the jab of tragedy, the righthook of farce

9 04 2014

Originally posted on the commune:

David Broder reviews First as tragedy, then as farce by Slavoj Zizek

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane (Marx, Communist Manifesto)

As we reach the end of the ‘noughties’ this month, there is much scope for reflection on the events of the last decade. There remains a crisis of alternatives to capitalism, yet together with the current dark spectres of recession and ecological crisis, two events bookmarking the decade disrupted the ideology of ‘the End of History’. The September 11th terrorist atrocities in New York shattered the illusion of the invulnerable American military hegemon, while last October’s financial meltdown has fatally undermined the gospel of free-market economics. George W. Bush’s speeches on each occasion were the same, of course: ‘action’ was needed to defend ‘our way of life’. As Slavoj Zizek acerbically comments, this brings to mind Marx’s quip that “History always…

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2008 : The spectre of Karl Marx returned.

8 04 2014

Originally posted on the commune:

From the Commune, May 2009, a view presented at the outset of the Great Recession.

In January 2007, the Financial Times, declared that emerging market economies would continue to power ahead. Capitalism was triumphant. The ghost of Karl Marx had been laid to rest. But then just when the progress of the unfettered market appeared unstoppable it spectacularly crashed.  Some of the world’s biggest banks collapsed. The housing and credit bubble burst. In September 2008, Northern Rock in Britain and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the USA were rescued by governments with huge sums of tax payers money. The Bradford and Bingley building society was salvaged by the state and the Lehman Brothers financial empire fell to the ground. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the federal bank, in the USA, confessed that his free market confidence in the self-interest of bankers had been wrong. (1)

Bourgeois politicians were…

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The horror of the assembly line at Ford Dagenham.

18 03 2014

Barry Biddulph reviews Notoriously Militant,by Sheila Cohen,Merlin Press,2013.

This is the story of the TGWU 1/1107 Branch at the Ford Dagenham plant and how the workers on the shop floor experienced, and responded to the harsh working conditions inflicted on them by the Ford Motor Company.Sheila Cohen lets the workers speak for themselves about what they had to endure: “Imagine bending down to tie your shoe lace.Its a simple job. But imagine doing it once a minute ….during the period of a work shift. (1) The unending tedium of fixing the same nuts bolts and screws over and over again in a zombie like manner with damage to mind and body. Add to this pressure the unpaid and unpredictable lay offs, intrusive supervision and speed ups, particularly in the post war period, and you have the anger which sparks rank and file resistance.


Sheila Cohen argues in, Ramparts of Resistance ,that it is the raw material reality of exploitation on the factory floor which generates the objective possibilities of collective resistance. (2).This gives rise to what she describes as the two-faced nature of trade unionism as a movement of radical struggle from  below,rather than trade unionism as an official institution from above  in partnership with capital. But before we consider the limits and possibilities of trade unions, we will look at some aspects of her narrative of the militancy at the Ford Dagenham plant .

Ford Motor Company had forged a useful working relationship with the national officials of the trade unions in April 1944 in the Ford National Joint Negotiating Committee.(FNJNC). The TUC had helped Ford to keep out shop floor negotiating rights. The workers in the plant had a different approach.In 1946 they walked out and then occupied the plant to demand better pay and shop steward representation. The formal right to shop steward representation was won.  This left a battle for what they could and could not do. It was in the same year in the context of this Class struggle that the TGWU branch 1/1107 was established at the Dagenham factory.

In the decades that followed there was an explosion of unofficial inspired strikes and disputes at Fords Dagenham which were part of a wider grass-roots struggle which culminated in the high tide of militancy in the period 1968-1974. Although the Winter of discontent in 1979, triggered by a strike at Dagenham which smashed the governments 5% pay freeze, even topped this militancy. In 1960 there were seventy-nine walkouts at Dagenham with 100,000 hours lost; by1961 the number had risen to 184,000. Alan Thornett recollects a similar militant record in an Oxford car plant : the number of strikes at the Morris plant averaged around 300 a year from 1966-1968 culminating in 1969 with a record 624 strikes. (3) But not all these strikes ended in victory.

