Saturday, April 21, 2018
An Encore -In The Time Of Elvis' Time-One More Time Down 1950s Record Memory Lane
Sam Lowell, considered himself a corner boy from the time in the early 1960s when in the working-class neighborhoods of America were filled to the brim with such guys hanging out on the corners, in his case North Adamsville not far from urban Boston. Here is the progression not too atypical of corner boys with too little money and too much time on their hands which underscored the corner boy 1960s night plight (and which still plagues corner boys even though they no longer for the most part hang on corners but malls and other places where there are not any “No trespassing, police take notice” signs to harass young men still with not enough dough and too much time on their hands). If you grew up in the Acre, Sam’s growing up section of town you progressed from one place in elementary school, another in junior high school when corners and who was on what corner started to get sorted out in earnest, and high school where the corners were doled out hard as steel in high school.
Places like South Boston (an all Irish enclave then where even those who like Sam’s maternal grandparents had moved out of the enclave to an Irish neighborhood in North Adamsville were considered suspect, were looked at with jaundiced eye even by the relatives left behind), Main Street in Nashua (at the time a dying city what with the mills heading south to cheaper labor and eventually overseas and so a tough place to dream in), New Hampshire, 125th Street in high Harlem< New York City (with all the excitement of jazz and be-bop but with all the high segregation of the South except for the formality of Mister James Crow’s laws), any of a million spots on Six Mile Road in Detroit (never a place of dreams but of steady work in the golden age of the American automobile for those from Delta Mister James Crow black refugees to the Okie/Arkie white rabble coming out of the hills and dustbowls), the same on Division Street in Chi town (the beat street divide of many of Nelson Algren’s tales of drugs, urban lost-ness, and sullen back streets disappointments), the lower end of North Beach beyond where the “beats” of a few years before did their beat thing (the places where the longshoremen and waterfront workers did their heavy drinking after work and where the sailors off their Pacific ocean ships fought all- comers from the Artic to the Japan seas).
Jack Slack’s was the last port of call for the Acre crowd, for that motley collection of corner boys picked up and discarded along the way although the core of Frankie , Jack, Jimmy, Allan, Markin and Five-Fingers held throughout which had started at Doc’s Drugstore complete with sofa fountain and shiny glass penny candy-case to draw selections from after school to energize up for the real world activities of kid-dom in elementary school, Miller’s Diner for the jukebox in junior high when they were just becoming aware of girls, maybe having to dance with them, and maybe trying to figure out, the eternal trying to figure out how to approach them without them giggling back and Salducci’s Pizza Parlor in early high school before the new owners decided that unlike Tonio, the previous owner who sold out to go back to Italy from when he came as a boy they did not want colorful rough-necked boys standing one knee against the wall in front of their family friendly establishment scaring the bejesus out of the important Friday and Saturday give Mom a break family trade.
That time, those early 1960s times for some reason known only to them, was time that you had best have had corner boy comrades when you hung out on date-less, girl-less, dough-less Friday and Saturday nights to have your back if trouble brewed (that “comrade” not a word to be used then in the tail end of the height of the red scare Cold War night not if you wanted knuckle sandwiches from the unthinking patriotic guys but that does convey the sense of “having your back” critical to your place in those woe begotten streets).
That corner boy business extended through the 1960s after high school for a couple of years when in addition to being a corner boy Sam became a “flower child” along with his long mourned and lamented friend the late Peter Paul Markin heading out west on the hitchhike roads when the world turned upside down later in the decade. (Markin who met a horrible end down in sunny Mexico after the fresh breeze of the 1960s turned in on itself and he got flat-footed by the backlash ebb tide riptide and could no longer hold back his “from hunger” wanting habits held in check through summers of love and a tight tour of Vietnam and made the fatal, very fatal, mistake of trying to broker an independent drug deal and got two slugs to the back of his head for the attempt.) Sam, now a sedate grandfatherly semi-retired lawyer filled with respectability and memories had to laugh about how much he of late had been thinking about the 1950s, about not just those corner boy days but about the music that drove every corner boy, including Markin, make that perhaps most of all Markin, to distraction as they tried to eke out a sound that they could call their own. A jailbreak sound that was not something their parents would approve of at a time when titanic generational battles were foaming at the mouth.
Thinking about the 1950s the times when he came of age, came of musical age, an age very mixed up with that corner boy comradery, that hanging at Doc’s and Miller’s Diner when he started noticing girls and their charms (amid the first blush of giggles which he soon figured out was their rational response to whatever was going on inside their bodies just like guys like Sam were going through in their bodies). Those first noticings started his life-long journey of trying to figure out what made them tick, what they wanted, wanted of him, from a girl-less family making everything that much harder. Noticing that they too hung around Miller’s in order to play that fantastic jukebox which had all the latest tunes and plenty of oldies too (oldies being let’s say we are talking about 1958 then maybe 1955 hits like Eddie, My Love, Rock Around The Clock, and Bo Diddley showing that teen time, youth time anyway is measured differently from old man lawyerly time, measured in days, weeks, months at the most-years were beyond the pale) drawing away from the music on his parents’ family living room radio and their cranky old record player music.
Music in the teen households emphatically not on Miller’s jukebox or there would have been a civil war no question, a civil war avoided in his own home after his parents had bought, to insure domestic peace and tranquility if he remembered correctly, his first transistor radio down at the now long gone Radio Shack store and he could sit up in his room and dream of whatever coming of age boys dreamed about, mainly how those last year’s bothersome girls became this year’s interesting objects of discussion (by the way in that small crowded upstairs bedroom, shared with his two brothers, he found out he could discover the beauty of the “hold up to your ear” transistor radio and drown out the world of brotherly scuffings).
More than that though, more than just thinking about the old days like every old guy probably does, even guys who had not been lawyers as a professional career, guys who you see sitting on park benches, a little disheveled, maybe some crumbs in their unkempt beards, feeding the birds and half-muttering to themselves about how when FDR was around everybody stood tall, every country bent it knees in homage to America, or else, or old bag ladies rummaging through trash barrels looking for long lost lovers or their faded beauty Sam had been purchasing compilations of what are commercially called “oldies but goodies” CDs. Doing so via the user-friendly confines of the Internet, at Amazon if you need a name like today anybody, except maybe three people up in heathen Alaska or the Artic, doesn’t know that is the site to get such material these days instead of traipsing over half the East Coast trying to cadge a few examples from the dwindling oldies and used records emporia, and purchasing several record compilations of the “best of” that period from a commercial distributor (and also keeping up to date on various versions of the songs on YouTube) and through his friend and old corner boy Frankie Riley been spilling plenty of cyber-ink on Frankie’s blog, In The Be-Bop ‘50s Night, going back to the now classic age of rock and roll.
Sam had to laugh about that situation back in the day as well since he had been well known back on the corner, back holding up the wall in front of Salducci’s Pizza Parlor, on many of those date-less, date-less because although he might have been an all “hail fellow, well met” hard-assed corner boy full of bluster and blah he was sister-less and hence baffled by girls and their ways and very shy around the question of asking for dates although he was quite willing to tell each and every girl who would listen to him about ten thousand fact on any of sixteen subjects, not excluding science, philosophy, and the poor fate of the Red Sox then. Although those ten thousand facts would come in handy when he got to college a couple of years later and he had girls hanging off the walls in debate class waiting for him to ask them out then those precious facts did not add up to a date by osmosis but rather incomprehension even by girls like Patty Lewis and Mary Shea who liked him and would have be glad if he asked them for a date without the ten thousand facts, thank you.
Here though is something about the mores of the time that young people today might not comprehend girls just waited for guys to make a move, or moved on to the next guy who would, especially if he had a boss ’55 Chevy, like Patty and Mary did. Also girl-less (already explained but here the question is having a serious girl and the just mentioned facts will hold here as well), and dough-less (self-explanatory in working-class North Adamsville, the sorry fate of the working poor, the marginally employed like his father, no money when the rent was due and Ma had not money for the damn rent collector much less discretionary money for dates with girls) on Friday and Saturday nights when he proclaimed to all who would listen (mainly Frankie, Markin, Jimmy Jenkins, Jack Callahan, Kenny Hogan and Johnny “Thunder” Thornton and an occasional girl who all wondered what he was talking about) that “rock and roll will never die.”
Mainly, through the archival marvels of modern technology, pay-per-song, look on YouTube, check out Amazon Sam had been right, rock and roll had not died although it clearly no longer provided the same fuel for later generations more into hip-hop-ish, techno music, or edge city rock. But Sam always though it funny when kids, his grandkids, for example, heard (and saw) Elvis, all steamy, smoldering and swiveling in some film clip to make the older almost teenage girls among them almost react like the girls in his time did when they saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show and had half-formed girlish dreams about personally erasing that snarl from his face. Especially that flip clip of the prison number in Jailhouse Rock. Bo Diddley proclaiming to the whole wide world that he in fact had put the rock in rock and roll and who could dispute that claim when he went bonkers in some Afro-Carib number with that rectangular guitar. Say too Chuck Berry telling a candid world, a candid teenage world which after all was all that counted then, now too from what Sam had heard from his grandchildren, that Mister Beethoven from the old fogy music museum had better take himself and his cronies and move over because a new be-bop daddy, a new high sheriff was in town, was taking the reins, making the kids jump on jump street. Ditto curl-in-hair Buddy Holly pining away for his Peggy Sue.
