the film under review here, After The Thin Man, except for a bit too much length and confusing filler is one of the better ones.   
No question that every crime detection novel (and film noir ) aficionado owes Dashiell Hammett (and Raymond Chandler) a great debt for providing us with professional private detectives we can get behind and root for after a long run of amateur Saturday afternoon parlor detectives was snapped in the late 1920s and 1930s. Hammett’s Sam Spade may be the max daddy of all the tough private no question  but Hammett’s more measured attempt to mix a plebian ex-copper Nick Charles and patrician, meaning the one with the dough, Nora (with Asta thrown in) to solve the hard city murders that they wound up solving is interesting as well. Those sleuthing virtues are more apparent in the book than on the various film adaptations but with the exception of the over-the-top use of liquor to loosen up old Nick and Nora’s brains the pains-taking crime detection methodology behind the facile façade come through.”      
With exception this being a lesser film than the one reviewed above all that is left is a little sketch of the action here.
Old Nick and Nora after a decade on screen together in dangerous big cities like New York and Frisco town are going home to Nick’s growing up town in Podunk New York for some rest and some reconciliation (if possible) with Nick’s estranged father. Yes, to get away from all that big city crime and enjoy the country air. Except this is wartime America and foreign powers (the Japanese here) are out to by hook or by crook commit espionage against the interests of the United States. Seems Nick’s hometown is a center for espionage ring looking to get secrets from nearby aircraft plant. Naturally such a conspiracy needs tight lips to get the secrets in and out without detection. The way they get that information here is via a young painter painting over the blueprints. Except he gets a conscious and also gets bumped off by his confederates. And guess who the leader of that nefarious gang is? An old school chum of Nick’s. A doctor like Nick’s father but jealous of Nick since school days. Of course Daddy Charles could not be prouder of his son. Frankly this one dragged out a bit and signaled that this sub-genre had had its day after a decade on the old silver screen.     

From The Marxist Archives -The Revolutionary History Journal-Book Reviews

The Lessons Of The Spanish Civil War- From The Pen Of Leon Trotsky





I have been interested, as a pro-Republican partisan, in the Spanish Civil War since I was a teenager. What initially perked my interest, and remains of interest, is the passionate struggle of the Spanish working class to create its own political organization of society, its leadership of the struggle against Spanish fascism and the romance surrounding the entry of the International Brigades, particularly the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th Brigade, into the struggle.

Underlying my interests has always been a nagging question of how that struggle could have been won by the working class. The Spanish proletariat certainly was capable of both heroic action and the ability to create organizations that reflected its own class interests i.e. the worker militias and factory committees. Of all modern working class revolutions after the Russian revolution Spain showed the most promise of success. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky noted that the political class consciousness of the Spanish proletariat at that time was higher than that of the Russian proletariat in 1917. Yet it failed in Spain. Trotsky's writings on this period represent a provocative and thoughtful approach to an understanding of the causes of that failure. Moreover, with all proper historical proportions considered, his analysis has continuing value as the international working class struggles against the seemingly one-sided class war being waged by the international bourgeoisie today.

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 has been the subject of innumerable works from every possible political and military perspective possible. A fair number of such treatises, especially from those responsible for the military and political policies on the Republican side, are merely alibis for the disastrous policies that led to defeat. Trotsky's complication of articles, letters, pamphlets, etc. which make up the volume reviewed here is an exception. Trotsky was actively trying to intervene in the unfolding events in order to present a program of socialist revolution that most of the active forces on the Republican side were fighting, or believed they were fighting for. Thus, Trotsky's analysis brings a breath of fresh air to the historical debate. That in the end Trotsky could not organize the necessary cadres to carry out his program or meaningfully impact the unfolding events in Spain is one of the ultimate tragedies of that revolution. Nevertheless, Trotsky had a damn good idea of what forces were acting as a roadblock to revolution. He also had a strategic conception of the road to victory. And that most definitely was not through the Popular Front.

The central question Trotsky addresses throughout the whole period under review here was the crisis of revolutionary leadership of the proletarian forces. That premise entailed, in short, a view that the objective conditions for the success of a socialist program for society had ripened. Nevertheless, until that time, despite several revolutionary upheavals elsewhere, the international working class had not been successful anywhere except in backward Russia. Trotsky thus argued that it was necessary to focus on the question of forging the missing element of revolutionary leadership that would assure victory or at least put up a fight to the finish.

This underlying premise was the continuation of an analysis that Trotsky developed in earnest in his struggle to fight the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution in the mid-1920's. The need to learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution and to extend that revolution internationally was thus not a merely a theoretical question for Trotsky. Spain, moreover, represented a struggle where the best of the various leftist forces were in confusion about how to move forward. Those forces could have profitably heeded Trotsky's advice. I further note that the question of the crisis of revolutionary leadership still remains to be resolved by the international working class.

Trotsky's polemics in this volume are highlighted by the article ‘The Lessons of Spain-Last Warning’, his definitive assessment of the Spanish situation in the wake of the defeat of the Barcelona uprising in May 1937. Those polemics center on the failure of the Party of Marxist Unification (hereafter, POUM) to provide revolutionary leadership. That party, partially created by cadre formerly associated with Trotsky in the Spanish Left Opposition, failed on virtually every count. Those conscious mistakes included, but were not limited to, the creation of an unprincipled bloc between the former Left Oppositionists and the former Right Oppositionists (Bukharinites) of Maurin to form the POUM in 1935; political support to the Popular Front including entry into the government coalition by its leader; creation of its own small trade union federation instead of entry in the anarchist led-CNT; creation of its own militia units reflecting a hands-off attitude toward political struggle with other parties; and, fatally, an at best equivocal role in the Barcelona uprising of 1937.

Trotsky had no illusions about the roadblock to revolution of the policies carried out by the old-time Anarchist, Socialist and Communist Parties. Unfortunately the POUM did. Moreover, despite being the most honest revolutionary party in Spain it failed to keep up an intransigent struggle to push the revolution forward. The Trotsky - Andreas Nin (key leader of the POUM and former Left Oppositionist) correspondence in the Appendix makes that problem painfully clear.

The most compelling example of this failure - As a result of the failure of the Communist Party of Germany to oppose the rise of Hitler in 1933 and the subsequent decapitation and the defeat of the Austrian working class in 1934 the European workers, especially the younger workers, of the traditional Socialist Parties started to move left. Trotsky observed this situation and told his supporters to intersect that development by an entry, called the ‘French turn’, into those parties. Nin and the Spanish Left Opposition, and later the POUM failed to do that. As a result the Socialist Party youth were recruited to the Communist Party en masse. This accretion formed the basic for its expansion as a party and the key cadre of its notorious security apparatus that would, after the Barcelona uprising, suppress the more left ward organizations. For more such examples of the results of the crisis of leadership in the Spanish Revolution read this book.

Revised-June 19, 2006
Click below to link to the Revolutionary History Journal index.

Peter Paul Markin comment on this series:

This is an excellent documentary source for today’s leftist militants to “discover” the work of our forebears, particularly the bewildering myriad of tendencies which have historically flown under the flag of the great Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky and his Fourth International, whether one agrees with their programs or not. But also other laborite, semi-anarchist, ant-Stalinist and just plain garden-variety old school social democrat groupings and individual pro-socialist proponents.

Some, maybe most of the material presented here, cast as weak-kneed programs for struggle in many cases tend to be anti-Leninist as screened through the Stalinist monstrosities and/or support groups and individuals who have no intention of making a revolution. Or in the case of examining past revolutionary efforts either declare that no revolutionary possibilities existed (most notably Germany in 1923) or alibi, there is no other word for it, those who failed to make a revolution when it was possible.

The Spanish Civil War can serve as something of litmus test for this latter proposition, most infamously around attitudes toward the Party Of Marxist Unification's (POUM) role in not keeping step with revolutionary developments there, especially the Barcelona days in 1937 and by acting as political lawyers for every non-revolutionary impulse of those forebears. While we all honor the memory of the POUM militants, according to even Trotsky the most honest band of militants in Spain then, and decry the murder of their leader, Andreas Nin, by the bloody Stalinists they were rudderless in the storm of revolution. But those present political disagreements do not negate the value of researching the POUM’s (and others) work, work moreover done under the pressure of revolutionary times. Hopefully we will do better when our time comes.

Finally, I place some material in this space which may be of interest to the radical public that I do not necessarily agree with or support. Off hand, as I have mentioned before, I think it would be easier, infinitely easier, to fight for the socialist revolution straight up than some of the “remedies” provided by the commentators in these entries from the Revolutionary History journal in which they have post hoc attempted to rehabilitate some pretty hoary politics and politicians, most notably August Thalheimer and Paul Levy of the early post Liebknecht-Luxemburg German Communist Party. But part of that struggle for the socialist revolution is to sort out the “real” stuff from the fluff as we struggle for that more just world that animates our efforts. So read, learn, and try to figure out the
wheat from the chaff. 