In 1962 there was a serious defeat at Ford Dagenham which left  17 workers on a company hit list outside the factory gate. The dispute originated in a shared outlook  between union officials,and the Ford labour relations director Lesley Blakeman. The feeling was that something had to be done about those militants who had shown disrespect to union and company procedures.  Les Kealey was sick of the trouble makers who got in the way of good relations with Ford management: a number of stewards had got into the habit of solving their own problems and order had to be restored. (4) The tactic employed was to link  wage increases to constitutional good behaviour. Further,Kealey and other national officials agreed that ” unions recognise the right of the company to exercise measures against employees who fail to comply with the conditions of their employment by taking unconstitutional action”.   (5) Days later, Bill Frances, the chair of the pain and trim shop(PTA)  which was at the core of 1107 TGWU branch, was sacked for holding a lunch time union meeting.

There was a walk out and then an overwhelming vote to stay out on strike. But a return to work was then engineered by Kealey and Blakeman. Kealey claimed that he had reached an agreement with Blakeman for a return to work for everyone without victimization. This assurance was put to the shop stewards who narrowly accepted the return the work proposal. The return to work became a carefully planned, management controlled ,phased return. The management would “decide how the shop would start again,when it would start and who would start it,no longer at the end of a wild cat strike would the men be automatically come back to their jobs” (6)  Most workers were eventually allowed back except for the 17 men who Ford management regarded as undesirable agitators. These leaders of rank and file resistance would not be allowed to return for the peace of mind of managers and national union officials .  Hours lost in strikes dropped from 184,000 in 1961 and 415,000 in 1962 to 3,400 in 1963. (7)

However, resistance resumed. In May 1968, women sawing machinists at Ford walked out on strike and into history. Their long outstanding and neglected claim for upgrading from semi skilled B grade to skilled C grade was  rejected by management. There was a four-week shutdown of the plant. The company was desperate for help. It turned to the Labour Government for assistance. Barbara Castle rushed in to rescue Ford. Over cups of tea with strike leaders Castle tried to get the women back to work with a promise of negotiations. When this failed she then met them for a second time, and persuaded the strike leaders to accept a deal  which appears to have been suggested by Blakeman following a visit to the AEU conference.The AEU and Reg Birch  had made the principle of equal pay for women the issue for the strike and given it official backing on that basis. They had not taken up the women’s demand for C grade, because this would have meant challenging the Ford Company wage structure. Claims for upgrading would have flooded in : many other workers jobs had been wrongly assessed. The compromise,accepted by the women as a basis to return to work,  was a 7% wage  increase which was 92% of the mens grade B rate,a step towards reducing differentials in pay.

Another notorious strike at Dagenham was the 1971 strike for wage parity with other car workers. This was the 9 week-long strike for parity not charity. The strike was brought to an abrupt end by  Jack Jones, leader of the TGWU, and Hugh Scanlon, head of the AEU. Jones and Scanlon,  negotiated a settlement with the government and the Ford motor company behind the backs of Dagenham shop stewards. The deal still left the Ford workforce as the lowest paid car workers. There was an increase of 9 pence an hour. Further increases of 5 pence an hour at the end of the year, and 5 pence an hour the following year. A few days prior to the sell out, Dagenham shop stewards had met Jones accidentally at Euston train station. They asked him about press reports of a backroom deal. He was deceitful saying :” I am not involved. It’s up to you lads-your running the strike”. (8) In effect the deal was imposed on Dagenham. Union Strike pay was stopped , no discussion was allowed, and a secret ballot adopted instead of the traditional show of hands at a factory meeting.

This sellout and others are not surprising. As Huw Beynon reminds us: “the trade unions are so rooted in the fabric of capitalist society that the sell out of the rank and file is bound to occur” (9)Marx had no experience of modern trade unionism or the  extent of trade union bureaucracy with its links to the state,and was  too optimistic in advocating the Unions adopt the slogan of abolition of the wages system. Nevertheless , he did identify their main fault: “they fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system” (10) Although the phase guerilla war exaggerates the feeble response to the employers of trade union officialdom today.The nature of trade Unions is located in negotiating or even accepting  the terms of exploitation not in superseding exploitation. In the words of Alex Callinicos : “confining the class struggle within the limits of capitalism presumes the interests of labour and capital can be reconciled”.(11)

Sheila does not really discuss the politics of those involved in the militancy at Dagenham in any detail so we have no understanding of what possibilities there were in going beyond workplace resistance to a wider challenge to Capitalism. Sheila view seems to be that collective action in itself is objectively  a step in a revolutionary direction. Sheila does argue elsewhere,” the need to go beyond the workplace through promoting a programme of broader political demands which would connect with existing not the desired level of consciousness among activists”. (12) This is undogmatic but politically vague. It is not a clear argument for  the politics of an alternative to the capitalist state. The problem with simply identifying something real with present consciousness is that the separation between politics and economics is reinforced, and revolutionary ideas are left at the factor gate and office door.