Better, mad monk swamp rat Jerry Lee Lewis sitting, maybe standing for all Sam knew telling that same candid world that Chuck was putting on fire everybody had to do the high school hop bop, confidentially. And how about Wanda Jackson proclaiming that it was party time and an endless host of one hit wonders and wanna-bes they went crazy over. Yeah, those kids, those for example grandkids jumping around just like the young Sam who could not believe his ears when he had come of age and, yeah, jumping around for those same guys who formed his musical tastes back in the 1950s when he had come of age, musical age anyway. Jesus, Jesus too when he came of teenage age and all that meant of angst and alienation something no generation seems to be able to escape since the world had no less dangerous, no less incomprehensible today.
Sam had thought recently about going back to those various commercially-produced compilations put out by demographically savvy media companies that he had purchased on Amazon to cull out the better songs, some which he had on the tip of his tongue almost continuously since the 1950s (the Dubs Could This Be Magic the great last chance dance song that bailed him out of being shut out of more than one dance night although his partner’s feet borne the brunt of the battle, and the Teen Queens Eddie My Love, where Eddie took advantage of the girl and she was wondering, maybe still is, when he is coming back, a great love ‘em and leave ‘em song and the answer is still he’s never coming back, are two examples that quickly came to his mind). Others like Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love or The Crows Oh-Gee though needed some coaxing by listening to the compilations to be remembered.
But Sam, old lawyerly Sam, had finally found a sure-fire method to aid in that memory coaxing. Just go back in memory’s mind and picture scenes from teenage days and figure the songs that went with such scenes (this is not confined to 1950s aficionados anybody can imagine their youth times and play). But even using that method Sam believed that he was cheating a little, harmlessly cheating but still cheating. When he (or anybody familiar with the times) looked at the artwork on most of the better 1950s CD compilations one could not help but notice the excellent artwork that highlights various institutions illustrated back then. The infamous drive-in movies where you gathered about six people (hopefully three couples but six anyway) and paid for two the other four either on the back seat floor or in the trunk. They always played music at intermission when that “youth nation” cohort gathered at the refreshment stand to grab inedible hot dogs, stale popcorn, or fizzled out sodas, although who cared, especially if that three couples thing was in play, and that scene had always been associated in Sam’s mind with Frankie Lyman and the Teenager’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love.
That is how Sam played the game. Two (or more) can play so he said he would just set the scenes and others could fill in their own musical selections. Here goes: the first stirrings of interest in the opposite sex at Doc’s Drugstore with his soda fountain AND jukebox; the drive-in restaurant with you and yours in the car, yours’ or father-borrowed for an end of the night bout with cardboard hamburgers, ultra-greasy french fries and diluted soda; the Spring Frolic Dance (or name your seasonal dance) your hands all sweaty, trying to disappear into the wall, waiting, waiting to perdition for that last dance so that you could ask that he or she that you had been eyeing all evening to dance that slow one all dreamy; down at the beach on day one of out of school for the summer checking out the scene between the two boat clubs where all the guys and gals who counted hung out; the night before Thanksgiving football rally where he or she said they would be there, how about you; on poverty nights sitting up in your bedroom listening to edgy WMEX on your transistor radio away from prying adult eyes; another poverty night you and your boys, girls, boys and girls sitting in the family room spinning platters; that first sixth grade “petting” party (no more explanation needed, right); cruising Main Street with your boys or girls looking for, well, you figure it out listening to the radio in that “boss” Chevy, hopefully; and, sitting in the balcony “watching” the double feature at the Strand Theater on Saturday afternoon when you were younger and at night when older. Okay, Sam has given enough cues. Fill in the dots, oops, songs and add scenes too.
Yeah, Put Out That Fire In Your Head-With Patti Griffin’s Words From “You Are Not Alone” In Mind
By Fritz Taylor
Sam Lowell was a queer duck, an odd-ball kind of guy who couldn’t stop keeping his head from exploding with about seventeen ideas at once and the determination to do all seventeen come hell or high water. And not seventeen things like mowing the lawn or taking out the rubbish but what he called “projects” which in Sam’s case meant political projects and writings and other things along that line. Yeah, couldn’t put out “the fire in his head” the way he told it to his long-time companion, Laura Perkins, one night at supper after she had confronted him with the fact, and not for the first time, that he was getting more irritable, was more often short with her of late, had seemed distant, had seemed to be drifting into some bad place, a place where he was not at peace with himself. That not “at peace” with himself an expression that Laura had coined that night to express the way that she saw his current demeanor. That would be the expression he would use in his group therapy group to describe his condition when it met later that week.
He would almost shout out the words in despair when the moderator-psychologist asked him pointedly whether he felt at peace with himself at that moment and he pointed responded immediately that he was not. Maybe it was at that point, more probably though that night when Laura confronted him with his own mirror-self that told Sam his was one troubled man.
Yea, it was that seventeen things in order and full steam ahead that got him in trouble on more than on occasion. The need to do so the real villain of the piece. See Sam had just turned seventy and so he should have been trying to slow down, slow down enough to not try to keep doing those seventeen things like he had when he was twenty or thirty but no he was not organically capable of doing so , at least until the other shoe dropped. Dropped hard.
It was that “other shoe” dropping that made him take stock of his situation, although it had been too little too late. One afternoon a few days after that stormy group therapy session he laid down on his bed to just think through what was driving him to distraction, driving that fury inside him that would not let him be, as he tried to put out the fire in his head. That laying down itself might have been its own breakthrough since he had expected, had fiercely desired to finish up an article that he was writing on behalf a peace walk that was to take place shortly up in Maine, a walk that was dedicated to stopping the wars, mostly of the military-type but also of the environmental degradation against Mother Nature.
Sam, not normally introspective about his past, about the events growing up that had formed him, events that had as he had told Laura on more than one occasion almost destroyed him. So that was where he started, started to try to find out why he could not relax, had to be “doing and making” as Laura called it under happier circumstances, had to be fueling that fire in his head. Realized that afternoon that as kid in order to survive he had learned at a very young age that in order to placate (and avoid) his overweening mother he had to keep his own counsel, had to go deep inside his head to find solace from the storms around his house. For years he had thought the driving force was because he was a middle child and thus had to fend for himself while his parents (and grandparents) doted respectively his younger and older brothers. But no it had been deeper than that, had been driven by feelings of inadequacy before his mother’s onslaught against his fragile head.
As Sam traced how at three score and ten he could point to various incidents that had driven him on, had almost made him organically incapable of having a not ever active brain, of going off to some dark places where the devils would not let him relax, that kept him going around and around he realized that he was not able to relax on his own, would need something greater than himself if he was to unwind. Laura had emphatically told him that he would have to take that journey on his own, would have to settle himself down if he was to gain any peace in his whole damn world. Sam suddenly noticed after Laura had expressed her opinion that she had always been the picture of calm, had been his rock when he was in his furies. Funny he had always underestimated, always undervalued that calmness, that solid rock. He, in frustration, at his own situation asked Laura how she had maintained the calm that seemed to follow her around her world.
Laura, after stating that she too had her inner demons, had to struggle with the same kind of demons that Sam had faced as a child and that she still had difficulties maintaining an inner calm, told Sam that her daily Buddha-like meditations had carried her to a better place. Sam was shocked at her answer. He had always known that Laura was drawn to the spiritual trends around their milieu, the “New Age stuff” he called her interest since it seemed that she had taken tidbits from every new way to salvation outside of formal religion (although she had had bouts with that as well discarding her Methodist high heavens Jehovah you are on your own in this wicked old world upbringing for the communal comfort of the Universalist-Unitarian brethren). He had respected her various attempts to survive in the world the best way she could but those roads were not for him, smacked too much of some new religion, some new road that he could not travel on. But he was also desperate to be at peace, a mantra that he was increasing using to describe his plight.
Then Laura suggested that they attend a de-stress program that was being held at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston as part of what was billed as HUB-week, a week of medical, therapeutic, technological and social events and programs started by a number of well-known institutions in the Boston area like MGH, Harvard, MIT and others. Sam admitted to being clueless about what a de-stress program would be about and had never heard of a Doctor Benson who a million years before had written a best-selling book about the knot the West had put itself in trying to get ahead and offered mediation as a way out of the impasse. Sam was skeptical but agreed to go.
At the event which lasted about two hours various forms of meditative practice were offered including music and laughter yoga. Sam in his mind passed on those efforts. The one segment that drew his attention, the first segment headed by this Doctor Benson had been centered on a simple technique to reduce stress, to relax in fact was called the relax response. Best of all the Doctor had invited each member of the audience to sample his wares. Pick a word or short phrase to focus on, close your eyes, put your hands on your lap and consecrate, really try to concentrate, on that picked term for five minutes (the optimum is closer to ten plus minutes in an actual situation).
Sam admitted candidly to Laura that while attempting fitfully focusing on one thing, in his case the phrase “at peace,” he had suffered many distractions but that he was very interested in pursuing the practice since he had actually felt that he was getting somewhere before time was called. Laura laughed at Sam’s response, so Sam-like expecting to master in five minutes a technique that she had spent years trying to pursue and had not been anywhere near totally focused yet. He asked her to help him to get started and they did until Sam felt he could do the procedure on his own.