The Italian Communist Left

International Communist Current
The Italian Communist Left, 1927–45
ICC, London, 1992, pp. 192, £5.00
IT IS certainly not to the credit of the revolutionary movement that it all too often allows Stalinism, the New Left and academe in general to set the agenda for the discussion of its history. At several public meetings over the past year militants from organisations such as the publishers of this book have been heard to complain that their views and their story have been condemned to silence. They have all the more right on their side since they feel that their very identity is being denied, when in spite of their repeated protests they are generally rather inaccurately described as ‘Bordigists’.
An obvious obstacle to understanding the history of Italian Marxism has been the lush growth of the Gramsci cult, fed by Social Democrats, Stalinists and Trotskyists alike, for its ambiguity is well fitted to their needs. The cryptic language Gramsci was obliged to use in his prison writings leaves as much scope for epigones, commentators and plagiarists as was enjoyed by Medieval theologians when interpreting the Book of Revelation. Gramsci’s refusal to commit himself in the conflict between Stalin and his opponents continues to inspire those who make a profession out of not taking sides, particularly on principled questions. The lack of continuity between the PC d’Italia of the interwar years and the post-1943 Italian Communist Party as reflected in this issue of our journal allows everyone to make out a claim to be Gramsci’s heir, especially as for some years now you have needed a political microscope to tell the difference between the practice (and theory) of the Italian Communist Party and those of common or garden Social Democracy.
It is to the great merit of this book that it shows that Italian Communism had another tradition, no less impressive than that deriving from Gramsci, and a good deal more intransigent. Unlike Gramsci, Bordiga and those who followed his lead did not waver over the question of Italy’s intervention in the war in 1914 (p. 17), came down firmly on the side of Trotsky against Stalin (p. 24), opposed the degeneration of the Soviet state and the Comintern (pp. 121ff.), and resisted the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Italian party that was intended, as elsewhere, to choke off free discussion (pp. 22–6; cf. Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head, pp. 40–1, and Harry Wicks: A Memorial, 1989, pp. 24–5, 43–4).
After 1926 this tendency could more accurately be called ‘Perronist’ rather than Bordigist, since after Bordiga retreated into silence its main inspiration in exile was Ottorino Perrone (Vercesi). But it was one of its many strengths that it refused to promote any individual in its dealings with the outside world, and ‘tried as much as possible to give an anonymous form to those militants who were most in view’ (p. 9). And contrary to what is often alleged, this did not mean that its theory remained on a primitive level, and did not develop: ‘whether it was on the union question, on “national liberation struggles”, or else on the state in the period of transition, it did not hesitate to make innovations, when it considered it necessary’ (p. 9). Its theory about the USSR, for example, whilst not approaching the sophistication of Trotsky’s, was firmly implanted within the traditions of classical Marxism (pp. 133–4). It began with the awkward formulation that ‘the Russian state, qualified as “proletarian”, was capitalist on the international arena; on the other hand on the internal level this state was described not as capitalist, but as Socialist on the strength of the “socialisation of production”’ (p. 72). By 1936 it considered, ‘following Engels, that the state is a scourge inherited by the proletariat’, since it was ‘both an instrument whose historical necessity arises from the inability of production to satisfy the needs of the producers (a historical circumstance which will accompany any proletarian revolution) and also, by its very nature, an organism destined to safeguard the supremacy of an exploiting class who will use its machinery in order to install a bureaucracy which will gradually be won over to the cause of the enemy class’ (p. 135). It was not until the Second World War that the Italian Left finally abandoned the defence of Russia as some sort of proletarian state.
But not all the insights of the Italian Left were equally profound, and it is fascinating to study the mechanism of its development. What began as a reflection of the highest consciousness of the Italian workers during a time of tremendous revolutionary upsurge, and was tempered in its struggle against the Fascist state, became ossified in the emigration, where its vital forces dwindled at the same rate as its opportunities.
Just as the Trotskyists refused to accept the decisions of the Comintern after its Fifth Congress, the Italian Left repudiated all those taken after the Second (p. 20). In so renouncing electoral and parliamentary action, to begin with Bordiga’s followers called themselves quite legitimately ‘the Abstentionist fraction’ (p. 18), rejecting any alliance with ‘elements whose goal is not the armed revolutionary struggle of the proletariat against the existing state’ (p. 20), the ‘defence of democracy’ (p. 28), ‘the slogans of the “workers’ and peasants’ government”, the “United Front”, and “proletarian anti-Fascist committees”’ (p. 59). By 1939 the Italian Left had withdrawn its support for colonial revolt against imperialism and the right of nations to self-determination, holding that ‘national movements can only develop on the basis of the crushing of the workers and this in connection with the movements of opposing imperialisms’ (p. 114). Since this was not only to apply to China’s war with Japan from 1937 onwards, but to the Abyssinian war of 1935–36 as well, it was a fatal mistake for any Italian revolutionary to make. For, like the Spartacists of today, but with more justification, they had by then become thoroughly expert at finding very good revolutionary reasons for abstaining from activity, and for attacking those who were mistaken enough to indulge in it.
They forgot not only Marx’s distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself, but even reversed the argument that conditions determine consciousness. Like the Maoists of the 1960s, who believed that, irrespective of their relations with the means of production, those who disagreed with them automatically became capitalists, the Italian Left began to define the class nature of social formations on the basis of their ideas. Thus the Socialist parties ‘were no longer part of the workers’ world, but, since 1914, of the capitalist world, a fact which they proved by massacring the revolutionary proletarians immediately after the war’ (p. 76). It was but a simple step from there to dismissing the whole experience of dual power wherever it arose by claiming that ‘without a revolutionary party the revolutionary situation was absent’ (p. 94). By 1938 one of the factions of the Italian Left was even ‘insisting that any possibility of a proletarian struggle against capitalism consists of a definitive break with all forms of capitalist oppression, including the existing unions’ (p. 130). The final and ludicrous conclusion to this line of reasoning on the part of Vercesi in particular (p. 118) was that ‘without a powerful party, like the Bolshevik party, the working class no longer existed’ (p. 94), for ‘the proletariat derived its existence as a class from the Communist Party, which provided it with its consciousness, its goals, and its methods’ (p. 122). Hence ‘the proletariat will disappear as a class, if the party was absent’, so that during the Second World War ‘socially speaking, the working class had disappeared’ (p. 126).
It goes without saying that the elaboration of this form of reasoning must in the long run produce a paralysing effect, especially when concrete activity is called for in alliance with other tendencies, and whenever the Italian Left was faced with a problem of this type it resorted to hyper-revolutionary language and suffered a split. Its theory of Social Democracy, for example, prevented any struggle (united or otherwise) against the rise of Nazism at all, and led to its first break, with the Trotskyists:
‘It considered that Social Democracy and Fascism were two distinct, but complementary, methods for crushing the proletariat. Both were forces of the bourgeoisie, but they played a different rôle in that the first had to wipe out a revolutionary proletarian movement, whereas the second, with the world crisis of capitalism, had to finish the job by replacing the democratic method with the dictatorial one. This is why the Italian Left refused to give credence to the policies of Social Democracy through the “tactic” of the United Front.’
So its ‘solution’ to this supreme political crisis of the German working class was a resort to low-level trade union activity, ‘the “development of class movements” on an economic terrain’ (p. 64).
The crowded years of the 1930s represented a definite problem for this brand of politics, and in the year after the Stavisky riots, the Dollfüss coup and the Asturian Commune some 60 or 70 militants led by Candiani (Enrico Russo; cf. above, pp. 139ff.) came to the conclusion that ‘the perspective was one of developing class struggles with a revolutionary content’, as opposed to the assumption of the majority that ‘the historic period opened in 1927–33 was one of profound reflux’ (p. 82). Rapid confirmation of the minority’s opinions came from Spain, where civil war broke out a few months later, and 26 of them went off to join the Lenin Battalion of the POUM, where Candiani assumed command of a column in front of Huesca. Leaving what by then must have looked like a harem of political eunuchs, they joined Gaston Davoust’s Union Communiste.
A bizarre series of rationalisations is used in this book to account for the abstention of the Italian Left from the Spanish conflict. ‘The minority’s analysis’, it is claimed, ‘was based on a serious overestimation of the Spanish situation, sprung from a sentimental reaction rather than a real and mature reflection’, mainly because ‘the minority was above all fascinated by the acts of violence and expropriation’ (p. 97). For as far as our authors are concerned, the collectivisation of factories and the land was not an expression of a revolution actually taking place, but ‘a link in the chain tying the proletariat to its enemy both on the internal front and on the imperialist front’ (p. 96). Where Lenin saw such phenomena long before the October seizure of power as evidence of the depth of the Russian Revolution, these wiseacres intone that ‘in any genuine proletarian revolution, politics comes before economics’, and ‘it is only under the dictatorship of the proletariat, after the capitalist state has been smashed, that there can be economic measures in the interest of the proletariat’ (pp. 95–6). ‘Violence against the capitalists, the priests, the big landowners was no more revolutionary’, they add (p. 96), and the Italian Left’s interpretation of Lenin’s policy of revolutionary defeatism (actually a misreading of it: cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 3, Autumn 1988, pp. 2–7) led them to call for ‘desertion from the army and fraternisation between the soldiers of both camps, as in 1917’ (p. 96). The minority, who contrasted this with Lenin’s attitude to Kornilov, described their denunciation of the slogan of ‘arms for Spain’ as ‘incomprehensible and practically counter-revolutionary’ (p. 98), and demanded the right to ‘defend the Spanish Revolution with guns in hand, even on the military front’ (p. 99).
The Italian Left obviously felt a bit self-conscious about its revolutionary credentials at this point, for, as our writers point out, ‘the fact that the majority sent a delegation to Spain showed that it was not indifferent to the events’ (p. 99). (How nice of them!) But their investigations came to the same conclusions as counter-revolutionary Stalinism, that a revolution was not taking place there. And adopting the same propaganda devices, such as ‘humanitarian aid’, having rejected the politics of the workers’ united front, they gradually assumed those of its opposite, non-class pacifism. ‘With the aim of showing that “the left fractions are not insensitive to the martyrdom and suffering of the war in Spain”’, they ‘decided to create a fund of financial solidarity to help the victims of the war, whether “Fascist” or “anti-Fascist”, “the families of all, the children of all”’, which ‘ended up in a sort of “Red Cross” under the auspices of the Italian Left’ (p. 107). This developed into a straight Popular Front of the usual variety on the part of Vercesi when in September 1944 he first founded a Red Cross to help ‘all Italians who are victims of the war’, and then joined an ‘anti-Fascist’ coalition in Brussels consisting of Christian Democrats, Republicans, Socialists and Stalinists (pp. 107, 154–5).
This disgraceful outcome was far from being what our writers describe as ‘antithetical to the tradition of the Italian Left’ (p. 156), for as they admit earlier, the logical conclusion of Vercesi’s theory that the working class had disappeared during the war was that ‘Communists could only engage in humanitarian activities – which is what he did’ (p. 126).
Everyone knows that theory divorced from practice ends in impotence, though few realise that it must lead to incoherence as well. Unlike the much-maligned Trotsky, who over a year before had set the date for the start of the Second World War to within a month, the Italian Left abroad even found it ‘difficult to say whether capitalist society was definitively moving towards world war’. Resignations multiplied, and its journal Octobre suspended publication for the whole of the crisis year, belatedly putting in a final appearance in August 1939 (p. 119). The groups left behind in Italy in the turmoil of the war and the fall of Mussolini could not, of course, afford the luxury of abstaining from the events, and an excellent penultimate chapter of the book (pp. 160–73) gives many interesting details about their activity, which should be read in conjunction with Peregalli’s account in this issue of our journal.
So it is not only as a valuable source of information on a woefully neglected Marxist tradition that this account shows its worth. It also stands as an awful warning against the separation of theory and practice. And whilst the increasing irrelevance of the Italian Left abroad was the result of long years of enforced émigré politics, what of those who today insist on being émigrés from their class whilst coexisting with it in the same country under conditions of bourgeois legality? This book should be on the shelves of all serious revolutionaries, if only to point out the logic of such a position.
There are, of course, gaps within it. The final chapter appears to be ignorant of the suspicion that Romero Mangano had acted as a police informer. And there are, of course, obvious errors. Some of these are of scant importance, and stem from translational difficulties in the English text: instead of a Bakuninist insurrection ‘in Romany’ (p. 14) we should of course read ‘the Romagna’, and something similar has happened in the sentence about ‘Trotsky’s attempt to create a IVth International in 1933’ (p. 71). But others are plainly produced by an excess of factional zeal, such as when we read that as far as republican Spain was concerned, Trotsky ‘implicitly defended the new regime as “anti-feudal”’ (p. 97), or that at the very time his followers were fighting the republic in the streets of Barcelona they had ‘gone over to the other side of the barricades during the massacre in Spain’ (p. 106). The fact that Trotskyists suffered in the jails of both sides during the Second World War gives the lie to such remarks as that Trotsky ‘called for the defence, not only of the USSR, but also of the “democratic camp”’ (p. 159, n6), and those who oppose the theory of Socialism in One Country can hardly be accused of holding the thesis that ‘the Russian economy was orienting itself towards Socialism’ (p. 132), or of considering ‘“the building of socialism” to be the fundamental task of the proletariat’ there (p. 138).
But even bearing these faults in mind, the book retains its value as the only source of information about the history of a once influential revolutionary current, as well as being a useful and powerful antidote against the Gramsci cult and what Marx would have called the ‘kathederer-sozialismus’ that arises out of it.
Al Richardson