The contours of modern capitalism in Britain with the Labour Party and Parliament on the one hand, and trade unions on the other, was strengthened rather than weakened by the Trotskyist and Leninist  left during the period of mass militancy at Dagenham and elsewhere. The International Socialists (IS) Rank and filism was about more trade union militancy. Alex Callinicos articulates these politics when he writes: “experience shows that national rank and file movements can only be built on the initiative of revolutionary socialists . The actual programme of these movements may consist chiefly of straightforward trade union demands” (13)   The Socialist Labour League ,the forerunner of the Workers Revolutionary Party, was  very significant at the time ,but despite its hysterical revolutionary rhetoric it focused its demands on the Labour Party parliamentary left  as if there was a parliamentary road to socialism. It called for a vote for the Labour party at elections as if the party  could or would implement a revolutionary Socialist Programme.

This is where realistic politics are totally unrealistic. The tactical views of the SLL and other Trotskyist influenced militants originated in the false perspectives of the early Communist International for a workers government based on the capitalist state and the trade unions . The assumption was the traditional workers organisations and the capitalist state could be revolutionised. Despite Trotsky’s  accurate polemics against trade union and Labour leaders, he held the completely unhistorical and plain wrong view that “a revolutionary Labour Party resting on the trade unions will become in their turn a powerful instrument of recovery and resurgence” (14)  Whether it was the Great Unrest 1910-14, the General Strike or miners strikes 1926, and 1984-5, the Labour Party  was not transformed by a revolutionary dynamic.Looking to the Labour Party and the state was not a way to transform capitalism.

From Sheila’s account of the struggles on the factory floor at Dagenham we do know some of the sacked stewards were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain : Johnny McLaughlin , Bill Frances, and Kevin Halpin. But we do not have an indication of   the political role of the CPGB at Dagenham. In Huw Beynon’s study of the Ford Halewood plant, in the Liverpool area, he refers to the role of the Communist Party at Dagenham. The CPGB had a considerable number of members at the Dagenham plant, including senior stewards. Yet the CPGB “was reluctant to take a definite stand against the official union hierarchies. It had no committee based on the car industry until after 1965. (15) Johnnie Cross of the AEU, who was one of the 17 victimized workers in the defeated 1962 strike at Dagenham,  complained that the CPGB leadership was against wider rank and file links in the car industry at the time, in case it offended leading union officials.  He said that “the leading party members among the leadership of the stewards movement ducked down their little holes and stopped there” (15)

To return to Sheila’s story of the militant 1107 branch. The 1980′s into the 1990′s saw a lower level of struggle in the wider context of the surrender of the trade union bureaucracy to the anti union laws and the employers offensive. There was a rapidly growing feeling among the car workers at the plant “that the union cannot do anything about it”, and the grass-roots members were “not behind the union like they used to be”. (16) Job insecurity has a massive negative impact on confidence as well. In 1979 total employment at Dagenham was 28,583 ,by the end of  1985 it had fallen to 14,700″. (17) The Ford drive for flexibility, quality circles , and other forms of greater productivity increases were also impacting on workers independence from management. By 1985 job classifications had dropped from 550 to 52. The gap between stewards and the rank and file workers opened up.

Sheila’s title is based on a newspaper headline about the activities of the 1107 branch in this period of relative downturn. A radical leadership had  taken over the branch from an allegedly corrupt and right-wing leadership. But we do not have any explanation of why such a leadership could have arisen in such a militant branch. Nor do we have any critical assessment of the politics of the prominent members of the 1107 branch,(left Labour?)  and how this related to the world outside the shop floor.Steve Riley and Mick Gosling had taken a lead with others in tackling racism and sexism in the plant, but both were later forced out of the plant by management with the help of union officials.