We now have to get back to that “other shoe” dropping though. Although Sam had expressed his good intentions, had felt better after a while Laura had felt that he needed to go on his journey without her. She too now felt that she had to seek what she was looking for alone in this wicked world despite how long they had been together. So Laura called it quits, moved out of the house that she and Sam had lived in for years. Sam is alone on his journey now, committed to trying to find some peace inside despite his heartbreak over the loss of Laura. Every once in a while though in a non-meditative moment he curses that fire in his head. Yeah, he wished he could have put out that fire in his head long ago.
A MODEST PROPOSAL-RECRUIT, RUN INDEPENDENT LABOR MILITANTS FOR THE 2018 ELECTIONS (Updated)
From The American Left History Blog Archives (2008) - On American Political Discourse –
Political Commentator Frank Jackman:
In 2007-2008 I, in vain, attempted to put some energy into analyzing the then blossoming American presidential campaign, a changing of the guard election on the Democratic side, since it was to be, as advertised at least, a watershed election, for women, blacks, old white anglos, latinos, youth, etc. In the event I had to abandon the efforts in about May of 2008 when it became obvious, “in my face” obvious, that the election would be a watershed only for those few who really believed, who had talked themselves into, had a vested interest in touting that it would be a watershed election. That grim reality despite the hoopla, heavy cash and organizing of the thing, was that once again that election would essentially be a technician’s election, you know for armchair strategists and those who like to, for example, figure out how the Congressional race in the 26th District in Texas will impact the balance of power in the U.S. House. (I confess that early on in my life that kind of thing intrigued me too until I got “religion” and worried more about real live issues and political programs than wonk-ish concerns.)
The subsequent “sleep-walk” four years of the Obama presidency, the non-watershed by anybody’s measurement 2012 American presidential election campaign, the banal mid-term elections of 2014 and the all-around horribly shocking Clinton-Trump debacle of 2016 recently passed and the unending maelstrom of world politics have only confirmed in my eyes that that now seemingly ancient abandonment was essentially the right decision at the right time. In short, let the well- paid bourgeois commentators go on and on with their twitter. I, we, had (have) better things to do like fighting against the permanent wars, the permanent war economies, the struggle for more and better jobs, and for a workers’ party that fights for a workers government. More than enough to do, right?
Part of my “alternative” offering then of the same old, same of the electoral cycle was a proposition that the labor movement and its supporters rather than spent another dime on what even a child can now see is a waste of good dues money on supporting this or that bourgeois candidate, almost solely Democrats these days when even the most banal labor skate would face righteous stoning or the fire for proposing cash donations to Republican candidates, instead run our own independent candidates for appropriate offices in what for now would be exemplary campaigns. To that end I motivated my pitch with a few reasons and the outline of a program. Today as the once again non-watershed 2018 elections (even if there is a Democratic sea-change in either or both the Houses of Congress) loom in our faces even before we have devoured the fact of the 2016 elections I offer an updated version of that program and the urgency to get out independent labors candidates.
1. FIGHT FOR THE IMMEDIATE AND UNCONDITIONAL WITHDRAWAL OF U.S. TROOPS FROM THE MIDDLE EAST NOW (OR BETTER YET, YESTERDAY)! U.S. HANDS OFF THE WORLD! VOTE NO ON THE WAR BUDGET!
The never-ending and apparently soon to be resurrected, with or without “boots on the ground” quagmire in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East (Palestine, Iran, Syria you name it) is the fault line of American politics today. Every bourgeois politician has to have his or her feet put to the fire on this one. Not on some flimsy ‘sense of the Congress’ softball motion for withdrawal next, year, in two years, or (my favorite) when the situation is “stable.” Moreover, on the parliamentary level the only real vote that matters is the vote on the war budget. All the rest is fluff. Militant labor candidates should make a point of trying to enter Congressional contests where there are so-called known anti-war Democrats or Republicans (an oxymoron, I believe) running to make that programmatic contrast vivid.
But, one might argue, that would split the ‘progressive’ forces. Grow up, please! That argument has grown stale since it was first put forth in the “popular front” days of the 1930’s. If you want to end the war fight for this "no funding" position on the war budget. Otherwise the same people (yah, those progressive Democrats) who unanimously voted for the last war budget and are reliably foaming at the bit to vote for the next one get a free ride on the cheap. By rights this is our issue. Let us take it back.
2. FIGHT FOR A LIVING WAGE AND WORKING CONDITIONS-UNIVERSAL FREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL.
It is a ‘no-brainer’ that no individual, much less families, can live on the minimum wage of $7/hr. (or proposed $10/hr or despite the good intentions the “Fight for 15 struggle). What planet do these politicians live on? We need an immediate fight for a living wage, full employment and decent working conditions. A step in the right direction and a fight that should be supported and funded is the recent “Fight for $15.” We need universal free health care for all. End of story. (Although Obamacare is inadequate and filled with pitfalls it must be at this point continually defended against those who wish to dismantle the whole thing and leave millions without insurance again.) The organized labor movement must get off its knees and fight to organize Wal-Mart and the South. A boycott of Wal-Mart is not enough. A successful organizing drive will, like in the 1930’s, go a long way to turning the conditions of labor and unionization around.
3. FIGHT THE ATTACKS ON THE ENLIGHTENMENT.
Down with the Death Penalty! Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants who make it here! Stop the Deportations! For the Separation of Church and State! Defend abortion rights! Full public funding of education! Stop the ‘war on drugs’, basically a war on blacks and minority youth-decriminalize drugs! Defend political prisoners! This list of demands hardly exhausts the “culture war” issues we defend. It is hard to believe that over 200 years after the American Revolution and the French Revolution we are fighting desperately to preserve many of the same principles that militants fought for in those revolutions. But, so be it.
4. FIGHT FOR A WORKERS PARTY.
The Donkeys, Elephants and Greens have had their chance. Now is the time to fight for our own party and for the interests of our own class, the working class. Any campaigns by independent labor militants must highlight this point. And any campaigns can also become the nucleus of a workers’ party network until we get strong enough to form at least a small party. None of these other parties, and I mean none, are working in the interests of working people and their allies. The following great lesson of politics today must be hammered home. Break with the Democrats, Republicans and Greens!
5. FIGHT FOR A WORKERS AND XYZ GOVERNMENT.
THIS IS THE DEMAND THAT SEPARATES THE MILITANTS FROM THE FAINT-HEARTED REFORMISTS.
We need our own form of government. In the old days the bourgeois republic was a progressive form of government. Not so any more. That form of government ran out of steam about one hundred years ago and has been choking human process since then. We need a Workers Republic. We need a government based on workers councils with a ministry (I do not dare say commissariat in case any stray anarchists or old time anti-communists who came of age in the red scare Cold War 1950s are reading this) responsible to it. Let us face it if we really want to get any of the good and necessary things listed above accomplished we are not going to get it with the current form of government.
Why the XYZ part? What does that mean? No, it is not part of an algebra lesson. What it reflects is that while society is made up mainly of workers (of one sort or another) there are other classes (and parts of classes) in society that we seek as allies and who could benefit from a workers government. Examples- small independent contractors, intellectuals, the dwindling number of small farmers, and some professionals like dentists. Yah, I like the idea of a workers and dentists government after many years in the dentist chair. The point is you have got to fight for it.
Obviously any campaign based on this program will be an exemplary propaganda campaign for the foreseeable future. But we have to start now. Continuing to support or not challenging the bourgeois parties does us no good now. That is for sure. While bourgeois electoral laws do not favor independent candidacies and make things difficult write-in campaigns are possible.
An Injury To One Is An Injury To All!-Defend The International Working Class Everywhere!
Fight-Don’t Starve-We Created The Wealth, Let's Take It Back! Labor And The Oppressed Must Rule!
A Five-Point Program As Talking Points
An Injury To One Is An Injury To All!-Defend The International Working Class Everywhere!
Fight-Don’t Starve-We Created The Wealth, Let's Take It Back! Labor And The Oppressed Must Rule!
A Five-Point Program As Talking Points
*Jobs For All Now!-“30 For 40”- A historic demand of the labor movement going back to the 1930s Great Depression the last time that unemployment, under-employment, and those who have just plain quit looking for work was as high in the American labor force as it is just tentatively recovering from of late, although it is admittedly down from the Great Recession 2008 highs. Thirty hours work for forty hours pay is a formula to spread the available work around. Socially productive work not make-shift stuff although we would support an vast expansion of public works to fix the broken down infrastructure in need of serious and immediate repair. his is no mere propaganda point but shows the way forward toward a more equitable distribution of available work.
The basic scheme, as was the case with the early days of the longshoremen’s and maritime unions’ plans as a result of battles like the General Strike in San Francisco in the 1934, is that the work would be divided up through local representative workers’ councils that would act, in one of its capacities, as a giant hiring hall where the jobs would be parceled out. This would be a simpler task now than when it was when first proposed in the 1930s with the vast increase in modern technology that could fairly accurately, via computers, target jobs that need filling and equitably divide up current work.
Without the key capitalist necessity of keeping up the rate of profit the social surplus created by that work could be used to redistribute the available work at the same agreed upon rate rather than go into the capitalists’ pockets. The only catch, a big catch one must admit, is that no capitalist, and no capitalist system, is going to do any such thing as to implement “30 for 40” –with the no reduction in pay proviso, although many low –end employers are even now under the “cover” of the flawed Obamacare reducing hours WITH loss of pay-so that to establish this work system as a norm it will, in the end, be necessary to fight for and win a workers government to implement this demand.