The Seeds of Evil

Robin Blick
The Seeds of Evil: Lenin and the Origins of Bolshevik Elitism
Ferrington, London 1993, pp. 97, £5.00
‘I SAW the road leading me into the political position of the querulous outcast, of the Koestler-Crankshaw-Muggeridge variety, railing at the movement that had let me down, at the God that had failed me. This seemed a ghastly fate, however lucrative it might have been.’ (Kim Philby)
Robin Blick’s book will probably not be new to many readers of this journal. Nor will its basic thesis – that Lenin and his political doctrines are one of the roots of the awesome brutality of the twentieth century. Blick goes further in this regard than do right wing historians like Norman Stone or Richard Pipes. He contends that Leninism is the mainspring of almost all that is evil in this epoch, and that the anchor for this spring, so to speak, is to be found in the proceedings of the 1903 Congress, which is generally regarded merely as the founding of Bolshevism.
‘If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, then the whole face of the earth would have been changed.’ (Pascal, discovered in a Dictionary of Quotations – see below)
This is the first book on Bolshevism that I have read that does not mention the First World War. Nor is there any discussion of the brutalising repression suffered by any political opposition to Tsarism. Many may feel that these omissions alone render the book useless.
That aside, I have, for this review, largely eschewed political comment. After a discussion with me, Robin Blick appealed to the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History to ask that someone else review his book. He felt that, having made my hostility to his book only too plain, my attitude was ‘as much motivated by past political apathy as by scholarly considerations’. Thank you. Alas, the board’s criteria for political correctness were lower than Dr Blick’s, and they insisted I go ahead. But I will try to stick to questions of fact to allay his anxieties. I understand that he will reply in due course.
The book has the lax standards which are the norm in the left milieu. There are, for example, 83 quotations from Lenin in the book; only 18 comprise a complete sentence. Many have bits missing in the middle. Several are taken from more than one place – even from different books – but are presented as one sentence. I have checked almost every quote: about 60 seriously misrepresent what Lenin is saying. Quoting Leonard Schapiro as a source, Blick refers to Axelrod’s criticisms of What is to be Done?, despite Schapiro’s reporting that Axelrod scarcely made any. He quotes a speech by Zinoviev made in 1918 – 15 years later – to illustrate Krupskaya’s role at the 1903 Congress of the RSDLP. Zinoviev was nowhere near the congress, and the speech was in any case a potboiler from a man with no historical training, and even less scruple.
In chapter three, a dozen-odd lines chosen from three pages of Lenin are condensed to look like one quote, and are followed by the comment that ‘neither Marx nor Engels are cited so much as once in the sections devoted to working class spontaneity’. That’s true, but Lenin’s original text does carry a page-long quotation from Kautsky summarising Marx and Engels on ... spontaneity! I could go on.
Blick’s attempt to show that the ideological roots of Fascism were provided by Lenin is so crude that when I think of people who are impressed by it, I blush. Leaving aside the logical fallacy (A has this feature, so has B, therefore ...) the section is so obviously a string of quotes harvested from a trip through the dictionary that the resultant muddle is no surprise. At one point, to show that the concept of elitism has a long history, Blick quotes from ‘Ecclesiasticus’, ‘in the Old Testament’. Sadly, it is Ecclesiastes – which mentions neither Leninism nor its precursors – which is in the Old Testament. Ecclesiasticus, like much in this book, is apocryphal. Using a dictionary of quotations means that a bloody-minded reviewer needs no scholarship of his own to show you up. Not recommended.
In other words, as a contribution to political theory the book is run-of-the-mill hackwork which will impress only the gullible or the already convinced. However, it does make some assertions of fact which appear to have substance or novelty, and require evaluation. I have investigated two of these claims in a little detail, and what I found might interest the general reader. One I have called The Bauman Affair, the other The Strange Case of Krupskaya and the Libraries. The reply is inevitably as much directed at his sources – Israel Getzler and Bertram Wolfe – as it is to Blick.
Take first the affair of N.E. Bauman and the 1903 Congress. Blick’s account is a creative précis of a section of Getzler’s 1967 biography of Martov. The following lengthy quote is, I hope, a fair representation of Blick’s argument:
‘The issue that first divided the board between “hards” and “softs” ... was Lenin’s adamant refusal ... to call to account a fellow-Iskraist for his vile abuse of a female party comrade. The woman, who was married to another party member, had had an affair with N.E. Bauman while they were both in exile in Siberia. After making her pregnant, Bauman deserted her, and then drove her to suicide by a campaign of insults and mockery which included, incredibly for someone supposedly committed to the cause of women’s emancipation, circulating amongst the exile community pornographic cartoons and verses. Before taking her life she wrote a letter to the party denouncing what she called its “prevailing indifference” to the “personal morality” of its members, and expressing the hope that her tragic fate would “draw the attention of comrades to the question of the private morals of public figures”.
‘Well she might! For when this letter was eventually presented by her husband, in the spring of 1903, to the Iskra board for action, Lenin, supported by the no less Jacobin Plekhanov, threatened to resign if the matter was not immediately dropped. Lenin had already earmarked the up-and-coming Iskra agent for a key rôle at the congress, and when compelled to make a choice, placed a higher value on the impeccably “hard” Bauman’s services than on the need to uphold the party’s ethical standards. Lenin contemptuously brushed aside the whole business, chiding the protesters for their confusion of “the personal and the political” in “an incident of a purely personal character” [quotes taken from a letter to Alexandra Kalmykova referred to by Getzler – DB] ...
‘And so, having faced down their over-sensitive opponents over what they regarded as nothing more than a storm in a tea-cup, Lenin and Plekhanov moved onto next business. Yet for Potresov, it was to prove the parting of the ways. As far as he was concerned, Bolshevism and Menshevism were born, not at the congress, in the row over rules, but in the course of a struggle for the honour and dignity of a cruelly wronged comrade: “Six months before the party congress of 1903, relations between Lenin on the one hand and Martov, Vera Zasulich and myself on the other, which were already tense, went completely to pieces. The incident which drew our attention to Lenin’s amorality and brought matters to a head was his utterly cynical resistance to the investigation of a charge levelled by the damaged party against one of his outstanding agents.”’
There, it seems, you have it. But let’s look closer at the evidence.
1. N.E. Bauman was earmarked by Lenin. Unclear. There are two extant letters from Lenin to Bauman (May and June 1901), both very short, both purely organisational, and both taking him to task for a lack of useful activity. This cannot justify Getzler’s description of Bauman as ‘an outstanding Iskra agent and one of Lenin’s best trusted men’.
2. Potresov broke totally with Lenin over the affair six months before the 1903 Congress. Contemporary evidence does not seem to bear him out, whatever he wrote in his biographical essay on Lenin published in exile in 1927. His political differences are not in dispute, although Leonard Schapiro reports that he enthusiastically endorsed What is to be Done?. During the three weeks of the 1903 Congress, he sat with Lenin on the programme commission and on the commission responsible for the minutes. He formally moved the resolution on the liberals, made two very short speeches and walked out with Martov over the editorial board controversy. Of his alleged break with Lenin on the Bauman issue, there is not a squeak. Even when Bauman spoke or made a ‘personal statement’, Potresov said nothing. Lenin was still writing reasonably courteous letters to him after the congress was over in which he grudgingly apologises for his temper (see below), but there is no reference to the Bauman affair.
During the congress, Bauman was challenged on his alleged conduct – by Axelrod. Although Blick castigates Krupskaya for covering up the affair, her account of the incident is fuller than his. It has to be accepted that she is dismissive, but if Potresov felt so strongly, he had a funny way of showing it.
3. Lenin brushed the Bauman affair aside in a letter to Alexandra Kalmykova. Dubious. Blick uncritically endorses Getzler’s claim that the letter is a confirmation of Potresov’s account of the incident. In the letter, Lenin answers criticism of his behaviour at the congress by saying that it is a mistake to condemn his politics on account of his personal failings. He adds: ‘You know what the sensitivity and “personal” (instead of political) attitude of Martov, Old Believer [Potresov] and Zasulich led to when, for example, they all but “condemned” a man politically for an incident of a purely personal character. At that time, without a moment’s hesitation, you sided with the “flayers and monsters”.’
And that’s all. The reference may be to the Bauman affair. I don’t know. And neither does Blick.
4. Bauman drove the woman comrade to suicide. Improbable at best. Bauman is an elusive character. Born in 1873, he began his revolutionary activity in the early 1890s. He trained as a veterinary surgeon. Getzler has him exiled to Viatsk in Orlov in 1899, where he allegedly had his notorious affair. He escaped abroad later that year (‘deserts her’). It was while abroad (roughly during 1900) that he was alleged to have humiliated the woman. Getzler explains that it was ‘Vorovsky [not Bauman] who remained in Orlov, circulated suggestive cartoons which commented on her [alleged!] promiscuity and lampooned her pregnancy’. He does, however, coyly add in a footnote that, ‘An entry in Lydia Dan’s papers suggests [?] that Bauman was the author of the cartoons, and also of some of the lampooning stanzas.’ Blick’s unqualified claim that Bauman circulated cartoons is false, and is at best a sloppy reading of the text.
By early 1901 at the latest, Bauman was back in Moscow, if not permanently, then on regular visits, and was sent Lenin’s two anxious letters. In June 1902 he was re-arrested and imprisoned in Kiev following a conference organised by the Bund, but escaped in August on his way to exile. I found a reference describing this as a daring escape by around a dozen people, but I regret to say I have lost it. He did not return to Russia until after the 1903 congress. (Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party has Bauman arrested not in June 1902, but in February 1901 as a leader of the Kiev organisation. On the following page, correctly, he is down as the Moscow delegate to the 1903 Congress. Such vagueness might suggest he was not as prominent as some like to think – or simply that Zinoviev was careless.)
According to Getzler, Bauman’s victim wrote a farewell letter dated 28 January 1902 – well over two years after Bauman’s 1899 escape from exile. We must assume that this was the date of her suicide. It took the husband a further year (until the spring of 1903, according to Potresov) to demand justice. In Getzler’s analysis of the 30-page (!) suicide ‘note’ there is no reference to Bauman. We do not know that she held him to blame for anything. The other ‘evidence’ consists of three unpublished letters between Martov and Potresov, and interviews with Lydia Dan and Nikolaevsky – 60 years after the event. None of these people were involved in the affair.