Towards the end of the 1990′s the remaining workers at Dagenham were worried about the threat of plant closure. The closure was announced on 12th May 2000. Tony Woodley of the T&G ,one of a supposed awkward squad of trade union leaders, was full of strike rhetoric. The reality was there was no real urgency about strike ballots and no evidence of any trade union determination to fight the closure. The workers were kept in the dark. When a vote came no national union officials were to be seen at the plant meetings. The grass-roots workers were left with only one positive action : accept whatever redundancy money was available. Sheila comments that the drift towards closure was an example of “the pivot of union as an institution overcoming,for now,union as a movement” (18)

But for Sheila the workers will rise again as they have done in the past. So in terms of the trade unions “what makes the difference is a choice whether to seek to maximise what possibilities there are,or to remain gloomily preoccupied with the limitations and failures of the movement in a species of self-fulfilling prophesy” (19) But this comment does seem to assume trade union limitations and structures will not prevent a resurgence of workers struggles. Surely we need to take into account the failures of modern trade unionism, and not assume any fight back will go through traditional channels. As one of the militants of the 1107 branch said at the core of the resistance to Ford, the government, and trade union officialdom was the branch within the union branch. Stewards who represented workers from a number of trade unions had autonomy from the individual trade union.

What sheila’s vivid story of 1107 branch demonstrates is that workers did and can strive to transform a harsh capitalist environment. This kind of working class history does show there is a possibility that workers can unite  in the workplace, link up with local activists in the working class community, and become part of struggle against capital, the state and parliament


1 Sheila Cohen,Notoriously Militant,Merlin Press,2013,p.4

2 Sheila Cohen,Ramparts of Resistance,   Pluto Press,2006,p.13

3 Alan Thornett,From Militancy to Marxism, Left View Books, 1987 ,p.93.

4 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.75

5 Sheila Cohen,as above.p.74

6 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.77

7 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.77

8 Sheila Cohen,as above p.107

9 Huw Beynon, Working for Ford,EP Publishing 1979,p.301

10 Dave Stocking,Marxists and the Trade Unions,Workers Power pamphlet 1977,p.4

11 Sheila Cohen,The Ramparts of Resistance.p.170

11 Alex Callinicos, Socialists in the Trade Unions,Socialist Worker pamphlet,1995,p.

13 Alex Callinicos, as above,p.57

14 Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol2, New park Publications,1974,p.104

15 Huw Beynon as above, p.60

16 Sheila Cohen,Notoriously Militant,p.139

17 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.146

18 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.194

19 Sheila Cohen,Ramparts of Resistance,p.150

Lenin 1917-18 : the road to the authoritarian state.

11 02 2014

The Bolshevik party, by identifying itself with the state, was to become the internal agent of counter-revolution” (1)


Lenin’s focus when he returned to Russia in 1917 was on  the facts of the revolution, rather than  outdated Bolshevik theory . He began with  what was real,rather than an abstract possibility.  (2) Lenin’s approach was about the “demands of the moment rather than abstract theory”. (3) For Lenin to repeat a general Marxist truth  in some circumstances was a distraction from practical priorities. (4) So  Despite the libertarian rhetoric  in his correspondence and political statements in early 1917, an alternative to the capitalist state was merely a theoretical aspiration. His political aim was more immediate , and pragmatic,  not the introduction of socialism,but a state-run economy which he regarded  in some sense as a transition to socialism.

Lenin’s immediate economic programme was modest and coincided with the programme of the moderate Social Democratic leaders of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Peasants Deputies. As Trotsky noted, Lenin regarded this programme as excellent, and the only programme which could provide a way out of economic collapse. (5) The Petrograd Soviet executive committee proposals, in May 1917, for state control and regulation of the economy to save the country from ruin, which Lenin agreed with, was a  programme of national salvation.  The bourgeoisie was worried about where the revolutionary mass activity could lead and would not carry out this programme . The compromising soviet leaders clung to their dogma of the bourgeois revolution led by capitalists.

For Lenin, once the Bourgeoisie was removed from political power, the road would be open to a leadership in the Soviets to head the state to provide the administration to get the economy going again.  However, Lenin’s first assessment of the development of the revolution was mistaken. He assumed a peaceful growth, on the basis of Soviet constitutionalism, as if the revolutionary dynamic would flow smoothly through Soviet elections. He underestimated the reaction of the masses to the crisis. In Trotsky’s opinion “for the party in its immense majority had not yet realised  the mightiest of the revolutionary passions that was simmering in the depths of the awakening people” (6) Writing in the cult of Lenin he left out the infallible leader’s lack of awareness.