Organize the unorganized is a demand that cries out for solution today now that the organized sectors of the labor movement, both public and private, in America are at historic lows, just over ten percent of the workforce. Part of the task is to reorganize some of the old industries like the automobile industry, now mainly unorganized as new plants come on line and others are abandoned, which used to provide a massive amount of decent jobs with decent benefits but which now have fallen to globalization and the “race to the bottom” bad times. The other sector that desperately need to be organized is to ratchet up the efforts to organize the service industries, hospitals, hotels, hi-tech, restaurants and the like, that have become a dominant aspect of the American economy. Support the recent militant efforts, including the old tactic of civil disobedience, by service unions and groups of fast-food workers to increase the minimum socially acceptable wage in their Fight For 15.
Organize the South-this low wage area, this consciously low-wage area, where many industries land before heading off-shore to even lower wage places cries out for organizing, especially among black and Hispanic workers who form the bulk of this industrial workforce. A corollary to organizing the South is obviously to organize internationally to keep the “race to the bottom” from continually occurring short of being resolved in favor of an international commonwealth of workers’ governments. Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy.
Organize Wal-Mart- millions of workers, thousands of company-owned trucks, hundreds of distribution centers. A victory here would be the springboard to a revitalized organized labor movement just as auto and steel lead the industrial union movements of the 1930s. The key here is to organize the truckers and distribution workers the place where the whole thing comes together. We have seen mostly unsuccessful organizing of individual retail stores. To give an idea of how hard this task might be though someone once argued that it would be easier to organize a workers’ revolution that organize this giant. Well, that’s a thought.
Defend the right of public and private workers to unionize.
Simple-No more defeats like in Wisconsin in 2011, no more attacks on collective bargaining the hallmark of a union contract. No reliance on labor boards, arbitration, courts or bourgeois recall elections like the unsuccessful one against Governor Scoot Walker in Wisconsin in the aftermath of the huge defeat of public workers in Wisconsin funds and talents which could have been used to reorganize the public workers for union struggles ahead. Unions must keep their independent from government interference. Period.
* Defend the independence of the working classes! No union dues for Democratic (or the stray Republican) candidates. In 2008, 2012, and 2016 labor, organized labor, spent over well over 700 million dollars respectively trying to elect Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats (mainly). The “no show, no go” results speak for themselves as the gap between the rich and poor has risen even more in this period. For those bogus efforts rather than the serious labor organizing among low wage workers, the unorganized, the South and Wal-Mart the labor skates should have been sent packing long ago. The idea in those elections was that the Democrats (mainly) were “friends of labor.” The past period of cuts-backs, cut-in-the-back give backs should put paid to that notion. Although anyone who is politically savvy at all knows that is not true, not true for the labor skates at the top of the movement since they have been very generous with own paychecks. The old norm in need of revival is that the bureaucrats at all levels should receive no more than the pay of the average skilled worker they represent.
The hard reality today is that the labor skates, not used to any form of class struggle or any kind of struggle, know no other way than class-collaboration, arbitration, courts, and every other way to avoid the appearance of strife, strife in defense of the bosses’ profits. One of most egregious recent examples that we can recall- the return of the Verizon workers to work after two weeks in the summer of 2011 when they had the company on the run and the subsequent announcement by the company of record profits. That sellout strategy may have worked for the bureaucrats, or rather their “fathers” for a time back in the 1950s “golden age” of labor, but now we are in a very hard and open class war. The rank and file must demand an end to using their precious dues payments for bourgeois candidates all of whom have turned out to be sworn enemies of labor when the deal went down from Bush to Obama to Trump on down.
This does not mean not using union dues for political purposes though. On the contrary we need to use them now more than ever in the class battles ahead. Spent the dough on organizing the unorganized, organizing the South, organizing Wal-Mart, and other pro-labor causes. Think, for example, of the dough spent on the successful November, 2011 anti-union recall referendum in Ohio (also think, think hard, about having to go that far back to get a positive example). That type of activity is where labor’s money and other resources should go. And not on recall elections against individual reactionaries, like the Scoot-Walker recall effort in Wisconsin, as substitutes for class struggle (and which was overwhelmingly unsuccessful to boot-while the number of unionized public workers has dwindled to a precious few).
*End the endless wars!- As the so-called draw-down of American and Allied troops in Iraq reached its final stages back in 2011, the draw- down of non-mercenary forces anyway, we argued that we must recognize that we anti-warriors had failed, and failed rather spectacularly, to affect that withdrawal after a promising start to our opposition in late 2002 and early 2003 (and a little in 2006).As the endless American-led wars (even if behind the scenes, as in previously in Libya and now in Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Chad and other proxy wars) continue now with a new stage against ISIS (Islamic State) in Iraq and other Middle East states we had better straighten out our anti-war, anti-imperialist front quickly if we are to have any effect on the U.S. troop escalation we know is coming before that fight is over. No War With North Korea, Iran! Out of Syria! Stop The Arms Shipments To The Middle East! Stop The Bombing Campaigns! Defend The Palestinian People! And as always after 16 long years, since 2001 for the forgetful Immediate, Unconditional Withdrawal Of All U.S./Allied Troops (And Mercenaries) From Afghanistan!
U.S. Hands Off Iran! Hands Off North Korea!- American (and world) imperialists have periodically ratcheted up their propaganda war (right now) and increased economic sanctions that are a prelude to war well before the dust has settled on the now unsettled situation in Iraq and well before they have even sniffed at an Afghan withdrawal of any import. We will hold our noses, as we did with the Saddam leadership in Iraq and on other occasions, and call for the defense of North Korea and Iran against the American imperial monster. A victory for the Americans (and their junior partners on this issue, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea) in North Korea or Iran is not in the interests of the international working class. Especially here in the “belly of the beast” we are duty-bound to call not just for non-intervention but for defense of North Korea and Iran. We will, believe me we will, deal with the mullahs, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran and the Kim regime in North Korea in our own way in our own time.
U.S. Hands Off The World! And Keep Them Off!- With the number of “hot spots” that the American imperialists, or one or another of their junior allies, have their hands on in this wicked old world this generic slogan would seem to fill the bill.
Down With The War Budget! Not One Penny, Not One Person For The Wars! Honor World War I German Social-Democratic Party MP, Karl Liebknecht, who did just that in 1915 in the heat of war and paid the price unlike other party leaders who were pledged to stop the war budgets and reneged on that promise by going to prison. The jailhouse the only play for an honest representative of the working class under those conditions. The litmus test for every political candidate must be first opposition to the war budgets (let’s see, right now no new funding in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea preparations, Iran preparations, China preparations, etc. you get our drift). Then that big leap. The whole damn imperialist military budget. Again, no one said it would be simple. Revolution may be easier that depriving the imperialists of their military money. Well….okay.
*Fight for a social agenda for working people! Free Quality Healthcare For All! This would be a no-brainer in any rationally based society. The health and welfare of any society’s citizenry is the simple glue that holds that society together. It is no accident that one of the prime concerns of workers states like Cuba, whatever their other political problems, has been to place health care and education front and center and to provide to the best of their capacity for free, quality healthcare and education for all. Even the hide-bound social-democratic-run capitalist governments of Europe have, until recently anyway, placed the “welfare state” protections central to their programs. Be clear Obamacare is not our program and has been shown to be totally inadequate and wasteful however we will defend that program against those like Trump and the majority of his Republican ilk r his who wish to dismantle it and leave millions once again uninsured and denied basic health benefits.
Free, quality higher education for all! Nationalize the colleges and universities under student-teacher-campus worker control! One Hundred, Two Hundred, Many Harvards!
This would again be a no-brainer in any rationally based society. The struggle to increase the educational level of a society’s citizenry is another part of the simple glue that holds that society together. Today higher education is being placed out of reach for many working-class and minority families. Hell, it is getting tough for the middle-class as well.
Moreover the whole higher educational system is increasing skewed toward those who have better formal preparation and family lives leaving many deserving students from broken homes and minority homes in the wilderness. Take the resources of the private institutions and spread them around, throw in hundreds of billions from the government (take from the military budget if you want to find the money quickly to do the job right), get rid of the top heavy and useless college administration apparatuses, mix it up, and let students, teachers, and campus workers run the thing through councils on a democratic basis.
Forgive student debt! The latest reports indicate that college student debt is something like a trillion plus dollars, give or take a few billion but who is counting. The price of tuition and expenses has gone up dramatically while low-cost aid has not kept pace. What has happened is that the future highly educated workforce that a modern society, and certainly a socialist society, desperately needs is going to be cast in some form of indentured servitude to the banks or other lending agencies for much of their young working lives. Let the banks take a “hit” for a change!
Stop housing foreclosures and aid underwater mortgages now! Although the worst of the 2008 crunch has abated there are still plenty of problems and so this demand is still timely if not desperately timely like in the recent past. Hey, everybody, everywhere in the world not just in America should have a safe, clean roof over their heads. Hell, even a single family home that is part of the “American dream,” if that is what they want. We didn’t make the housing crisis in America (or elsewhere, like in Ireland, where the bubble had also burst). The banks did. Their predatory lending practices and slip-shot application processes were out of control. Let them take the “hit” here as well.