Apparently, Martov was equivocal about publicising the affair or using it in his battles with Lenin. Getzler ascribes this to a sense of decency given Bauman’s early death – which doesn’t explain Martov’s critical two years of silence after the congress when Bauman was still alive. Could it be that Martov, when all was said and done, felt that there was no case to answer – that a tragedy was a tragedy, but that Bauman was innocent? Alternatively, was it Martov, not Lenin, who covered the business up? Lenin evidently did not take it seriously, but Getzler claims that Martov took it so seriously that relations with Lenin went ‘completely to pieces’. Nonetheless, Martov ‘urged Potresov to persuade M [the husband] to wait and present his case to the future Central Committee ... before having recourse to publication, which could only do us harm, as any scandal would, as well as turn the whole party against M’. He never referred to the affair again. If Blick were to obtain copies of the original letters (they are in the Hoover Institute) and translate them, the whole business could perhaps be cleared up.
Neither the woman nor her husband are named: who are they? Why did she wait so long to lay the blame for her distress at Bauman’s door – if indeed she did? By the time she hanged herself, Bauman had been separated from her by thousands of miles for over two years. What happened in this interval? There is no record of the pregnancy. Is it certain that Bauman was the father? What, if there was a child, happened to it? Why did the husband take so long to seek an investigation? If Getzler’s case is shot through with holes, Blick’s rewrite would upset a West Midlands Police creative writing class.
Bauman returned to Moscow after the congress, and was arrested for the third time in June 1904. Released from prison under an amnesty in October 1905, he was immediately assassinated by the Black Hundreds while at a students’ meeting. Boris Pasternak’s biographer Peter Levy muddles the details, but quotes an eye-witness account written by journalist Maurice Baring of Bauman’s funeral, which attracted around 300,000 mourners. The funeral was the subject of a large section of Pasternak’s epic poem 1905. Lenin’s short obituary regrets that ‘We are unable as yet to give a detailed biography of our fallen comrade’ (a key lieutenant?), but mentions an oration by Bauman’s wife, the only reference to her I have found. It is ironic that a poet and his poet/priest biographer should elegantly record Bauman’s brief moment of posthumous glory, while former leftists exploit his comparative obscurity for factional points, and deny him the most rudimentary of hearings.
This perhaps over-long analysis of what is a footnote to history – if ever there was one – is of interest to me because it illustrates how myths arise, and how accounts go if unchecked from novel to controversial to scurrilous on the way to becoming canon. If Getzler has used imagination, fair research and sloppy reading to concoct a story, then Blick, from half a page in Getzler’s book, has turned our historical footnote into an ideological cudgel. Where did he learn to do that?
So the attempt to tar Lenin with Bauman’s brush has collapsed. What of Krupskaya and the libraries? Let Blick give his argument:
‘Over the next few years, under Krupskaya’s supervision, there were removed from public libraries (and then often destroyed) all works deemed to be “obsolescent”, “counter-revolutionary” and “harmful”. Books falling under this rubric were listed in a Bolshevik index entitled A guide to the Removal of Anti-Artistic and Counter-Revolutionary Literature from Libraries serving the Mass Reader. They included, amongst the works of hundreds of other writers, books by Plato, Kant, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Buskin, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Pushkin, Gogol, Verne, Cervantes, Kipling, Gorky (a close friend of Lenin’s) and ... Shakespeare, who, long before Lord Acton, had discovered a thing or two about the corrupting effects of absolute power. In all, lists of removed works ran to some 2,000 pages (pages, not items). One is left wondering – did Krupskaya pursue her crusade for “literary correctness” to the extent of removing from her husband’s private library the many offending volumes she would undoubtedly have found there? Or was the Bolshevik “purging of the books” confined, as seems to have been the intention, to libraries frequented only by the “mass reader”?’
Blick goes on to show that Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler all practised censorship, that Lenin’s was the oldest regime and therefore ... but I’m sure you’ve forestalled me by now. His source is an old paper by Bertram Wolfe, Krupskaya Purges the People’s Libraries from Survey, Summer 1969. Once again, it seems that Lenin, or at least his wife, is caught bang to rights.
Wolfe bases his claim on three circulars sent by Krupskaya in 1920, 1923 and 1924, together with a Pravda piece in April 1924. The first is alluded to only in the second, and Wolfe confesses to being unable to obtain it. (I am no historian, but it seems odd that one can demand a reassessment of Krupskaya on the basis of a document which, if it ever existed, has probably never been seen by anyone living.) Given that the bibliography of Krupskaya’s writings from 1917 onwards has over 2,000 entries and that her educational writings alone cover some 7,000 turgid pages, this is not much to go on. Wolfe quotes the second piece:
‘Already in 1920 the Political-Education section of the People’s Commissariat of Education sent instructions to the various local bodies on the re-examination of their catalogues in order to purge the public libraries of obsolescent literature.
‘However, up to now [spring 1923], with rare exceptions, the Political Education Committees have completely neglected the task of re-examining and eliminating books from the libraries, and in some provinces it required the intervention of the GPU to get the task of removing books started.’
Robert McNeal’s generally fair biography of Krupskaya tells of her lifelong interest in educational matters, her fondness for American pedagogical methods, and of her battle for a Tolstoyian educational model in the teeth of opposition from the Cheka/GPU. She wrote in Pravda in 1919 ridiculing an attempt by the Cheka to ban the publication of the poetry of one V.A. Zhukovsky on the grounds that it included the words ‘God Save the Tsar’. McNeal naively retails Wolfe’s account of the library purge without comment save to say that it is a striking example of Krupskaya’s ‘de-liberalisation’ and refers to the 1920 document, but also seems to have overlooked that no-one knows what it says.
Wolfe begins his article by quoting the exiled Gorky and referring to a storm of protest abroad between the 1923 circular and the April 1924 Pravda piece. What storm? What newspapers reported this scandalous purge of the libraries? Wolfe’s case would have been strengthened by alluding to or quoting from articles in, for example, the London or New York Times or by naming a single prominent Western intellectual who spoke out against the purge. Such a storm must have left some echo, surely. (Perhaps it’s unfair to recall that, far from their speaking out against a real purge, Bertram Wolfe’s and Maxim Gorky’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Moscow Trials is a matter of public record.)
The truth is rather more prosaic. There was no Krupskaya-inspired purge, and there was nothing to report. There was an attempt to clear non-specialist libraries of scientific literature that was more than 50 years out of date. There were moves to empty the shelves of unread commentaries and turgid religious tracts, and to get rid of the racist crap that adorned Russian as well as British libraries in the 1920s. Krupskaya’s document of 1923 complains that since 1920 nothing had been done to modernise the libraries. Given the Civil War, the delay is perhaps understandable.
Attempts by boorish Bolshevik officials to carry the work beyond keeping in libraries books that people might want to read were met with Krupskaya’s heavy-handed scorn (she was no writer of prose). A list of titles proposed for removal was attached to the 1923 circular signed by her. As soon as she saw the list, as Wolfe acknowledges, she cancelled it. All Wolfe’s (and Blick’s) huff and puff about Shakespeare being banned is so much nonsense.
The irony is that it seems that the only serious purge that Krupskaya was hard put to stop was of left wing books. Given that librarians in the Soviet Union do not to this day enjoy the reputation as revolutionaries of, for example, the Petrograd sailors, could there not be a different explanation? Goaded by Krupskaya’s drive to modernise the library system, antagonised by efforts to dump dust-encrusted nonsense (the criticism that Krupskaya went over the top on religious claptrap might have some merit), and being victims of war-induced anxiety that the libraries might be a centre of White Guard agitation, the librarians shout, ‘I’ll give you a clear out, Madam’, and – Wallop! Bang! – books sympathetic to Socialism are pulped.
By 1924, with the incipient political counter-revolution well under way, it is true that the last circular to which Wolfe refers has slightly sinister undertones. But the guidelines are more efficiently drawn up, and full names of authors, titles, etc., are given: ‘The section on religion in libraries that are not large [emphasis added – DB] should contain only anti-religious and anti-ecclesiastical literature. It is permissible to leave [in such small libraries – BW] only basic books of doctrine: the Gospels, the Bible, the Koran ...’
But Wolfe, who is rather more honest than Blick, has a problem. Even as late as 1926, he can find no evidence that the alleged purge was carried out. This, alas, leads him to conclude that it was organised secretly, against which solipsism there is no defence. Which brings us to that story about the 2000-page list of books destined to be purged. Wolfe refers to Krupskaya’s third (1924) circular, which was also signed by one Madame Smushkova. Urging that the instructions of the previous two years be carried out, Smushkova later wrote in 1926 to complain that:
‘Practice in these removals has shown that the localities have gone about this without sufficient seriousness. The Central Bureau of Political Education has reviewed up to 2,000 pages of lists in which shocking errors have been found. If books had been immediately reduced to pulp according to these lists, our libraries would have been deprived of no small quantity of the most valuable publications.’
In other words the 2,000 pages of lists were submitted by libraries to the central authority, not the other way round, and it was the central authority who intervened to preserve, amongst others, the works of Shakespeare (who had discovered a thing or two about the corrupting effects of mendacity). Indeed, Wolfe describes what he himself calls a ‘campaign’ in Pravda and Izvestia against over-zealous purgers.
Of course, discovering that the Wolfe/Blick scenario is mischievous nonsense does beg deeper questions, but this is not the place to attempt an answer. It is true that there were many, both of Bolsheviks and of their bitter opponents, who were willing to attack the libraries under the guise of modernising them. But an examination of Wolfe’s evidence rather than his argument gives no grounds whatever for claiming that Krupskaya organised any sinister purge. Her attempts to reorganise Russia’s decrepit libraries seem, on the contrary, rather to have stumbled. But I shall leave the final word on that to Russian-speaking scholars.
To sum up, when all is said and done and in the scheme of things, who was N.E. Bauman? He is safely dead – does it matter what is written about this obscure figure? The Soviet libraries were undoubtedly purged – though not until many years later than Blick/Wolfe claim. Are Krupskaya’s efforts important? In my defence, I didn’t bring the subject up. But I would say that Revolutionary History has an obligation to historical truth. More nonsense has been written about Lenin than any other figure of our century. If we feel that our own contributors are adding to the heap, we ought to say so. It is a commonplace that a reappraisal of Lenin is timely, especially for those of us who uncritically endorsed a Stalinised caricature of his ‘doctrine’ for many years. But let it be honest and informed. Blick’s book is neither.
Let me end by forestalling possible criticism. There are other mysteries to which Blick refers, such as Lenin’s alleged alliance with the Freikorps, or the incitement to massacre Polish priests and peasants in 1920. Any reader is welcome to investigate them. As for me, I’ll wager that, on past form at least, Blick’s allegations are worthless. Keep us posted.
May I thank those busy friends of our journal who helped me with research material.
David Bruce