The Bolshevik party did not plan for insurrection or connect directly with the rank and file workers and solders moving in that direction. Lenin favoured a tactic of putting demands on the class  collaborationist leaders of the Soviet to compel them into breaking with the bourgeoisie. The assumption they could be compelled to break with the bourgeoisie was the basis of the notion of a peaceful transfer of state power.  Trotsky brings out the reformist logic of this approach in these words:”the transfer of power to the Soviets meant in its immediate sense a transfer of power to the compromisers that might have been accomplished by way of simple dismissal of the bourgeois government”. (7) This policy was the dead-end of the futile demand for the Soviet moderates to take the power which resulted in a serious defeat for the revolutionary forces in Petrograd. This could have been fatal for the Bolsheviks, but Lenin learned a hard lesson enabling  the Bolsheviks to seize the state in the name of the Soviets.

The common outlook on a state controlled economy between the Bolsheviks and the Social Democratic leaders was  possible because Lenin’s political theory  was” constructed on the economic ground of the theoreticians of the Second International”. (8) Capitalist technology and science was a positive and neutral framework for socialist advance. So administrative and hierarchical forms that the bourgeois used for exploitation could be utilised for steps  to socialism. In other words,”the productive forces were unambiguously technical and to develop them meant to follow the trail blazed by Capital” (9) The undercurrent of Lenin’s State  and Revolution is the Social Democratic vision that socialism is to “organise the whole economy on the lines of the postal service”. (10) The vague idea that every cook can supervise leaves out the point about who makes the decisions. Workers power at the point of production was not part of the plan.

In the Impending Catastrophe and how to Combat it ,Lenin argued that the large-scale organisation of capitalism is a means whereby the state can expedite capitalist development. This is because state monopoly capitalism is the material preparation for capitalism and socialism can be seen in the workings of modern capitalism. This is why state control of large-scale capitalism is a step to socialism. In Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power , Lenin  even goes as far as declaring that the administrative apparatus of the banks is nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus. The state and capitalist modernisation was the way forward for Lenin. In any case,  Lenin was a  centralist by conviction and a long time admirer of factory discipline and discipline in general.

Following the October Revolution the new Bolshevik government was located, not in the soviets, but in the Bolshevik party leadership in a ministerial style cabinet, but given the revolutionary sounding name of Council of Peoples Commissars. “The new Government took over the control of various ministerial bureaucracies from the provisional government which in turn had inherited them from the Tsars council of ministers”. (11) A small number of Bolshevik intellectuals ran the ministries and the old Tsarist state bureaucracy was not smashed, but utilised and expanded outside the Soviets and workers democracy. According to Orlando Figes,over half of the bureaucrats in the Moscow offices of the commissariat in August 1918 had worked in some branch of administration before October 1917.  (12) The  bureaucratic state structure became even more massive than the pre revolutionary structure and rested on a smaller productive base: “it owed more to Tsarist bureaucratic traditions than the ideals of the revolution”. (13)

This conservative pattern was replicated in the state economy. Top down pre-revolutionary economic institutions were utilised at the expense of grass-roots workers initiative and action. At the top was Veshenka reporting to Bolshevik state leaders, and lower down were the local branches which followed instructions from above. What had been “created was a central economic department with local offices “.(14) The model was the German war economy which Alexander Bogdanov, Lenin’s old Bolshevik factional opponent, warned should not be mistaken for the emergence of a socialist system.  Lenin was not immediately concerned with an abstract  theory of a socialist economy,but with the nuts and bolts of a state system he had inherited and could pragmatically build on.

Once the Bolshevik regime settled down in the months following the revolution, Lenin outlined his economic priorities in March/ April 1918 in his thesis, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government. There would be a combination of  the Bolshevik state with the up to date achievements of capitalism. The state would create greater productivity of labour and develop the productive forces on the basis of capitalist methods and techniques. The Russian worker had to learn to work with the help of the Taylor system which Lenin once described as the last word in capitalist slavery. Furthermore, ” without the guidance of experts in the various fields of knowledge,technology and expertise,the transition to Socialism would not be possible” . (15) What was required from the workers in the factories was unquestioning obedience to the orders of the factory manager appointed by the Bolsheviks. As in previous bourgeois revolutions, dictatorship could be the vehicle for the revolutionary class. Industrial democracy had no place in this dictatorship over workers.