*We created the wealth, let’s take it back. Karl Marx was right way back in the 19th century on his labor theory of value, the workers do produce the social surplus appropriated by the capitalists. Capitalism tends to beat down, beat down hard in all kinds of ways the mass of society for the benefit of the few. Most importantly capitalism, a system that at one time was historically progressive in the fight against feudalism and other ancient forms of production, has turned into its opposite and now is a fetter on production. The current multiple crises spawned by this system show there is no way forward, except that unless we push them out, push them out fast, they will muddle through, again.
Take the struggle for our daily bread off the historic agenda.
Socialism is the only serious answer to the human crisis we face economically, socially, culturally and politically. This socialist system is the only one calculated to take one of the great tragedies of life, the struggle for daily survival in a world that we did not create, and replace it with more co-operative human endeavors.
Build a workers’ party that fights for a workers government to unite all the oppressed. None of the nice things mentioned above can be accomplished without as serious struggle for political power. We need to struggle for an independent working-class-centered political party that we can call our own and where our leaders act as “tribunes of the people” not hacks. The creation of that workers party, however, will get us nowhere unless it fights for a workers government to begin the transition to socialism, to the next level of human progress on a world-wide scale.
As Isaac Deutscher said in his speech “On Socialist Man” (1966):
“We do not maintain that socialism is going to solve all predicaments of the human race. We are struggling in the first instance with the predicaments that are of man’s making and that man can resolve. May I remind you that Trotsky, for instance, speaks of three basic tragedies—hunger, sex and death—besetting man. Hunger is the enemy that Marxism and the modern labour movement have taken on.... Yes, socialist man will still be pursued by sex and death; but we are convinced that he will be better equipped than we are to cope even with these.”
Emblazon on our red banner-Labor and the oppressed must rule!
ROLL UP YOUR SHEEVES! GET THOSE ELECTION BALLOT PETITIONS SIGNED! PRINT OUT THE LEAFLETS! PAINT THOSE BANNERS! GET READY TO SHAKE HANDS AND KISS BABIES
On Lenin's Birthday - Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
Workers Vanguard No. 1123
1 December 2017
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
We print below the first part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at a November 4 forum in Chicago.
It is the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution, the defining event of modern history and the greatest victory ever for working people. The proletariat, led by a Leninist vanguard party, smashed the bourgeois state and set up a workers state. I pondered what I could tell you in one hour—when after all, Leon Trotsky needed about 1,200 pages in his History of the Russian Revolution (1932). But if this talk encourages you to read or reread Trotsky’s History, then I will have accomplished something.
As the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, put it:
“The Russian Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917, once and for all, took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality....
“The Russian revolution showed...how the workers’ revolution is to be made.... It showed in life what kind of a party the workers must have.”
— “Speech on the Russian Question” (1939), printed in Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1943)
The need for a revolutionary party will be one of the themes of this talk. During the course of the Russian Revolution, the multinational proletariat, drawing behind it the peasantry and the oppressed nationalities, forged its own new organs of class power, the soviets, or workers councils. With the smashing of the old capitalist state, these soviets, under Bolshevik leadership, formed the basis of the new workers state. The vanguard of the workers understood that they were not just taking power in Russia; they were opening the first chapter of international proletarian revolution. The Russian Revolution inspired workers uprisings throughout Europe and rebellions in the colonial countries.
The Soviet government expropriated the capitalists and landlords and repudiated totally the tsar’s massive debt to foreign bankers. It proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, health care, housing and education, as the first steps to building a socialist society. Sounds good, doesn’t it?! The new workers state gave land to the peasants and self-determination—the right to their own independent state—to the many oppressed nations that had been ruled over by the hated tsar. I will speak some about the struggles V.I. Lenin waged to ensure the right of these nations to self-determination. The early Soviet government gave women in Russia an unprecedented level of equality and freedom.
Like many people, when I first came around the Spartacist League, I assumed that in a revolutionary situation all the left would get together and fight for socialist revolution. Comrades encouraged me to read about the Russian Revolution, which proves exactly the opposite. Believe me, if a group like the International Socialist Organization or Workers World has a reformist approach to pressuring the capitalist state now, then when the time comes, like the Mensheviks, they will wind up defending capitalism tooth and nail.
The bourgeoisie has always wanted to bury the October Revolution under a mountain of lies. There has been a bunch of articles in the press on the 100th anniversary. A few were interesting. Most were like, “Yikes, it was just a historical accident, let’s hope it never happens again.” But it happened because the socially organized productive forces of the planet had developed to the point where bourgeois private property forms and the bourgeois nation-states had become shackles on social progress. World War I marked the descent of the capitalist system into mass slaughter and barbaric destruction. It signaled that to free the planet’s productive forces from capitalist imperialism, proletarian revolution was necessary.
Capitalist imperialism is still caught in its fatal contradictions; it still creates a proletariat with the social power to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and it still creates the barbarism that we see around us. Under both capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, U.S. imperialism has destroyed countries around the world. Much of the Near East is a bombed-out shell. Now Trump is threatening nuclear war against North Korea for their terrible crime of developing weapons to defend themselves. We call for the military defense of the North Korean and Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers states. It’s a good thing that North Korea is developing a credible nuclear deterrent. Without that, the U.S. would already have bombed them into oblivion.
Here at home, racist cop terror, union-busting, destruction of working people’s living standards, domestic surveillance and mass deportations continue apace under Trump as they did under Obama. Trump is not a fascist, but he has encouraged the fascist scum to come out of the woodwork. We all wish for there to be some hard class struggle in this country, and it will come—it is inevitable under capitalism. Our job is to make sure that there will be a party like Lenin’s in the right place at the right time. So this talk is not just about what happened in 1917 in Russia; it is also about the fight of the International Communist League to organize for new Octobers.
Russia’s Uneven and Combined Development
At this point I am going to discuss some of the background to the Russian Revolution and speak to why the first and, so far, only proletarian socialist revolution occurred in Russia. Russia was an acute example of what Trotsky called uneven and combined development. The country was ruled by a reactionary tsarist aristocracy presiding over a prison house of many oppressed nations. Seventy million Great Russians constituted the main mass of the country, but there were 90 million “outlanders.” So a majority of the country was oppressed nationalities. Barely 50 years out of serfdom, peasants made up some 85 percent of the population and lived in the most backward conditions imaginable. Ignorance and illiteracy were the norm. The ancient institutions of the traditional household and the communal village enforced a rigid patriarchal hierarchy and the degradation of women. Peasant women were beasts of burden; we have a picture in an article on “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women” of peasant women harnessed up like oxen to pull a river barge (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006).
But underdeveloped countries do not just mechanically go through every stage that the more developed countries went through: they jump over certain aspects while retaining many very backward elements. By 1914, massive investment from Europe had created a new urban proletariat (one-third women!) in large-scale, state-of-the-art industrial concentrations. The percentage of Russian workers employed in factories of more than 1,000 employees was higher than in Britain, Germany or the U.S. The late-emerging Russian bourgeoisie, subordinated to foreign capitalists and tied to the Russian aristocracy, knew that any mass upsurge against tsarism was bound to sweep them away, too.
It was in response to this uneven and combined development that Trotsky formulated his theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky projected that despite the economic backwardness of the country, the Russian proletariat could come to power before an extended period of capitalist development. Indeed, the workers would have to come to power if Russia were to be liberated from its feudal past because the weak and cowardly capitalists sure weren’t going to do it.
An essential aspect of Trotsky’s permanent revolution was, as he wrote in the August 1939 article “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution” (also known as “Three Concepts”): “Only the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.” And that, of course, was and is the rub. With the delay of world revolution, particularly in the advanced industrial countries, the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped political power in the Soviet Union in 1923-24, and capitalism was eventually restored in 1991-92. I will make the point that the ICL defended the Soviet Union against capitalist counterrevolution to the bitter end, unlike most left groups.
Key to the Bolsheviks’ success in 1917 was the coming together of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution with Lenin’s struggle to build a programmatically based vanguard party steeled against all manner of reconciliation with the capitalist order. The Bolshevik Party was cohered in the long years of struggle against the Mensheviks, who looked to the liberal bourgeoisie to overthrow tsarism.
World War I had a profound impact on Lenin’s thinking. In 1916, he wrote the book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which explained that imperialism is not a policy, but is the highest stage of capitalism. Imperialist wars to divide and redivide the world are inevitable under monopoly capitalism. World War I triggered the collapse of the Second “Socialist” International, which the Bolsheviks had considered themselves part of, when the vast majority of its affiliated parties lined up behind their own bourgeoisies’ war efforts. Lenin at first didn’t believe it when he heard that the German Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group had unanimously voted to support the war. I guess he thought it was what today might be called “fake news.” But it was true.
Lenin concluded that the war had demonstrated that capitalism was in its final stage of decay. He maintained that the path to proletarian revolution was the transformation of the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war and that socialists in the imperialist centers must stand for the defeat, above all, of their own bourgeois state in the war. Lenin also concluded that a new, revolutionary international, the Third International, must be built on the hard programmatic Bolshevik model.
National Liberation Struggles and Socialist Revolution
If you look at Lenin’s writings during the years leading up to 1917, a lot of them deal with the need for a hard position against the imperialist war and against not only the overtly pro-war fake socialists but also against the centrists like Karl Kautsky who covered for them. A number of the articles deal with the national question.