Jim Higgins

Max Shachtman and His Left

(Spring 1995)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3, Spring 1995, pp. 209–213.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Peter Drucker
Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the ‘American Century’
Humanities Press, New Jersey 1994, pp. 346
THE NEWS today is that Joe Slovo is dead. Given the state of his health, this is not surprising. What is surprising is that the current General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and the ex-Chief of Staff of the ANC’s armed wing should receive such gushing obituaries from all sides of the South African press. The most knuckle-abraded hairy back is apparently grief-stricken at the death of this sweet-natured, nay saintly, old Stalinist hack. Of course, one does not unnecessarily speak ill of the dead. At the same time, it is not necessary to suppress one’s criticisms because one’s political foes have the good grace to shuffle off this mortal coil before they can add to their crimes.
These thoughts are occasioned by reading Peter Drucker’s book on Max Shachtman. First, it is necessary to say that Drucker is a member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (that is the lot we used to blow raspberries at and call ‘Pabloite’; nowadays we cannot be bothered with them at all, and call them ‘Mandelistas’), and one would not expect such a partisan to take as his subject a man who came to the conclusion that the Fourth International was a farce, and that its leading cadres were actually beyond a joke. Despite this, Shachtman did make some seriously funny remarks about them. Here, for those unfamiliar with his distinctive style, is an example; his comments about Michel Pablo’s report of 10 years of the Fourth International at its Second World Congress in 1948:
‘The only claim to distinction the report could make is that it was one of the most lamentable performances in the history of the movement. For carefully scraped-out emptiness, it remained unexcelled by any of its rivals at other sessions.
‘To be sure, the reporter took care to refer to the reactionary character of the Stalinist and reformist parties; he noted with pride that the centrist organisations had not become mass movements, whereas the Fourth International, in the face of great difficulties, had not disappeared; he did not forget to dwell loudly on his unshattered faith in the working class, his confidence in Socialism, and his conviction that the Fourth International would overcome all obstacles — including, presumably, such reports as he was delivering.
‘It is debatable if the speech, sodden with cheerless commonplaces, would have been appropriate even at some anniversary celebration in a mountain village. Its suitability as a report of the Executive Committee to a congress was not debatable. Consequently, it was not debated — not at all, not by anyone, and not for a single moment ...’
This may give something of the flavour of Shachtman doing what came naturally, and what he was good at. In his debates and polemics, Shachtman took no prisoners. His enemies, one might even say victims, were pinned to the floor, and had the tops of the heads removed, the better to indicate the total absence of grey matter. At his best, he really took some beating. In the pre-war Trotskyist movement, he was, after Trotsky, probably the outstanding personality. Certainly, Trotsky thought highly of him, and at the height of the faction fight in the US Trotskyist movement in 1940, he made every effort to retain Shachtman, and even after the movement split, he kept him on as his literary executor. His magazine, the New International, was certainly the best of all the Trotskyist theoretical magazines, and is still well worth reading.
As a debater, Shachtman was in the top rank, and like all good debaters, he was well prepared to the point where he was primed to produce a seemingly off-the-cuff bon mot of great appositeness and brilliance. His debate in March 1950 with Earl Browder, the ex-General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA, is a case in point. Although expelled from the CPUSA, Browder still defended Stalinism and the Soviet Union. When it came to the final rebuttal, Shachtman said:
‘Suppose Browder’s Stalino-Socialists were successful in establishing their Socialism in this country ... who would be the first to go? Who would be the first to get the GPU bullet in the base of his skull? Who would be the first to be denounced in the obituary articles as a counter-revolutionary mad dog, a viper, a restorationist, a wrecker ...?
‘Rajk was the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, and was shot, hanged or garrotted. Kostov was the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party. And when I thought of them, I thought of the former Secretary of the American Communist Party, and I said to myself: There, but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse.’
At this point, Shachtman turned dramatically and pointed at the shaken and ashen-faced Browder. One almost, but not quite, feels sorry for Browder.
The only man who could hold a candle to Shachtman in the US movement was James P. Cannon (this is not strictly accurate, as C.L.R. James was also a member of the Socialist Workers Party after 1938, and he was certainly Shachtman’s intellectual equal, although he did not dispute with him until much later). Indeed, throughout their troubled relationship, Cannon and Shachtman often held, or hurled, candles, clubs and brickbats at one another. Cannon was no theoretician, even if he did give the impression that a native worker, such as himself, embodied theory in a special proletarian sixth sense. He was, however, a good organiser, with a wide experience of the working class movement and a good agitational style both in speech and the written word, if prone to fits of depression, which caused him to take unsanctioned leave of absence to do some in-depth research into bottles of whiskey. Shachtman, on the other hand, took to theory and theorising like a duck to water. He spoke several languages, and was genuinely interested in the international struggle. Cannon’s dream of internationalism, one felt, would have been satisfied by a very big congress of the Communist International in which he won all the votes. Together, though, the Cannon-Shachtman alliance was a formidable combination, and whenever it was operating, the SWP did reasonably well. Reasonably well is, of course, a relative term; the only time that they made a small breakthrough past the thousand member barrier, naturally enough, they had a split.
The 1940 split is the one that Cannon celebrated in his abysmal volume The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (incidentally, one of the better articles in it is James Burnham’s Science and Style, which, if you can bring yourself to forgive his grievous failure to believe in dialectics and his subsequent escapades, is quite refreshing after all that internal bulletin-type prose). With the benefit of 20–20 hindsight, a split on whether or not to support the Russian drive for the Karelian Isthmus seems pretty footling, particularly in the light of how recent events have proved all those years of self-indulgent prattling on the class nature of Russia to be as useful as origami or macramé. Shachtman took about 500 with him, mainly the youth and intellectuals, so having virtually no workers, he naturally called it the Workers Party.
The theory of bureaucratic collectivism, which became Shachtman’s political compass, and which eventually led him so far from home, was developed at about this time by Joe Carter, a long time adherent of Shachtman in the New York SWP. C.L.R. James, who was not above the odd sly dig on occasion, characterised the theory as ‘Carter’s little liver pill’. In the beginning, Shachtman took the view that bureaucratic collectivism was more progressive than monopoly capitalism. As the years wore on, he changed his mind on this one, and who is to blame him for that? However, when he came to reprint this article in his collection The Bureaucratic Revolution, he edited this same text to suggest that he had always been of the view that Russia was the absolute pits. For that he was condemned by Tony Cliff, a man who knows a thing or two about text tampering (as the careful reader of the first and second editions of his Rosa Luxemburg will be able to attest).
Whatever the sociological insights the theory of bureaucratic collectivism may have given, it was something of a poisoned chalice for Shachtman and his co-thinkers. The brave slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism’ eventually gave way to Washington before Moscow at all times, and International Socialism nowhere. In the bitter dregs of his days, he ended up supporting the viciously right wing Democratic Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a cold warrior of the nuclear persuasion.
It was a long day’s journey into night: from opposing Walter Reuther in the UAW to supporting him; from principled opposition to Social Democracy to complete assimilation into its bosom; from unremitting struggle against the labour fakirs to collaboration with George Meany and Jay Lovestone. And so on to solidarity with the swine who mounted the Bay of Pigs invasion. The anti-Vietnam War movement found Shachtman on the other side, the only man who was able to see a nascent bureaucratic collectivist in the underfed form of a chap in a lampshade hat and a pair of pyjamas.
Max Shachtman was larger than life, he was funny, he was witty, he was very intelligent, and, if he took the trouble, he could write exceptionally well and persuasively. He was boisterous and scandalous, and held court amongst his admiring followers. For hundreds of young people, he was the guru, the man who gave intellectual coherence to their lives, and enlisted them into his causes. It is part of the tragedy of his life that as his causes changed, his followers gradually fell away, and virtually nothing was left except the cold comfort of the labour fakirs, the machine politicians, and the sclerotic charms of the Socialist Party. Peter Drucker details all of the main events in Shachtman’s life, and, as I have indicated earlier, he seems to me to be overly concerned to justify the various twists and turns and the final betrayal. All I can say is that Max Shachtman at the height of his powers would have reduced his later, much diminished self to tatters, and we all would have felt the better for it.