Prebrashensky, a left Bolshevik, argued that the logical implications of a dictatorship in industry was a dictatorship in the party. He also noticed that in Lenin’s proposals, “the power of the working class in production isn’t mentioned as on of the necessary conditions of Socialism”. (16)  But the most perceptive comment on Lenin’s  politics probably came from Ossinski who became one of the most consistent left oppositionists. Ossinski made a fundamental point: “if the proletariat itself does not know how to create the necessary prerequisites for the socialist organisation of labour,no one else can do this for it ,and no one can compel it to do this”. (17) He added that if the stick is raised against the workers those that wield it would become a new social force against the workers.

Lenin told the left Bolsheviks in 1918 that the historical time was not ripe for the commune state.Yet ironically  it was the time for  the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Not in the sense of the domination of society by the working class,but as the dictatorship of a Bolshevik  regime. This was what the young Trotsky described as substitutionism : the party substituting for the working class. Weeks after the October revolution Lenin chaired  a meeting which decided on setting up a standing army which entailed the help of ex- tsarist officers, with privileges, and later the reintroduction of the death penalty. Only a few months earlier Lenin had given the impression that he stood for  an armed people,and the standing army was part of the state that had to be smashed.  Here, as in industry, the political choice was a traditional one which was at odds with revolutionary values.

Victor Serge’s  summary of his Bolshevik experience  was that on fundamental political points they were mistaken, specifically,”in their faith in statification and in the leaning towards centralism and administration” (18) His basic criticism was that Bolshevism lacked a sense of liberty which is the point made by most of the communist opposition to Lenin following the October revolution. The left Communist critique of Lenin was that there was no freedom for the working class,and the Bolshevik leadership had chosen not to rely on the initiative and creativity of the masses. Rosa Luxemburg also took issue with Lenin’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat when she wrote,” but this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy not its elimination”. (19) The Soviet State was a misnomer. The Soviets were not built up as a revolution against the state. Instead,a  political choice was made to build up the party- state,which gave the name communism to counter-revolution.

Barry Biddulph


1 The Russian Communist Left 1918-30, 2005,P.37

2 V.I.Lenin,The tasks of the proletariat in our Revolution,Progress Publishers,Moscow,p.66. In a sense, he avoided admitting he had been mistaken in his perspectives for the Russian Revolution. Things had worked out differently and the Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry was useless in the complex reality of the interweaving of the bourgeois and proletarian revolution. He now agreed with Trotsky that the need for  a state controlled economy would take the revolution beyond the minimum programme. To use the old jargon,the commune state was the maximum programme.

3 Alan Woods,Bolshevism ,Well Red Books,London,p.93.  Alan Woods has an uncritical not to say religious view of Lenin and Trotsky.

4 Lars T Lih ,Lenin Rediscovered,Brill 2006. p.50. Lars repeats this point elswhere about Lenin not stating a Marxist truth because it did not apply in the current circumstances.Was Lenin’s political approach a casual attitude to Marxist theory or creative flexibility? Either way it was a short sighted view.

5 Leon Trotsky,The History of the Russian Revolution,Pluto Press ,London 1974,p.426-7

6 Leon Trotsky as above, p.422

7 Leon Trotsky,as above, p.816.

8 U. Santamaria and A. Manville,Lenin and the Transition,Telos, Spring 1976 p.79

9 Phillip Corrigan,Harvie Ramsay and Derek Sayer,Socialist Construction and Marxist Theory, Monthly Review Press ,New York,p.30

10 V.I.Lenin,The State and Revolution,  CW Vol 25 Progress Publishers,Moscow 1977,p. 432  The state and revolution was published in 1918 and its libertarian themes were no influence on the revolution before or after October 1917. The pamphlet was used internationally to justify the seizure of State power.

11 Sheila Fitzpatrick,The Russian Revolution , Oxford university press, 1994.p. 88

12 Orlando Figes,A people’s Tragedy,Pimlico,1996,p.689

13 Neil Harding,Lenin’s Political Thought, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1986,p.325

14 E.H Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-23,penguins Books,p.80

15 V.I Lenin,The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, CW Vol 27 Progress Publishers ,Moscow ,1980,p.15

16 The Russian Communist left,1918-30, the ICC, 2005,P.340.

17 As above p.338

18 Victor Serge,Memoirs of a Revolutionary.Oxford University Press,1963,p.76. The Serge Trotsky Papers,edited by D.J. Cotterill, Pluto Press,1994,contain some telling points about Trotsky on Kronstadt and the organisational methods of Trotskyism.