Now, the ICL has just had an intense internal struggle against a longstanding perversion of Leninism on the national question, particularly in relation to oppressed nations like Quebec and Catalonia within multinational states. As the fight unfolded internationally, it exposed a number of examples of chauvinist positions in opposition to just national struggles of oppressed nations. To get a sense of how these represented a capitulation to the pressures of Anglophone imperialism, read “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 65, Summer 2017).
The point is that our old position went against Lenin’s very extensive writings on the national question. In his 1914 article, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin outlined a very definite programmatic stance: “Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations—such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers.”
This stance applied not only to colonies but also to countries forcibly retained within multinational states. Lenin wrote:
“The proletariat must struggle against the enforced retention of the oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state.... Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words...”
“On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nations must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organizational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries in face of all manner of intrigues, treachery and trickery on the part of the bourgeoisie.”
— “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1916)
During the war years, Lenin waged a struggle against the advocates of what he called imperialist economism. The original Economists of whom he speaks in What Is To Be Done? (1902) thought that the economic struggle was everything and that there was no need to bother with political problems and struggle. The imperialist Economists thought that since imperialism had triumphed, there was no need to bother with the problems of political democracy and self-determination. These included various Polish Social Democrats whom Lenin denounced for thinking that “self-determination is impossible under capitalism and superfluous under socialism” (“A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism” ).
Lenin adamantly disagreed with both these propositions. He wrote: “Socialist parties which did not show by all their activity, both now, during the revolution, and after its victory, that they would liberate the enslaved nations and build up relations with them on the basis of a free union…these parties would be betraying socialism” (“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” emphasis added).
This position was key to making the Russian Revolution. Our old articles contained phrases like “getting the national question off the agenda,” which we often used as an excuse for not supporting struggles for national liberation. The Bolsheviks saw that national liberation struggles could be catalysts for socialist revolution and sought to unleash their revolutionary potential. National liberation can be a motor force for proletarian rule if the proletariat acquires communist consciousness and is led by a communist party.
Fighting national oppression is one of the things the Bolsheviks were known for, as well as their workers mobilizations against anti-Jewish pogroms by the fascistic Black Hundreds. We could certainly use some of these workers mobilizations against today’s fascists. As Lenin said in What Is To Be Done?, the party must be “the tribune of the people...able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression.”
The February Revolution
So by now you’re all saying, “Enough already, let’s get on with the revolution!” The February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the tsarist monarchy was carried out overwhelmingly by the working class, with the peasants, organized in the army, also playing a key role. The spark was a demonstration by women workers demanding bread on February 23 (which is March 8 in the new calendar, International Women’s Day). It shows it’s a good thing for women to get out of the villages and have some social power as workers! Then on February 25 there was a general strike in Petrograd, followed by a mutiny in some army regiments.
What broke the back of the tsarist monarchy was that the army no longer wanted to fight, and whole units were abandoning the front or refusing to carry out orders. A powerful indication was when the Cossack regiments, who were considered very loyal to the tsar, refused to suppress a workers demonstration in Petrograd. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky relates:
“The officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the [Sampsonievsky] Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. ‘Some of them smiled,’...‘and one of them gave the workers a good wink’.”
If the Cossacks were winking at the workers, the tsar was in trouble.
You have to realize how bloody and unpopular the war was. The ABC of Communism (1920) by Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky estimated that by 1918 the number of Russian soldiers killed in the war was eight million. And they remarked acidly, “If we assume the average weight of a soldier to be 150 lb., this means that between 1 August 1914, and 1 January 1918, the capitalists had brought to market twelve hundred million pounds of putrid human flesh.” Trotsky encapsulated the situation as follows: “‘Everything for the war!’ said the ministers, deputies, generals, journalists. ‘Yes,’ the soldier began to think in the trenches, ‘they are all ready to fight to the last drop...of my blood’.”
Trotsky’s History shows the quick tempo of events. February 23 International Women’s Day demo; February 25 general strike; police and state officials were sent packing and on February 27 the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was formed. The soviets, which had previously arisen in the 1905 Revolution, were revived in the February Revolution, but they now included soldiers, who were mainly peasants and who would otherwise have been difficult to organize. By February 28 the tsar’s ministers were arrested, and by March 2 the tsar had abdicated.
The paradox of the February Revolution was that while the autocracy and the tsar had been overthrown by the workers, the official government that emerged was bourgeois. Even as street fighting was raging in Petrograd on the night of February 27, a self-appointed Provisional Committee composed of bourgeois-monarchist politicians met in the Tauride Palace, behind the back of the popular revolution. They declared a Provisional Government aimed at erecting a constitutional monarchy.
Meanwhile, in another wing of the Tauride Palace, a “Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies” was being formed. The leadership of the Soviet was dominated by the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). While the SRs were largely based on the peasantry, the Mensheviks represented urban petty-bourgeois layers and the more conservative and privileged workers. The program of the Mensheviks and SRs was that the bourgeoisie should lead and rule, and they desperately appealed to the bourgeois Provisional Government to take control.
Trotsky often quotes the left Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who was a leader of the Soviet in its early days and himself wrote a history of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution quotes Sukhanov as saying: “The Executive Committee [of the Soviet] was in a perfect position either to give the power to the bourgeois government, or not give it.” Further: “The power destined to replace tsarism must be only a bourgeois power.... Otherwise the uprising will not succeed and the revolution will collapse.”
That’s blunt! When I first read about this, I had trouble believing that any kind of so-called socialist, with the workers in ascendancy and soviets being set up, deliberately runs around the city looking for capitalist politicians to hand over power to. But let me tell you something: This has happened many times. From the abortive Chinese Revolution of the late 1920s to Spain in the 1930s to Greece in the late 1940s after World War II, promising revolutionary situations have been betrayed by latter-day Mensheviks and deliberately handed over to the bourgeois executioners time and time again. These reformists seriously do not believe that the working class can take and hold power.
The February Revolution thus resulted in a situation of dual power. That is, alongside the Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie, there stood the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. There was continual conflict between the Provisional Government and the soviets. Trotsky notes that one bourgeois politician complained: “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the Provisional Government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it.” Dual power is unstable and can only be resolved either by revolution or counterrevolution.
Rearming the Bolshevik Party
Trotsky comments that the February Revolution was led by “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.” The Bolsheviks were in the soviets, of course, but as a minority. The Bolsheviks were slow off the mark, with a leadership underground and dispersed—Lenin was in exile—and, in general, lagging behind the masses. The soviets in February were dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks, who maintained that the February Revolution had achieved the main task of overthrowing the monarchy, and now the task was to defend “democratic” Russia against German imperialism. In other words, upholding the war aims of the Russian bourgeoisie, the Mensheviks and SRs took positions similar to the pro-war German Social Democrats. During Lenin’s exile and particularly after the return of Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, the Bolshevik leaders in Russia began to bend in the direction of the Mensheviks’ defensism, dropping Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism and even mooting the possibility of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks merging! Lenin in exile was trying desperately to get back to Russia and wrote in a furious March letter: “I would choose an immediate split with no matter whom in our party, rather than surrender to social-patriotism.”
When he finally arrived in Petrograd, Lenin climbed atop an armored car to address the cheering workers who had brought down the tsar. Lenin hailed them and, to the shock of the official pro-war Soviet welcoming committee, gave an internationalist salute to the German revolutionary Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht, who was in prison for opposing German militarism. “The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters.... Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution).
Lenin went straight on to a Bolshevik meeting, where he gave a two-hour speech. The speech is not preserved, but the ever-present Sukhanov, who was allowed into this Bolshevik meeting by an overindulgent Kamenev, describes Lenin as saying: “‘We don’t need any parliamentary republic. We don’t need any bourgeois democracy. We don’t need any government except the soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and farmhands’ deputies!’” Sukhanov bleats: “I will never forget that thunderlike speech, startling and amazing not only to me, a heretic accidentally dropped in, but also to the faithful.”
This was the opening shot of Lenin’s fight to rearm the party. Lenin’s “April Theses,” which he fought for at the April party conference, included recognition that the seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia would place on the order of the day not only the democratic tasks but also socialist tasks. So now Lenin is sounding more like Trotsky on permanent revolution. As Trotsky noted in Lessons of October (1924): “The fundamental controversial question, around which everything else centered, was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.”
Lenin could win over the party because his program corresponded to the needs of the proletariat and peasantry. And because there was a proletarian base to the party that had been waiting—as Trotsky says in his History of the Russian Revolution, “gritting their teeth”—for Lenin or someone to put forward a revolutionary strategy for the seizure of power by the Soviets. Yet, at the same time, there was a conservative wing of the party. As Trotsky points out in Lessons of October, “A revolutionary party is subject to the pressure of other political forces.” The party’s power of resistance is weakened when it has to make political turns and it “becomes, or runs the risk of becoming, the indirect tool of other classes.” The most abrupt turn is when the question of armed insurrection against the bourgeoisie is on the agenda. We’ll see a second part of this fight right before the insurrection. After Lenin’s successful struggle to rearm the party, the Bolshevik Party began to raise its revolutionary program, and its influence spread like wildfire.