The Seeds of Evil

Richard Pipes
Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime 1919–1924
Harvill, London, 1994, pp. 587, £25
IN AN earlier review of this book, Robert Conquest states: ‘Pipes writes from a distinctive point of view, and explicitly rejects the call, heard from some academics, to be “non-judgmental”. He is quite right ... non-judgmental and supposedly “objective” historical writing merely conceals the unconscious prejudices of its proponents’ milieu. The right criterion (as Gibbon and Trevelyan saw) is whether a historian treats the evidence in good faith, and with Pipes the answer is clear: he does.’ (The New York Review, 14 July 1994)
Yes, Pipes’ explicit rejection of a ‘non-judgmental’ approach is a strength. Every historian judges history; Pipes judges and condemns the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks. Israel Getzler points out that Pipes’ companion volume, The Russian Revolution 1899–1919, makes a contribution to debate precisely because he so provocatively champions his point of view (Slavonic and East European Review, January 1992, p. 111). That also applies to this book. But it is impossible to agree with Conquest that Pipes treats the evidence in good faith. So great is his passion against the Bolsheviks and the radical intelligentsia in general that it leads him to interpret things one-sidedly, ignore facts, or simply get them wrong.
The scope of Pipes’ book is impressive. He presents history not as a chronological procession, but as interwoven processes. He thoroughly discusses each one, including some ignored or neglected by other histories.
Pipes’ account of the Civil War deals extensively with the White leaders, their military and political programmes, and their relations with the Western powers. He is concerned to show that ‘there never was anything resembling an “imperialist intervention” in the sense of a concerted, purposeful drive of the Western powers to crush the Communist regime’ (p. 63) – and that this was mainly the fault of Lloyd George, who sought a diplomatic rapprochement with the Bolsheviks. Thus he relates in detail the dispute between Lloyd George and Churchill, who could ‘grasp the meaning of both Communism and National Socialism sooner and better than other European statesmen’ (p. 69), and who pressed unsuccessfully for more energetic intervention.
By comparison, Pipes’ treatment of the Bolshevik leaders’ rôle in the war is almost frivolous. For example, he despatches the majority of historians, who considered Trotsky a good military strategist, with the colourful but unconvincing opinion of Dmitri Volkogonov that Trotsky was a ‘dilettante’ in military affairs (p. 56). An instance which might have shown otherwise – the dispute between Trotsky and Sergei Kamenev in July 1919 – is pictured as a personal-political squabble (p. 99), and its well-documented military substance is ignored.
Pipes’ chapter on the national question, ‘The Red Empire’ (pp. 141–65), summarises and updates his earlier book The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917–1923. Naturally the Bolshevik nationalities policy is dismissed as ‘a tactical ploy’ (p. 146). Confronted with the awkward example of Finland, where a bourgeois nationalist government demanded national independence immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, Pipes craftily skips round the fact that Lenin immediately granted that independence (see for example, E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 1, pp. 287–9). Bracketing Finland with the Baltic states, Pipes writes that ‘Berlin encouraged them to proclaim sovereignty’ (p. 151), as though Lenin didn’t. That said, the chapter contains useful detail, especially on Bolshevik policy towards the Caucasian and central Asian nationalities.
Similar comments could be made about Pipes’ survey of the cultural policies of the Bolshevik government. His chapter on the repression of the churches is also thorough, and here his criticism of other historians for ignoring the subject sounds justified. He describes the differences within the Communist Party – mainly between Lunacharsky and Yaroslavsky – about how the issue should be approached, the stages of the assault on the Russian Orthodox Church, the seizure of its property, and the propaganda against it.
Pipes has painstakingly researched events about which I previously had only the haziest notion. But I found myself wanting to cross-check his every assertion – all the more, because when he discusses events with which I am slightly less unfamiliar, his anti-Communist passion takes him along a path somewhere between one-sidedness and deception.
Let us take one of Pipes’ main themes; the Bolsheviks’ repression of their enemies. He writes: ‘“Merciless” violence, violence that strove for the destruction of every actual and potential opponent, was for Lenin not only the most effective, but the only way of dealing with problems.’ (p. 500) Pipes is so determined to arrive at this conclusion that he ignores all sorts of facts that point elsewhere.
The Red Terror began in the period just before that covered by this book, and Pipes dwells on it in detail in The Russian Revolution – but always from the point of view that it sprang simply from a genocidal mania. It is indisputable that Lenin, in particular, advocated the use of physical terror against enemies of the Bolshevik power; it is also well-documented (by Melgunov for example) that the repression by the Cheka was not just ruthless, but often indiscriminate and inhuman. But Pipes ignores the fact that the Bolsheviks began with a more lenient policy, and that the terror took the form it did only after armed risings against the revolutionary regime and its increased isolation internationally. For example, Marcel Liebman writes that in the first months after the October Revolution, ‘official repression... assumed comparatively benign forms’ (Leninism Under Lenin, p. 313); the death penalty was abolished, and no executions took place for three months. Liebman describes the moderation of the Bolsheviks as ‘surprising’, given the massacre of Red prisoners by the Whites in Moscow in 1917, which is not mentioned in either of Pipes’ books. Carr asserts that ‘the revolutionary tradition of opposition to the death sentence weakened and collapsed only after the outbreak of the Civil War and open insurrection against the Soviet regime’ (The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 1, p. 153). Pipes refers to the death penalty being abolished at the front – only in order to mention that Lenin was opposed to abolition – but simply misses out the fact that, at first, it was abolished in the rest of the country too (The Russian Revolution, pp. 789–91).
Scorning the idea that Red Terror was a response to White terror, Pipes claims that ‘odious as it was, the terror of the White armies was never systematic, as was the case with the Red terror’ (The Russian Revolution, p. 792). But the dissident revolutionary Victor Serge, himself a critic of many aspects of the Red Terror, estimates that the White terror in Finland after the defeated uprising of April 1918 killed between 10,000 and 20,000 revolutionaries; he quotes non-Socialist newspaper reports and gives an official Finnish government figure of 70,000 interned, concluding: ‘Up to this moment the Russian Revolution had virtually everywhere displayed great leniency towards its enemies. It had not used terror. We have noted a few bloody episodes in the Civil War in the south, but these were exceptional.’ (Serge, Year One of The Russian Revolution, pp. 187–9) Evan Mawdsley (The Russian Civil War, pp. 26–9) gives a figure of 30,000 casualties between both sides in Finland. Pipes simply omits any mention of the Finnish White terror, which, like the Bolshevik attitude to the death penalty, does not fit in with his preconceptions, commenting dryly that ‘by the end of the month [April 1918], when the German-Finnish force captured Vyborg, Finland was rid of the Bolsheviks’ (p. 93).
One gets no sense from Pipes’ account of the international isolation felt in 1918–19 by the Bolsheviks and their urban supporters – of the accumulation of armed enemies on one hand and economic catastrophe on the other. Serge reports a ‘dreadful famine’ in the towns in the summer of 1918; ‘among the populace, hatred simmered and brooded’ (at which point the Bolsheviks issued a decree against anti-Jewish pogroms, a point to which we shall return); then Lev Kamenev returned from Europe to tell workers’ meetings, ‘comrades, we are alone’ (Serge, pp. 285–7). It was all this that turned the Bolsheviks towards War Communism in their economic and social policy, and on the military-political front towards ruthless forms of terror.
We cannot reasonably expect Pipes to agree with the interpretations of Serge, Liebman or Carr. But his own arguments would be more credible if he did not simply miss out the facts that do not fit neatly into them.
In stark contrast with Pipes’ repeated assertions that Bolshevik violence was always an act of will, conceived independently of external circumstances, is his view of the Whites’ behaviour during the Civil War. He displays a particularly tolerant understanding of their encouragement of anti-Jewish pogroms. He accepts that Denikin’s Volunteer Army were the principal perpetrators, but feels a bizarre need to defend Denikin as ‘not a typical anti-Semite’. Denikin’s anti-Semitism and his toleration of White officers who encouraged pogroms are detailed by Peter Kenez (in J. Klier and S. Lambroza (eds.), Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern History, pp. 293–313). Denikin prefaced a statement to a Jewish delegation that he would issue an order against pogroms with the words: ‘I do not like you Jews.’ Pipes excuses Denikin’s toleration of blatant calls to massacre Jews by his immediate subordinates on the grounds that he was a ‘weak, inexperienced man’ who had a ‘fear of appearing pro-Jewish’, and ‘a sense of futility of fighting against prevailing passions’ (p. 110). Here, Pipes gives us a creature whose actions are determined by anything but his own will – a caricature to contrast with his Bolshevik caricatures.
Pipes acknowledges that the Reds ‘did not tolerate’ pogroms in the territory they controlled (p. 101), but undertakes the futile task of proving that ‘Moscow was conspicuously silent’ (p. 111) on the issue. Historians agree that the Reds did not stress the issue of pogroms in their anti-White propaganda. But Lenin issued a statement against pogroms in April 1919, as Pipes admits; he could have added that this statement was one of nine recorded on gramophone records in order to get a wider audience outside the cities (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 29, pp. 252–3). It is disingenuous of Pipes to state that ‘Lenin no more condemned the Ukrainian pogroms than did Denikin’ (p. 111): in July 1920, the issue of pogroms was raised on the most public of Communist platforms – that of the Second Congress of the Communist International – by Mereshin, who spoke in the name of the Jewish members of the Russian Communist Party (Minutes of the Second Congress, Volume 2, pp. 161–5); in October 1920, Kalinin, the President of the Soviet republic, made a speech condemning Red Army pogroms at a military parade in Kiev (Nora Levin, The Jews In The Soviet Union Since 1917, Volume 1, p. 43).
More important, during a war when words were cheap, is the fact, recorded by Jewish historians, that although Red soldiers sometimes took part in pogroms, the Red Army command was unequivocally hostile to pogroms. Jews were safer in Red areas, so much so that some anti-Communist Jews volunteered to fight for the Reds. The Red Army had ‘a determined campaign of penalties and propaganda’ against anti-Semitism in their ranks (Hans Rogger in Pogroms, p. 351), and it disarmed regiments who took party in pogroms (Levin, p43). Pipes ignores all this, concentrating instead on criticising the Bolshevik leaders of Jewish origin for not making public statements about pogroms (pp. 102–4).
Pipes insists that the causes of ‘hostility towards Jews’ in the Volunteer ranks were ‘the Red Terror, which it became customary to blame on Jews’, the German withdrawal from Russia which ‘required a new scapegoat for the country’s misfortunes’, and the murder of the imperial family (pp. 104–5). This amazing conception of cause and effect, which traces back the root of all evil in the twentieth century to Bolshevism, reaches the height of absurdity in Pipes’ chapter comparing Communism to Fascism. There he reasons that the Bolsheviks catapulted Russian right wing extremists into believing in a worldwide Jewish-Communist conspiracy; ‘the rationale for the Nazi extermination of Jews came from Russian right wing circles ... the Jewish Holocaust thus turned out to be one of the many unanticipated and unintended consequences of the Russian Revolution’ (p. 258). It is tempting to dismiss such a statement as comical, but it would be better to remind ourselves that the ‘fall of Communism’ in 1989–91, far from ending the debate about the Russian Revolution, is reawakening it, with conservatives like Pipes extending and deepening the scope of the Bolsheviks’ historical guilt.
Pipes is not the first to argue that the Bolsheviks were bloodthirsty power-mongers. But as far as I know, his contention that they caused the 1921–22 famine and kept it secret as long as they could is a new one. In a footnote, Pipes criticises Carr – I think justifiably – for devoting only one paragraph to the famine. But his own account, while more thorough, lacks any objectivity. ‘Normally [under Tsarism]’, writes Pipes, ‘crop failures spelled hunger rather than starvation, although intermittently famine did stalk the land. It took three years of remorseless, methodical ruination of agriculture by the Bolsheviks to acquaint Russia with a famine in which people died in the millions.’ (p. 410)
Again, all evil is attributed to the Bolsheviks; no other factors are considered. The effect of the First World War, that great human calamity which forms the backdrop to the whole revolutionary period, is not discussed; neither is the effect of the Civil War, which raged across the Ukraine and southern Russia, the areas worst affected when the famine came. Indeed Pipes, boldly ignoring even the possibility of a connection between the war and the famine, and deftly stepping over the Irish famine of the 1840s, asserts: ‘The 1921 famine in Russia was the greatest human disaster in European history until then, other than those caused by war, since the Black Death’ (p. 419, my emphasis – SP). By contrast, Roger Pethybridge writes that the short-term causes of the famine were the collapse of the agricultural machinery industry from 1915, the effects of requisitioning by Red, White and Green armies, and to a lesser extent the activities of the Bolshevik poor peasants’ committees (One Step Backwards, Two Steps Forward, p. 94).
The other point that Pipes ignores is that the New Economic Policy was born precisely of the realisation by the Bolsheviks that economic breakdown, and with it famine, would result if they continued with the policy of War Communism. Trotsky claims in his autobiography that as early as February 1920 he made a proposal to the Central Committee to abandon War Communism, supported by a report that ‘the food resources are threatened with exhaustion, a contingency that an amount of improvement in the methods of requisition can prevent’ (My Life, p. 464). This was rejected because Lenin and others believed that a retreat from War Communism would most probably lead to the defeat of the revolution; the NEP was only adopted a year later, when Lenin – but still not many rank and file Communists – accepted that there was no alternative.
All this is ignored by Pipes. While he attributes the NEP to the failure of War Communism – ruling out the idea that external factors and the longer-term breakdown of the economy since 1913 also played a part – he does not try either to survey the progress of War Communism itself, or to discuss the economic factors that led to its introduction. A chapter on War Communism in Pipes’ The Russian Revolution dismisses without discussion the idea that it was, to an extent, forced on the Bolsheviks by an economic catastrophe not of their making (see for example, Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 46–8). Against all the evidence, Pipes asserts that: ‘With this programme [of War Communism], the Left Communists in April 1918 overruled Lenin.’ (The Russian Revolution, p. 679)
Returning to the famine, Pipes states that the Kremlin ‘watched the spread of the famine as if struck with paralysis’; it ‘did nothing because it could not acknowledge a national calamity that it could not attribute to “kulaks”, “White Guardists” or “imperialists”’ (p. 415). ‘On occasion Lenin did try’, he adds in a footnote. If it were true of any government that it affected ‘paralysis’ as its subjects faced famine, it would be a fairly important measure of its bankruptcy. But Lenin’s speeches on the most public platforms in early 1921, in the period when he was coming round to the idea of the NEP, suggest the opposite. At a plenary meeting of the Moscow Soviet in February 1921 Lenin spoke of ‘our hardships due to the food shortage’ at greater length; he blamed not White Guards or kulaks, but: ‘The fact is that we had miscalculated... At the time of the severest hardships, we overestimated our resources’, and so on for several pages (Collected Works, Volume 32, pp. 150–7). Two weeks later, at the tenth party congress Lenin acknowledged: ‘We should have obviously limited the increase in the [urban workers’] ration, so as to create a certain reserve fund for a rainy day, which was due to come in the spring and which has now arrived. That we failed to do ... it is a typical mistake ... [We were] confronted ... with a whole number of difficulties and problems, and we had neither the experience, the training, nor the requisite material to overcome them.’ (Collected Works, Volume 32, p. 174) That may display undue optimism; it is not ‘paralysis’.
Pipes writes: ‘The press was forbidden to make any allusion to the crop failure, and even in early July continued to report that all was well in the countryside.’ But the anti-Communist H.R.H. Fisher, in his history of the American Relief Administration, states that: ‘Pravda, on 26 June, admitted that famine raged among a population “of about 25 million”’ (The Famine In Soviet Russia, p. 51). This is only the earliest of many references to press coverage of the famine by Fisher and Pethybridge; the latter writes that the Soviet press played down reports of the Ukrainian famine, and emphasised events on the Volga, leading to accusations of anti-Ukrainian prejudice (Pethybridge, p. 108–9).
Pipes’ chapter entitled ‘Communism For Export’ deals both with the work of the Comintern and with Bolshevik efforts to win sympathisers and supporters in the West. It is most interesting on the relations between Russia and Germany, consisting of secret treaties on military construction. But his material on the Comintern is disappointing; he is always at his least convincing when dealing with the internal life of the Communist movement, because he regards most debate between Communists as window-dressing for the fanatical pursuit of power.
Eager to portray the ‘authoritarian’ Lenin bringing recalcitrant foreign Communists to heel, Pipes misrepresents the dispute at the Comintern’s Third Congress as one between Lenin and ‘some foreign Communists’ who ‘wanted to launch an immediate and direct assault on their governments’ (p. 185). In fact this dispute split the Russian Communists down the middle: Lenin was opposed by Bukharin, Zinoviev and Béla Kun. At one point it seemed that he would be outvoted by the ‘lefts’. The wide-ranging debate on the floor of the congress is passed over by Pipes, who merely asserts that ‘foreign delegates who questioned this [united front] approach were rebuked by the Russians, and on occasion prevented from speaking’ (p. 185).
Pipes also misrepresents the dispute over whether or not to launch an uprising in Germany in March 1921, and the lessons of its failure, as an argument between the German Communists and ‘the Soviet government’ (p194). There is no evidence that the Soviet government as such discussed the matter in advance; it was Radek, Zinoviev and Béla Kun who urged the rising; they were opposed not only by the German Communists Paul Levi and Klara Zetkin, but, in the aftermath, by both Lenin and Trotsky – a fact Pipes does not mention. It is also untrue that ‘Levi and Zetkin were forced out of both the party and the Comintern’; Levi was expelled, but Zetkin stayed on in the Communist Party until the end of her life.
Pipes again plays havoc with historical facts when he writes about the Comintern’s influence on western trade unions. Many real instances of both success and disastrous failure could have been used; instead he quotes (p. 196) the distorted assertion by Franz Borkenau that: ‘During the next 15 years [1920–1935] the Communists in the West were unable to conquer one single union.’ In Germany and France, Communist influence in trade unions grew throughout the 1920s – although unevenly and with many crass mistakes – to the extent that Communist parties controlled powerful minorities in many unions, and created unions of their own. In Britain, the Communists gained control of no national union organisations, but were highly influential. While arguing that western Communists won over nothing more than ‘splinter groups’ from Socialism (p. 195), Pipes absurdly describes the British mining industry where they were strong as ‘marginal’!
I have mentioned the conclusion Pipes draws from each event – that the Bolsheviks were mainly, or entirely, responsible for the tragedy and suffering. In a chapter on Communism, Fascism and National Socialism, he suggests that Bolshevism was the forerunner and not the opposite of the other two; ‘in their determination to raze the existing world in which they felt themselves outcasts, at all costs and by all means, lay their kinship’ (p. 281). Pipes relies partly on a comparison of the Soviet regime under Stalin and that of Hitler, and it is undeniable that the two had much in common: the totalitarian form of state organisation, and the subordination of all social institutions to the state, etc. But when it comes to the genesis of these regimes – which directly concerns the period with which this book deals – Pipes is on much shakier ground. He tells us that the state institutions used by Stalin were set up by Lenin. So what? The state institutions used by Hitler were set up by Bismarck.
The Bolshevik regime under Lenin attempted to introduce a new social system in a very economically backward country, with the economically advanced countries playing a hostile and even a destructive rôle. The Bolsheviks threatened the old ruling classes with extinction. Those classes quite rightly felt threatened by the revolution, and many of them sponsored attempts to overthrow it by military means, which came close to succeeding, and certainly worsened the country’s economic catastrophe. None of these essential characteristics of the Bolshevik regime can be seen in that of Nazi Germany. Pipes perhaps thinks these factors are irrelevant; he should at least say why.
The only difference between Stalin and Lenin, says Pipes (p. 507), is that Stalin was happy to kill fellow Communists, whereas Lenin was not. What he does not say is that, without having done so, and thus effectively destroyed the generation that led the revolution, Stalin could never have carried through many of his other acts of barbarism. With Hitler, mass murder was implicit in his programme from the very start.
Finally, let us comment on Pipes’ last chapter, Reflections on the Russian Revolution, where he states: ‘Communism failed because it proceeded from the erroneous doctrine of the Enlightenment, perhaps the most pernicious idea in the history of thought, that man is merely a material compound, devoid of either soul or innate ideas, and as such a passive product of an infinitely malleable social environment.’ (p. 511) Thus the Bolsheviks’ crime was not only to try to overthrow capitalism – something about which any ‘judgmental’ right winger could be expected to complain – but to believe that human history can be changed by conscious action at all. That is the ‘most pernicious idea’ of the Enlightenment to which Pipes objects (the supposed Enlightenment belief that man was ‘devoid of soul’ is just another Pipes creation).
If belief in the ability to change society is pernicious, long live perniciousness.
Simon Pirani