19 Rosa Luxemburg,The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B Anderson,Monthly Review Press,New York, 2004,p.308

the unknown revolution: ukraine 1917-21

27 01 2014

Originally posted on the commune:

Much has been written on the revolution in Ukrainian, on the nationalists, the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks. Yet there were others with a massive following whose role has faded from history. One such party was the Borotbisty, the majority of the million strong Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, they formed an independent communist party seeking an independent Soviet Ukraine.

Though widely known amongst revolutionary Europe in their day, the Borotbisty were decimated during the Stalinist holocaust. Out of print for over half a century Borotbism by Ivan Maistrenko has now been republished. Maistrenko (1899-1984) was a veteran of the revolutionary movement. A red partisan in 1918-20 he was a journalist and opponent of Stalin in the 1920’s becoming deputy director of the All-Ukrainian Communist Institute of Journalism in 1931. A survivor of the gulag he lived as a post-war refugee in Germany becoming editor of the anti-Stalinist workers paper Vpered. His…

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The Scottish Independence Referendum and Revolutionary Socialists

24 01 2014
 Eric Chester writes on Scottish Independence and Nationalism.The question of Scottish independence is a complex one, an issue that requires an assessment on the theoretical level, the attitude of socialists toward nationalism, as well as a critique of the specifics of the question as it relates to Scotland and the United Kingdom. I believe that a genuinely independent Scotland would be a positive development, but that the proposal being presented by the Scottish National Party is a sham, and should not be supported. Indeed, Alex Salmond and the SNP envision a Scotland that is not independent, and is neither socialist, nor a republic.
Socialists have always been skeptical of bourgeois nationalism, correctly viewing it as a diversion from a class-based solidarity that crosses national boundaries and has a vision of a future society that is international in scope. This does not mean that we as socialists do not support the right of self-determination of an oppressed people. In fact, Westminster has conceded this point with regard to Scotland by agreeing to accept the results of the upcoming referendum as binding. Scotland clearly has a distinct history and culture. It was forcibly annexed to England, and many of its people were coerced into adopting the English language and then forcibly removed from their land. Given that Westminster has agreed to accept the referendum’s results, it would be bizarre for socialists to insist that Scotland remain a part of Britain even if a majority of its citizens expressed a desire to be independent.

The issue then is not whether Scotland has the right to be independent, it does, but whether it makes sense for socialists to advocate a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. I would suggest that as a general proposition socialists should only support national independence when this would advance the interests of the working class, and mark a significant step toward a socialist transformation of society. A truly independent Scotland, one that became a republic, that had its own currency and determined its own budget, that left NATO and closed down British military bases, and that left the European Union, such a Scotland would be worthy of socialist support.

The reality is that the SNP is not interested in an independent Scotland. Salmond is eager to placate Westminster and the English ruling class. Thus, the servile praise of the monarchy. This ploy announces loudly to all that Scotland will remain subordinate to England, even after it becomes nominally independent. The monarchy is not a purely symbolic issue. The crown powers would enable the British government to remove a Scottish government it viewed as a threat. Furthermore, the monarchy owns a considerable amount of Scottish land. Indeed, in Scotland ownership of land is concentrated in the hands of a few families, many of them descending from the old aristocracy. A truly independent Scotland would seize large landholdings, either distributing them to farmer cooperatives, or holding the land for use as national parks and wilderness.

Furthermore, Salmond has declared that he hopes that Scotland will continue to use the British pound sterling, which would cede control over interest rates and the banking system to the Bank of England and the City of London. Breaking the stranglehold of London financiers over the setting of economic policy will require a genuine independence that has as a prerequisite control over monetary policy.

Still, the global context has markedly changed since Britain reluctantly engaged in a process of decolonization after World War II. Scotland must also negotiate an acceptable transition with the United States, through NATO, and Germany, through the European Union. NATO will never agree to let Scotland to close its military bases now being used by U.S. troops as a way station to military adventures in the Middle East and beyond. The decision of a truly independent Scotland to withdraw from NATO, and to steer clear of U.S. imperialism, would represent the type of challenge to the global power structure that the SNP leadership is so anxious to avoid.

Instead, the SNP has dumped its long-held position, and voted that an independent Scotland would remain a member of NATO. Furthermore, the SNP has always called for Scotland to be free of all nuclear weapons, insisting that the Faslane base that acts as a home base for submarines armed with Trident nuclear tipped missiles had to be closed. Once having opted to remain within NATO, the SNP has had to agree that Faslane can continue to service Trident submarines until at least 2020.