Not surprisingly, the fall of the tsarist monarchy in February had stimulated national movements among the oppressed nations of Russia. Trotsky wrote: “In this matter, however, we observe the same thing as in all other departments of the February regime: the official democracy, held in leash by its political dependence upon an imperialist bourgeoisie, was totally incapable of breaking the old fetters.” They sure weren’t going to relinquish, as Trotsky put it, “Ukrainian grain, Donetz coal, and the ores of Krivorog.” So, after February as before, Lenin kept hammering away on the right of self-determination for oppressed nations.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Workers Vanguard No. 1124
15 December 2017
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
We print below the second part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at a November 4 forum in Chicago. Part One appeared in WV No. 1123 (1 December).
The first Provisional Government, which was established after the February Revolution, was brought down by the uproar over its pledge to continue the hated imperialist war. A new cabinet was formed on May 5. This time Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party and Menshevik leaders in the soviets (councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies that arose in the wake of the February Revolution) took ministerial posts, alongside the bourgeois Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party, in the capitalist government. Trotsky later called this Russian coalition government “the greatest historical example of the Popular Front” (“The POUM and the Popular Front,” July 1936).
The popular front was the name that the Stalinists would use, starting in the 1930s, to designate their coalition government betrayals. In South Africa it’s called the Tripartite Alliance. Such class collaboration is not a tactic but the greatest betrayal! When a workers party enters a popular front with capitalist parties, whether in government or in opposition, it is a pledge by the traitorous working-class leaders that they will not violate the bourgeois order; in fact, they’ll defend it.
The mood in Petrograd was changing in favor of the Bolsheviks, who had a near majority in the factories. In early June when a demonstration called by the Bolsheviks was banned by the Menshevik/SR-led Soviet, the Bolsheviks stood down and called it off. The conciliationist Soviet leadership then called a demonstration on June 18, but to their horror the workers came out en masse under Bolshevik slogans, including: “Down with the offensive!” “All power to the soviets!” and “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!”
Trotsky was now back in Russia and, finally understanding the need for a hard Leninist party, was working closely with Lenin. In response to the coalition government, Lenin and Trotsky devised the slogan, “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” It meant: break the coalition with the capitalists; the soviets should take all the power!
By early July, Petrograd was in semi-insurrection. Workers and soldiers infuriated by the coalition government, now led by Alexander Kerensky, were demanding “All power to the Soviet!” In his History of the Russian Revolution (1932), Trotsky vividly quotes an eyewitness who saw Victor Chernov, an SR minister, trying to speak to a crowd of workers and soldiers: “A husky worker shaking his fist in the face of the minister, shouted furiously: ‘Take the power, you son-of-a-bitch, when they give it to you’.”
But the conciliationists didn’t want the power! This is very different from the Bolsheviks. Speaking at the First Congress of Soviets in June 1917, Lenin called for a Soviet government and asserted: “According to the previous speaker...there was no political party in Russia expressing its readiness to assume full power. I reply: ‘Yes, there is. No party can refuse this, and our Party certainly doesn’t’” (“Speech on the Attitude Towards the Provisional Government,” 4 June 1917).
The Bolsheviks were worried that a July insurrection in the cities was premature, that it would not be backed by the peasantry, and thus it would be impossible for the workers to hold power. But after initially opposing the July demonstrations, the Bolshevik leadership decided that it was better to go with the masses and try to provide leadership and prevent a premature insurrection. The Bolshevik estimation was correct, and after the demonstrations, a period of severe repression followed. Bolsheviks were killed, Trotsky was arrested and Lenin went into hiding. The repression, however, did make clear to the workers the true nature of this popular-front government—that it was nothing other than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
While in hiding, Lenin devoted what he thought might be his last days to writing The State and Revolution. He argued that while the bourgeoisie uses lies to hide its dictatorship, the truth is that the state is not a neutral arbiter above classes. He defended Friedrich Engels’ understanding that the core of the state is armed bodies of men—the military, prisons and police—who hold a monopoly of violence over society. These instruments exist for the social domination by the ruling class—under capitalism, the rule of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin’s pamphlet codifies a central lesson of revolutionary struggle: that the proletariat cannot take over the bourgeois state to wield it in the interests of the working class. Rather, the proletariat must smash the old state machinery, create a new state and impose its own class rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat—to suppress and expropriate the capitalist exploiters. As you can see, this was not an abstract discussion but a part of an ongoing political debate. There was supposed to be a seventh chapter of The State and Revolution, but Lenin had to stop writing and go back to Petrograd to actually lead the revolution. As he noted in a postscript: “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”
By August, the bourgeoisie had realized that only a military coup could stop the revolution and called on the commander-in-chief of the army, General Kornilov, to crush the soviets. Kornilov was a monarchist general of the anti-Jewish “Black Hundred” type. Trotsky notes that Kornilov had the heart of a lion and the brain of a sheep. The conciliationist soviet tops were paralyzed in response to the counterrevolutionary offensive, but the masses rallied around the Bolshevik-organized united-front action that stopped Kornilov in his tracks.
Lenin was very clear:
“Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.
“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.”
Lenin was also very clear on the war even though by this time the German army was approaching Petrograd: “We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat” (“To the Central Committee of the RSDLP,” 30 August 1917).
It is also worth noting that a victory for Kornilov would have meant not only a slaughter of the pro-Bolshevik masses, but would also have been fatal for many of the compromisers as well. The failed coup showed that bourgeois democracy, as represented by the Provisional Government, was not viable in the historical sense in Russia in 1917. The real choices were represented by the Bolsheviks on the one hand and Kornilov and the forces of military reaction on the other.
Toward the Seizure of Power
A crucial corner had been turned by the beginning of September. The masses were convinced that the old soviet misleaders were politically bankrupt and that only the Bolsheviks would take decisive action to end the war, stop capitalist sabotage of the economy and lead the soviets to power. The general staff of the army was no longer capable of mobilizing military units against revolutionary Petrograd. The countryside was aflame as returning peasant soldiers seized the landlords’ fields and torched their huge mansions. On September 4, Trotsky was released from prison, and by the 23rd he was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.
The Bolsheviks finally had solid majorities in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets. Trotsky declared, “Long live the direct and open struggle for a revolutionary power throughout the country!” The bourgeoisie and the conciliationists tried some parliamentary diversions—the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament—but it was too late for that. The crucial upcoming event was the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was very popular with the masses because it was sure to have a Bolshevik majority.
The first showdown in the Bolshevik leadership over the insurrection was the famous central committee meeting of October 10, where the insurrection was voted up ten votes to two—Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev voted against. As Trotsky wrote: “Whatever remains in the party that is irresolute, skeptical, conciliationist, capitulatory—in short Menshevik—all this rises to the surface in opposition to the insurrection” (Lessons of October, 1924). The resolution, as is typical of Lenin, starts with the international situation, that is, the ripening of world revolution; the insurrection in Russia is regarded as a link in the chain. The idea of having socialism in one country was not in anyone’s mind then, even Stalin’s.
Alexander Rabinowitch, in The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976), tells a funny story about this meeting which had to be held secretly because Lenin was still subject to arrest:
“By an ironic twist of fate the gathering was to be held in the apartment of the left Menshevik Sukhanov.... But on this occasion Sukhanov was not in attendance. His wife, Galina Flakserman, a Bolshevik activist since 1905...had offered...the use of the Sukhanov flat, should the need arise.”
“For her part, Flakserman insured that her meddlesome husband would remain away on this historic night. ‘The weather is wretched, and you must promise not to try to make it all the way back home tonight,’ she had counseled solicitously as he departed for work early that morning.”
He must have been irritated to miss this meeting.
So, after this decisive resolution, the workers were arming, drilling, setting up the Red Guards. Workers at the weapons factories were funneling weapons directly to the Red Guards. But there were still differences in the leadership. There was another meeting on October 16, where Lenin again argued for insurrection and Kamenev and Zinoviev again voted against it. Then Kamenev and Zinoviev got a public statement printed in a non-Bolshevik newspaper opposing the insurrection. Lenin called them strikebreakers and demanded their expulsion from the party. Luckily for them, the revolution intervened. Stalin voted with Lenin for insurrection but defended Kamenev and Zinoviev and minimized the differences. He was keeping his options open in case the revolution didn’t come off.
A decisive step toward the seizure of power came when the Petrograd Soviet, at the behest of the Bolsheviks, invalidated an order by Kerensky to transfer two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison to the front. Trotsky noted:
“The moment when the regiments, upon the instructions of the [Soviet] Military Revolutionary Committee, refused to depart from the city, we had a victorious insurrection in the capital, only slightly screened at the top by the remnants of the bourgeois-democratic state forms. The insurrection of October 25 was only supplementary in character.”
—Lessons of October
The Seizure of Power
On October 24, Kerensky foolishly tried to shut down the Bolshevik newspaper. The Military Revolutionary Committee immediately sent a detachment to reopen it and also to start taking over the telephone exchange and other key centers. Even at this point Lenin was frustrated with the lack of progress of the insurrection and went in disguise to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute to oversee preparations personally. One Bolshevik remembered that Lenin “paced around a small room at Smolny like a lion in a cage. He needed the Winter Palace at any cost: it remained the last gate on the road to workers’ power. V. I. scolded...he screamed...he was ready to shoot us” (Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power).
Kerensky, by the way, escaped in the safety of a diplomatic vehicle flying the American flag. He wound up here in the U.S., home to counterrevolutionary gusanos of all varieties, at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. There he wrote and lectured about how to fight communism—something which he hadn’t done too well in life.