Slavery and Society at Rome

Keith Bradley
Slavery and Society at Rome
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994, pp. 202, £12.95
THE EXTENT to which classical civilisation can truly be defined as ‘slave society’ continues to vex ancient historians, and this contribution helps to take us a little deeper into the problem.
On the question as to whether Roman society can be correctly described as based upon slavery, the author of this book is of the opinion that if we restrict this definition to those societies in which slaves amounted to over 20 per cent of the population, then historically there have only ever been five that fit the bill – Brazil, the Caribbean, the USA, Athens and Roman Italy (p. 12). He quotes M.I. Finley approvingly that in Italy ‘slaves dominated, and virtually monopolised, large-scale production in both the countryside and the urban sector’ (p. 13). But even if Italy itself does so qualify, the number of its slaves being some two or three million during the reign of Augustus, or between 33 and 40 per cent of the population (pp. 12, 30), this high figure is certainly not true of the richer and more densely inhabited parts of the empire further east. Even so, he believes that ‘a pattern of slave ownership is apparent in fact which suggests that in the central period of its history Rome should properly be termed a slave society’ (p. 12).
‘But what does it mean to describe Rome this way?’, he asks. ‘In what sense was Rome a slave society?’ (p. 12) By concentrating on the general impact of slavery on society, and on what it felt like to be a slave, he moves the argument on from where it stands at the moment, bogged down in purely legal and economic definitions: ‘Once Roman slavery is approached as a social institution in which the economic aspect, though important, was subsidiary, it becomes possible to appreciate the vast amount of time and space in which the Romans were conscious of the presence of slavery among them and of the impact slavery made upon their culture.’ (p. 16)
There is material a-plenty illustrating the attitudes of the possessing classes, and it is well marshalled and coherently organised here. But for the other side of the story ‘the historian of Roman slavery is at a special disadvantage’, comments Dr Bradley, ‘for although a great volume of information is on hand it is all subject to the fundamental flaw that there is no surviving record, if indeed any existed, of what life in slavery was like from a slave’s point of view’ (p. 7). Whether he does succeed in his task of reconstructing this by drawing analogies from the experience of slavery in modern times in the American south, the Caribbean or Brazil, I leave to others to judge. Certainly it is a worthwhile exercise, but doubt must remain as to whether it is a valid one. For example, he notes that in the ancient world ‘the fundamental distinction between slavery and freedom affected everyone’ (p. 72), but modern slavery in the new world was a secondary outgrowth of capitalism, in which the predominant mode of production was wage labour, and this tension must have had a massive impact upon slave consciousness in the Americas by calling into question the legitimacy of the institution as a whole. Similarly, capitalism’s drive to maximise production for a world market gives it a far more dynamic thrust than the operations of even the largest latifundia, which must also have had its impact upon work organisation, as well as upon consciousness. So that although Dr Bradley is to be congratulated on his endeavour, we must continue to be on our guard about accepting parallels drawn from other times, other places, and other social systems.
And although the book well catalogues the resentment of what it was to be a slave, and accepts that ‘exploitation was resisted in a variety of ways’, it denies the existence of class struggle as such because ‘there never developed among the slave population a sense of common identity – or class consciousness – that led to an ideological impulse to produce radical change in society’ (p. 72), and Ste Croix’s contention that ‘class consciousness’ is ‘not necessarily a requirement of class struggle’ is curtly dismissed (n20, p. 73). We can only answer to this from a Marxist standpoint that whilst exploitative societies are as old as civilisation itself, of these only capitalism is a total entity that produces that acute polarisation between the classes that leads to generalised class consciousness in any case. In that sense class society, and class consciousness along with it, themselves undergo development in history. Capitalism alone is a worldwide system that destroys, undermines and incorporates all other class formations completely into its structure, whereas previous societies – feudal, slave or Asiatic – are less polarised, less dynamic, more restricted geographically, and can coexist for centuries along with other forms of social organisation. We can hardly expect peasants or slaves to have the class consciousness of the industrial proletariat. Moreover, however little its victims are aware of it, class conflict certainly goes on in our society, and the same may well be true of previous ones.
But whatever unease we may feel about the assumptions behind it, this book is a thoroughly worthwhile undertaking, and richly deserves the close consideration of those who are serious about understanding the broad lines of historical development.
Al Richardson


Frederick Engels

Lindsey German, John Rees, Chris Harman and Paul McGarr
Frederick Engels
International Socialism Special Issue (no. 65), December 1994, pp. 216, £4.50
RELUCTANT AS we are to review journals here, for if we were to set about it seriously they would have to include on a regular basis the Journal of Trotsky Studies, the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, the bulletins of CERMTRI, and the publications of the Centro Pietro Tresso, an exception must surely be made in this case, for this magazine contains far more substantial fare than many full-length books.
Lindsay German undertakes the task of providing an outline of Engels’ life as an introduction to the other essays (pp3-46), and on the whole does it well. From a Trotskyist point of view it is perhaps disappointing that she provides a summary of Engels’ Principles of Communism without pointing out that its main importance for us is that it rules out ‘Socialism in One Country’ as an impossibility from the start (pp. 13–4). She also continues the SWP’s unfortunate animus against the Independent Labour Party by coyly suggesting that ‘Engels initially welcomed’ it (p. 43), whereas the facts of the matter are that he welcomed it most enthusiastically, became a card carrying member, and encouraged Aveling to sit on its administrative council. Her manuscript could also have been improved by more careful proofreading, stating as it does that Marx and Engels saw the Paris Commune as ‘a model for a workers’ state’ (p. 30). In fact, they did not use that term for it (and indeed, to my knowledge rarely ever used it, if at all), and in any case regarded the Commune as far from a model, but a premature venture which they felt they had to support out of solidarity. The discussion of Engels’ sex life (pp. 24–5) is also carefully phrased in the language of the politically correct, whereas we know from his correspondence with Marx that they had far more robust views on this question than many of their self-styled followers today. But given the range that the writer has to cover, her account is very creditable.
John Rees’ discussion of Engels’ Marxism (pp. 47–82) is very well balanced, though in arguing against the fashionable attempt to drive a wedge between the thought of Engels and that of Marx he is perhaps led to deepen the gulf between Engels and Kautsky far more than is merited by the evidence. No allowance is made for the development of Kautsky’s thought, and we should never forget that the Kautsky of 1890 was not the same as the Kautsky of 1914. In 1905, for example, he was still to the left of Lenin, as Radek’s essay in In Defence of the Russian Revolution clearly shows (pp. 37–9).
Paul McGarr supplies a brave defence of the much-maligned concept of the Dialectics of Nature (pp. 143–76), and his remark that ‘dialectics is rather a critique of the limits of formal logic’ (n53, p. 196) is a welcome one. Although I found this section to be by far the most difficult, I was disappointed not to read more, particularly about the effect of the human agency upon phenomena under observation.
Excellent as these contributions are, the same cannot be said for all of Chris Harman’s piece, which is by far the longest (pp. 83–142). His remarks about anthropology make excellent reading, and we will all enjoy his spirited demolition of Chris Knight’s absurd views, but he should be discouraged from expressing himself on ancient history, where he is on less firm ground. For example, he describes ancient Egypt and the Maya as ‘societies in which cities do not play the major part’ (p. 189, n92), which is certainly not true of the Maya, for if ever there was an urban society it was Maya civilisation during its classical period. The population of Tikal in the seventh century AD is estimated at 39,000, and this was only one of dozens of cities. It is even overstated as regards Egypt, for the work done by Barry Kemp has shown that Egypt did not lack substantial urban concentrations. Harman also appears to believe that the first writing developed for keeping accounts was alphabetic (p. 123), and that he can safely generalise about Egypt from Ptolemaic times (p. 126), when it was ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great as the last of a series of foreign conquerors going back 700 years. But his grasp of Egyptian affairs is lamentably weak in any case, such as when he dates the end of the Old Kingdom to ‘about 2000 BC’ (p. 126) or ‘around 1800 BC’ (p. 128), one estimate being out by about two centuries and the other by four.
But the main problem with his whole analysis is rather more serious than these mistakes, which after all do not affect the broad lines of the argument. Engels’ real reason for believing in ‘the power of the gens or clan among all existing “primitive societies”’ was not merely ‘a result of the anthropological knowledge of his time’ (p. 111), but because this ‘knowledge’ — Morgan’s theories — appeared to match what was then known about the early days of classical civilisation, the emergence of Greek society from ‘the Dark Ages’ and the early days of Rome. Obviously, Engels had not the time to follow the progress of the decipherment of Egyptian, Sumerian and Akkadian to learn that these institutions played little part in the earliest civilisations. He was not to know what we have since learned about Mycenaean and Minoan society and from the more recent decipherment of Linear B that the Greek ‘Dark Ages’ were a regression from a more advanced civilisation. Similarly, Ancient Rome was long under the rule of the Etruscans, who appear to have had a two-class system, and the apparently rustic and primitive traits of earliest Rome developed amid the weakening and decay of a far more advanced society.
Obviously these deficiencies do not affect the rest of Harman’s argument, and are certainly not a reason for disregarding this excellent publication. It makes a splendid beginning for the Engels centenary year.
Al Richardson


Socialism: What Went Wrong?

Irwin Silber
Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Roots of the Socialist Crisis
Pluto, London, 1994, pp. 310, £12.95/£40.00
IN JANUARY 1990 I wrote a piece for Tribune in which as a libertarian Socialist I asked: ‘Whatever happened to the Socialist idea?’ My conclusions were clear:
‘The Soviet and East European experience shows that there are no short cuts to Socialism. Socialism and the fullest possible democracy are inseparable ... The attempt of Communism’s self-reproducing oligarchy to introduce a new moral world by means of limitless force or terror has proved a tragic and bloody mistake. Means and ends are inseparable. He who says Socialism must also say democracy. Otherwise he says nothing at all.’ (Tribune, 19 January 1990)
Now five years later an intelligent and well-informed former Stalinist apparatchik, with specialist knowledge in the cultural field, has written a full-length volume around this same theme, as the title shows. Whilst it is hardly a ‘new and original contribution to our knowledge’, since it deals with matters already in the public domain, it treats them in an original fashion, and it would be well for all concerned about the Socialist experience in the twentieth century to read it. Working from different ends of the same spectrum, out of quite different backgrounds, we reach surprisingly similar conclusions, an outcome which can surprise no one more than it surprises me.
Silber starts from the initial premise that the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union, and with it the disintegration of the six satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe, is a phenomenon of world historical importance. Where there were previously three worlds – capitalist, Socialist and underdeveloped territories – there are now only two. The ‘Socialist’ contender for world power has simply vanished from the scene. In the competition between capitalism and ‘actually existing Socialism’, capitalism has finally won. (The crisis is more properly one of Stalinism, but as millions of people all around the world confuse Stalinism with Socialism, we have this albatross hung around our necks, whether we like it or not.) Modern advanced oligopolist capitalism has in the end out-performed the command economy. For example, to quote Silber:
‘From 1979 to 1989 some 10,000 Soviet miners died on the job – roughly eight times the US figure. Life expectancy for the Soviet miner was 49 years compared to 70 years for a US miner. At the same time, while 2.5 million Soviet miners were producing 800 million tons of coal a year, 140,000 US miners produced one billion tons.
‘No one can safely predict what new socio-economic arrangements will replace “actually existing Socialism”, but one thing seems certain. The model of Socialism developed in the Soviet Union and subsequently imposed on the “Socialist camp” ... has no future.’ (p. 4)
This is a judgement with which this reviewer will quite readily agree.
If we look back over the experience of the twentieth century, certain conclusions seem quite plain. The belief central to Leninism, Marxism-Leninism and Trotskyism that the Russian Revolution opened a new stage in history, that of an imminent and ever-growing ‘world revolution’ is now revealed to have been based on wish fulfilment, rather than on the fruit of critical analysis. Not only has the world revolution failed to mature, ‘History’ in the case of the former Soviet Union and its satellites would seem to have reversed itself. Where once we saw the inexorable forward march through slavery on to feudalism, to capitalism and finally Socialism, Silber now sees the disintegration of ‘Socialism’, and a reversion to some kind of para-statal capitalism, of which precise order it is as yet too early to state. Thus the very notion of the inexorable forward march of history would itself seem to be up for grabs.
The collapse of the economic base of ‘actually existing Socialism’ inevitably also brings down its related ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which simply codified the theory and practice of the Soviet state as it grew up under Stalin’s one party rule, and continued thereafter. Marxism-Leninism, whether of the original Lenin brand or of the later adulterated Stalin version, is clearly quite discredited. Like Humpty Dumpty, it has fallen off the wall, and can never be put back together again. The claim that the Communist Party, a party of a ‘new type’, based on democratic centralism, could in some way rise above the forces of history, and overcome by the supremely voluntarist will of its leading cadre all the contingent facts that stood in its way, is now revealed as quite false. The idea has been tried in practice in the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe over a whole historic epoch. It manifestly has not succeeded there, and surely cannot be expected to work anywhere else. The Stalinist experience, as we can see in retrospect, was in the strict sense of the word ‘utopian’ in the extreme. Tsarist Russia was ripe neither for Socialism, nor for any form of workers’ power. In these circumstances, the attempts of first Lenin and Trotsky and then Stalin to impose Socialist forms on a society which was not ready for them made nonsense of historical materialism. The outcome was a utopian-voluntarist conception of Socialism which could only be held in place by ideological terror, political repression and intellectual suffocation.
As for the command economy, for all its Socialist pretensions, far from being more efficient, less costly and more productive, it bred waste, corruption and economic backwardness. In the end, it collapsed like a badly designed bridge under the gross burden of its own structure:
‘Agriculture employed over 25 per cent of the Soviet workforce, compared with three per cent in the USA. At the same time, the USA was a net exporter of farm products, while the USSR had to import grain to feed its population. Likewise, right up to its collapse, the Soviet Union used more than twice the amount of metal and 23 per cent more fuel than the USA for each billion dollars of its gross national product. It also consumed 30 per cent more raw materials to produce each ton of food.’ (p. 130)
The dictatorship of the proletariat became the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat, and the dictatorship of a single leader (Lenin, Stalin), or a small self-perpetuating clique of leaders, over the party as a whole. The dictatorship of the party, through the medium of its sole legality and the nomenklatura, was exercised over the nation as a whole. The outcome was a closed society which was unable to self-correct its own faults, and which continually followed rather than led other countries in almost all given fields. Silber’s conclusion is one which we should all do well to take on board:
‘The most important lesson of all perhaps is this, far from being outmoded appurtenances of bourgeois democracy, elementary civil liberties, freedom of speech, press, assembly and thought, open and competitive elections based on unhindered rights of political association, constitutional checks on authority, and guarantees of the rights of both individuals and political minorities are not merely desirable, they are indispensable to Socialist society.’ (p. 174)
The effort to override all checks and balances in an endeavour to hurry into being a new form of society has proven to be a signal failure. The cost has been the death of millions in the famines and millions more in the Gulag and the periodic purges. At the end of the day, after three quarters of a century, we find a state of affairs probably far worse than if there had been no ‘revolution’ at all. Capitalism and bourgeois democracy with a Socialist opposition buttressed by powerful free trade unions would surely have been better in almost every way.
In its turn, the quite unnecessary split of the Communists from Social Democracy did immense damage to the cause of the international labour movement over each of the seven decades which followed the launch of the Communist International in 1919 and the emergence of the ‘foreign’ Communist parties all around the globe. That the rise of Hitler could have taken place without the arbitrary intervention of the externally financed and externally led German Communist Party seems scarcely possible. Moreover:
‘In the Soviet Union, the defence of Marxism-Leninism was ipso facto a defence of the prevailing system and the prerequisites which went with it. In the non-governing parties, lifetime investment in careers, organisational structure, access to authority and largesse of Soviet power likewise provided compelling reasons over and above ideological conviction for keeping the Marxist-Leninist faith.’ (p. 204)
The belief that the Soviet model offered a non-capitalist road to a happy future for the ex-colonial countries, more especially those led by revolutionary cadres after wars of liberation, has similarly turned out to be false. The immense costs involved proved more than the increasingly ragbag Soviet economy could bear, and ‘were a significant factor in the limitation of domestic social spending and the system’s mounting budget deficit’ (p. 239). The effect of Soviet policy ‘to direct the anti-colonial revolution on a non-capitalist path... was as much a failure as was Moscow’s Eastern European policy. Certainly it did nothing to build Socialism in these countries. If anything, it distorted the natural path of economic development and left those countries poorly prepared to deal with world capitalism when ultimately they had to.’ (p. 239)
Silber’s book implicitly raises issues so bold that the author seems to prefer not to discuss them. For example, if, as seems to be the case, the Russian Revolution, the decades of subsequent ‘Communist’ one party rule and the foundation of the Communist International and Communist parties on balance did a great deal more harm than good (cf. my article Comintern Sixty Years After: Reflections on the Anniversary, Survey, Winter 1979), then ought we not say that it would have been better if there had been no October Revolution? Perhaps Kamenev and Zinoviev were right when they warned against a Bolshevik conquest of power in 1917? In Britain the foundation of the Communist Party was clearly a mistake from the very start, a view that I posed in The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900–1921 (London 1969), and which was endorsed when the party dissolved itself. Much the same could be said of all the other Communist parties, each equally artificial, which at Russian behest appeared elsewhere around the same time. If this be true, it follows that all the endeavours of ‘true Communists’ of whatever variety either to reform the Stalinist parties from within, or to build new, pure, unsullied ‘Leninist’ parties from without, were equally doomed to failure in their turn.
Those of us who remain Socialists need to save what we can from the ruins, clear the ground, and start all over again. Marx’s Marxism still remains a tool of very real value in our efforts to liberate mankind. Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, the vanguard party, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, democratic centralism, the command economy and with it the notion of state ownership of almost everything, are all headed for the garbage can, and the sooner they go the better. Socialists ought not to be too surprised at this. Democratic Socialists were in the forefront of the resistance to the Soviet-inspired Communist endeavour to ‘colonise’ the international movement all along.
The Leninist notion of revolution always carried overtones of the Blanquist coup d’état, after which the party would rule alone, with the masses themselves being ‘forced to be free’ whether they liked it or not. We need to replace it with the conception of the social revolution not as a single voluntarist act at a certain specific date and time, but rather as a continuous process extending over decades. Universal free primary education, free medical treatment as of right at the point of service, redundancy payments, unemployment pay, etc., are all ‘Socialist’ measures enforced on the capitalist system from within and without, which would have been thought unthinkable even by Marx and Engels themselves at the time the Communist Manifesto first appeared in 1848. The balance of power between the social classes within capitalist society is in no sense fixed and immutable. Other gains equally unthinkable today can be enforced upon the capitalist system in the future, if only we have the courage to do so. Let Silber have the last word:
‘We need to get back to the idea that the real world is the only repository of truth; and that changing it depends on understanding it, not as something fixed in previous texts, but as a constantly developing living organism in all its complexity, possibilities, limitations and richness. Certainly it is hard to get used to the idea that the Socialist epoch, which many of us thought had dawned in 1917, has not yet arrived. But accepting that fact and learning from this false start in the attempt to develop an alternative to capitalism can be an important first step in regaining the ideological momentum that will help put the Socialist project back on history’s agenda.’ (p. 268)
Walter Kendall


Revolutionaries They Could Not Break

Ngo Van
Revolutionaries They Could Not Break: The Fight for the Fourth International in Indochina, 1930–1945
translated by Harry Ratner and edited by Simon Pirani
Index Books, London 1995, pp. 234, £11.95
THIS BOOK makes an excellent addition to the Index list, which already includes such splendid items as Oskar Hippe’s And Red is the Colour of Our Flag. It first appeared in French in December 1989 and July 1991 as numbers 40 and 46 of the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, and is a painstaking account of the history of the Vietnamese Trotskyists by an eyewitness, vividly reconstructed and even exciting in parts, and it is impossible to exaggerate its value.
For example, the description of the prewar La Lutte alliance between the Trotskyists and the Stalinists provides an object lesson for revolutionaries today on the advantages to be gained in placing the onus for breaking the united front upon the reformists, as opposed to standing aside in sectarian self-isolation. The account of the crisis of 1945–46 is far more exhaustive than any that have so far appeared in English, and provides the answers to a number of historical puzzles. One that has perplexed me for some years is why everybody – British, French, Japanese, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Vietminh – seemed to be armed to the teeth at the time, but not the Trotskyists. Some years ago I read a very inaccurate account which said that shortly before the Japanese collapse they had themselves offered arms to Ta Thu Thau, who had refused, and I wondered, if this were true, what sort of revolutionary would have left his men disarmed in the face of such events? The true story appears in chapters eight and nine, where we learn that the Japanese had armed the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao and the Vanguard Youth as auxiliaries during the war. The Vanguard Youth went over to the Vietminh and became their instrument for smashing the revolutionaries, whereas the Hoa Hao proposed a joint struggle with the Trotskyists against the reimposition of colonial rule, and the Cao Dai offered to put 900 rifles and four 45mm guns at their disposal – offers that were indeed refused (p. 95). We can hardly imagine Lenin declining such an offer in such circumstances. As Trotsky would have put it, ‘that kind of knightly courtesy has no place in politics’. It no doubt cost the Trotskyists the revolution, along with many of their lives. Ta Thu Thau, who appears to have had illusions in Ho Chi Minh, was actually trying to make contact with him to negotiate when he was taken by the Stalinists.
Much can be gained from this account, for the lessons to be drawn from a revolutionary movement with mass influence are on an altogether different level than those provided by the struggles of small groups. But apart from the fact that we have not space to go through them all here, it is the duty of serious revolutionaries to take them first hand from this book, and not to have them preselected by any reviewer.
On the debit side, although the book has been carefully written with an economy of style, there is much evidence of editorial sloppiness. There is no excuse, for example, for describing in the explanatory notes the Khmers, the builders of the mighty empire of Angkor, as an ethnic minority with ‘scarcely any written history’. Lu Sanh Han’s account was not ‘first published in English by Workers Press’ (p. 150), for most of it had already appeared in the American Militant on 18 and 23 February and 1, 8 and 15 March 1948. The bibliography (pp. 219–22) is careful to list the editor’s translation of Anh Van and Jacqueline Roussel’s pamphlet, and his own collection Vietnam and Trotskyism, but makes no mention of the entire issue devoted to the subject by this magazine (Volume 3, no. 2, Autumn 1990), which includes a hefty piece translated from Daniel Hémery’s book listed there. It is true that we are accredited for the account in Appendix 2, but not for the theses reproduced in Appendix 3. And although Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution appeared after the publication of the original French of this book, being by Ho Huu Tuong’s daughter it should obviously have been added to the bibliography by the editor.
Moreover, he is unwise enough to abuse his position by indulging in political point-scoring in his introduction. He repeats the old mythology about ‘Pabloism’, condemning Ernest Mandel’s ‘Fourth International’ for ‘glorifying Ho as a leader of a Socialist revolution’, and ‘centring its activity on collaborating with the Stalinists in the anti-war movement in Europe and the US’ (p. xvi). An examination of the propaganda of his own group at the time will show that Mandel’s followers were not the only ones to give uncritical support to Vietnamese Stalinism. As for this ‘anti-war movement’, as chairman of the largest Vietnam Solidarity Campaign branch in London I can vouch for the fact that we were no pacifists, brought tens of thousands on to the streets, and took pride in the fact that our united front work on this issue helped split the Young Communist League from the Communist Party of Great Britain, so hastening its demise. Are the members of the Workers Revolutionary Party quite so proud of the leaflet their predecessors gave out at the time – Why the Socialist Labour League is not Marching?
Al Richardson