The cruiser Aurora was firing on the Winter Palace when the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened. Lenin got up and opened his speech with the famous sentence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The three-point agenda was: end the war, give land to the peasants and establish the socialist dictatorship. The Bolsheviks’ proclamations were punctuated by the steady boom of Red naval artillery directed against the government holdouts in the Winter Palace, which was finally taken.
As we’ve seen, the soviets by themselves do not settle the question of power. They can serve different programs and leaderships. As Trotsky wrote in Lessons of October, “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.” At the opening session of the Congress of Soviets, the Mensheviks and the right-wing Socialist-Revolutionaries were enraged that the Bolsheviks had taken power and walked out. Trotsky basically said “Good riddance!”
Consistent with their opposition to the seizure of power, the right wing of the Bolshevik Party leadership around Zinoviev and Kamenev argued for a coalition government. They had to back down when it became clear that there was nobody to form a coalition with. Far from wanting to help run a workers state, the Mensheviks and SRs immediately started organizing a counterrevolutionary uprising against the Bolsheviks, which was quickly suppressed.
Let me state as a general rule that it is a bad idea to seek a coalition with those who are actively trying to overthrow the workers state and kill you all. This right wing of the Bolsheviks would re-emerge after Lenin’s death and the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, when a bureaucratic caste began to coalesce around J.V. Stalin. But for now, another acute party crisis had been overcome. Some Left SRs finally did join the government, at least for a while.
I will briefly comment on the “constituent assembly” call and recommend to people our article in Spartacist ([English-language edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13), “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand.” This was a longtime Bolshevik demand, but the problem is that a constituent assembly is a bourgeois parliament. When it finally came into being after the revolution, it was counterrevolutionary. As we state in our article:
“The issues of permanent revolution and the constituent assembly are closely linked because the central question is what form of state will be able to accomplish the democratic tasks of the revolution: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat?...
“Even after the essential concepts of the perspective of permanent revolution came to be accepted—by Trotsky in 1905, by Lenin in early 1917—the relationship between soviets and constituent assembly remained to be tested in real life. It was the experience of the October Revolution that led Lenin and Trotsky to support the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, despite their previous support for calls to convene it.”
The Revolutionary Regime
Besides proceeding on peace negotiations and land to the peasantry, a new revolutionary government of People’s Commissars was appointed, which over the next period moved forward with nationalizing the banks, restarting industry and laying the foundations of the new soviet state.
On November 15, the new Soviet government issued the “Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia,” putting forward the following principles: equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, the right of self-determination up to secession and formation of a separate state, abolition of all national and religious privileges, and the free development of all national and ethnic groups inhabiting Russia. Trotsky comments in his History of the Russian Revolution:
“The bourgeoisie of the border nations entered the road of separatism in the autumn of 1917, not in a struggle against national oppression, but in a struggle against the advancing proletarian revolution. In the sum total, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations manifested no less hostility to the revolution than the Great Russian bourgeoisie.”
True enough, and certainly the local bourgeoisie of various border areas were willing lackeys of the imperialist powers, including of course the U.S., which tried to overturn the Russian Revolution. But this is why Lenin’s position on the national question spoke so powerfully to the working masses. What he wanted was a voluntary union of nations. Writing in December 1919 about the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Lenin said:
“Regarding it as beyond dispute for every Communist and for every politically-conscious worker that the closest alliance of all Soviet republics in their struggle against the menacing forces of world imperialism is essential, the R.C.P. [Russian Communist Party] maintains that the form of that alliance must be finally determined by the Ukrainian workers and labouring peasants themselves.”
— “Draft Resolution of the C.C., R.C.P.(B.) on Soviet Rule in the Ukraine”
The question of national divisions does not go away the day after the socialist revolution, but only in the more distant communist future. The idea that the national question was no longer an issue was defeated in the debate in 1919 over the Russian party program. Actually, it was another go-around with those who had proposed “imperialist economism” before the revolution (see Part One of this presentation).
The party program asserted not only that “the colonial and other nations which are oppressed, or whose rights are restricted, must be completely liberated and granted the right to secede.” It also emphasized that “the workers of those nations which under capitalism were oppressor nations must take exceptional care not to hurt the national sentiments of the oppressed nations...and must not only promote the actual equality, but also the development of the language and literature of the working people of the formerly oppressed nations so as to remove all traces of distrust and alienation inherited from the epoch of capitalism” (“Draft Programme of the R.C.P.[B.]”).
Indeed, Lenin’s last struggle was waged against the Great Russian chauvinist bullying of Georgian Communists by Stalin and others. This was part of the struggle against the developing Stalinist bureaucracy. As Trotsky said: “Whatever may be the further destiny of the Soviet Union—and it is still far from a quiet haven—the national policy of Lenin will find its place among the eternal treasures of mankind” (History of the Russian Revolution).
This talk cannot take up in any depth the question of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. Marxists have always understood that the material abundance necessary to uproot class society and its attendant oppressions can only come from the highest level of technology and science based on an internationally planned economy. The economic devastation and isolation of the Soviet workers state led to strong material pressures toward bureaucratization.
In the last years of his life, Lenin, often in alliance with Trotsky, waged a series of battles in the party against the political manifestations of the bureaucratic pressures. The Bolsheviks knew that socialism could only be built on a worldwide basis, and they fought to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the advanced capitalist economies of Europe. The idea that socialism could be built in a single country was a later perversion introduced as part of the justification for the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.
Despite the triumph of the bureaucratic caste in 1924 and the consequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the central gains of the revolution—embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a collectivized, planned economy—remained. We of the International Communist League stand on the heritage of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against Stalin and the degeneration of the revolution. We stood for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and all threats of capitalist counterrevolution, internal or external. At the same time, we understood that the bureaucratic caste at the top was a mortal threat to the continued existence of the workers state. We called for a proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucracy, restore workers democracy and pursue the fight for the international proletarian revolution.
The gains of the revolution were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. Despite the grim poverty of Russia at the time of the October Revolution, the young workers state implemented far-reaching measures of equality for women. The Soviet government established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner; all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity were abolished.
As explained in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia (1923), by Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, the Bolshevik position was based on the following principle: “the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.” This is light-years ahead of the consciousness of liberals and fake leftists today, like Socialist Alternative, who go ballistic over our defense of Roman Polanski, who has been persecuted for consensual sexual activity, and NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association), which advocates the right of consensual relationships between youth and older men.
One of the few recent good articles in the New York Times about the Russian Revolution was an August 12 piece by Kristen R. Ghodsee titled “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” It was mostly about East European countries, which became bureaucratically deformed workers states after World War II. The article stated: “A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.” Some examples:
“Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria.... Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships. ‘Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance,’ she said. ‘After my divorce, I had my job and my salary, and I didn’t need a man to support me. I could do as I pleased’.”
From a 30-something working woman of Germany today speaking of her mother’s desire for grandchildren: “She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now—it was so easy for women [in East Germany] before the Wall fell,” referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
Another quote from researchers in Poland when it was still a workers state: “Even the best stimulation...will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.” Indeed! In fact, the most amazing thing about this article is that the New York Times actually published it.
“Left” Apostles of Counterrevolution
The destruction of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism there in 1991-92 and in East Europe transformed the political landscape of the planet and threw proletarian consciousness backward. Capitalist counterrevolution triggered an unparalleled economic collapse throughout the former Soviet Union, with skyrocketing rates of poverty and disease. Internationally, with the destruction of the Soviet Union as a counterweight, the imperialists felt they had a free hand to project their military might.
We actively fought counterrevolution from East Germany to the Soviet Union itself. The Socialist Workers Party of Britain, then affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S., was just the bluntest of the “left” cheerleaders for counterrevolution when they triumphantly proclaimed: “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker [Britain], 31 August 1991).
Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin and big shot in the Democratic Socialists of America, has this to say about the Russian Revolution:
“One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags [really?!], the idea that we should return to this history for inspiration might sound absurd. But there was good reason that the Bolsheviks once called themselves ‘social democrats’.”
So Sunkara believes Leninism leads to Stalinism and wants to return to every rotten social-democratic position that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had to fight against to make the Russian Revolution. Todd Chretien, ISO honcho, endorses the article with a few oh-so-polite caveats and says: “Today, like it or not, all of us socialists are on the same train, even if we might start out on different cars...and communication between compartments is flowing freely”—between what he calls the “healthy sections of the socialist left,” i.e., the reformists of various varieties.
Well, we Trotskyists of the ICL are not on their train. We don’t spend our days trying to refurbish the capitalist Democratic Party; we don’t support U.S. imperialism’s bloody wars around the world; and we don’t promote counterrevolution in those countries, like China or North Korea, where capitalist rule was overthrown. And our goal isn’t trying to reform the capitalist system.
During World War I, Rosa Luxemburg posited that the choices were socialism or barbarism. That’s true now, too. We know we have a long row to hoe and that we are a small international revolutionary Marxist propaganda group. We also know that the tide will again turn and that future workers revolutions will need the Bolshevik political arsenal. Their cadres must be educated in the experiences of the October Revolution. So that’s our job and no one else’s. To quote James Cannon, “We are, in fact, the party of the Russian revolution. We have been the people, and the only people, who have had the Russian revolution in their program and in their blood” (Struggle for a Proletarian Party ).