And then there is the European Union. This is no longer just a common market, but rather an increasingly tightly integrated economic unit in which power is becoming more centralized, with the Germans wielding the real clout. An “independent” Scotland seeking to remain within the EU will almost certainly have to sign on to the new fiscal treaty that greatly restricts a country’s ability to determine its budget. Thus, deficit financing to spur an economic recovery will be prohibited. It is also highly likely that Scotland will have to join the Eurozone after a probationary period, since it is increasingly clear that the European Union will treat an application for membership by an independent Scotland as it would that coming from new members such as the countries of Eastern Europe.

In a globally integrated economy dominated by transnational corporations, the entire question of national independence becomes problematic. Only a rapid transition to socialism can provide a meaningful solution to this problem. Nevertheless, the difficulties confronting Scotland go far beyond this. As the SNP attempts to negotiate a smooth exit from the United Kingdom, its leaders will enter into deals that entangle Scotland in a dense web of agreements that place this supposedly independent country in a subordinate position. In the end, it is probable that the Scottish working class will be no better off than before. Indeed, it is quite possible that the working class will be worse off, confronting even more drastic austerity measures, than if Scotland had continued to move toward a greater autonomy within the framework of the existing state.

Given the choices being offered, our role as revolutionary socialists is to reject both of them and, instead, to advocate a positive alternative to the existing situation, a choice in which Scotland becomes truly independent. A ‘no’ vote is a vote for the monarchy and the British imperial state. A ‘yes’ vote is a vote for a phony nationalism that leaves Scotland still stuck in a subordinate position. Neither choice is attractive.

The referendum has all of the characteristics of the typical election in a capitalist country in which voters get to choose between an array of parties advocating similar policies. In Scotland, this means voting for either the SNP or Labour. As revolutionary socialists, we reject this as a meaningful choice. We should do the same for the options presented in the independence referendum.

Freedom From Wage Labour and Private Property in England 1649-50.

11 01 2014

 “Take notice that England is not a free people till the poor who would have no land have free allowance to dig and labour the commons and so live as comfortably as the landlord in their enclosure” Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649


Over one hundred years before Gracchus Babeuf raised the banner of common ownership  and equality in the French Revolution ,the True Leveller Gerrard Winstanley advocated that the propertyless must free the world by working together in equality without money, wages, and private property.   At the peak of the English Revolution in 1648-1649, as the Levellers tried to push the revolution forward in times of economic and political crisis, Gerrard Winstanley- in a moment of inspiration, and political passion, heard the voice of the poor and landless  as the voice of reason,which he identified as his own personal god and inner light.

The message was clear,practical and direct : work together, and eat together, on the common at St Georges Hill,Surrey. He declared that since all were born equal there was no legitimate right for a minority of landowners to rule over the majority of landless labourers.  Private ownership was rooted in violence, such as the Norman Conquest. Organised religion had also played a  role in tricking the people out of access to their means of subsistence.  Working together on the wastes and commons was merely the first step to freedom.

The true Levellers wanted the poor on landed estates to join them and refuse to work the landlords land. If the landed elite wanted private property let them work the land themselves. When thirty or forty True Leveller poor, led by Winstanley, began their bid for freedom from private property and  wage slavery on St Georges hill in April 1649,there was a violent reaction from local landowners and their clergy who were determined to stop these diggers from creating a movement to subvert the foundations of private  property,  and the  established church.

Throughout 1649 at St Georges Hill and later in early 1650 at Cobham Heath, where the remaining diggers had retreated,there was a concerted violent campaign against their settlement. The savage repression was led by Sir Frances Vincent a local lord of the manor ,Parson Platt, and farmers John Taylor and William Starr and included servants and tenants of these local notables.  Homes and buildings were destroyed,tools stolen or broken,possessions scattered, and diggers were beaten and  wounded. The legal system was used to arrest the True Levellers for trespass,  resulting in heavy fines and imprisonment. As Winstanley wrote :”Freedom is the man who would turn the world upside down. Therefore, no wonder he has enemies” (1)

Conservative writers in so far as they did not leave the True Levellers episode hidden by  a history of winners,indulge in character assassination and the personal denigration of Winstanley as incompetent hypocritical or moved by low motives, which has continued to the modern period. The historian A.L.Rowse accused Winstanley of the Politics of envy which is a very cynical and convenient view for the wealthy. In the polite words of Ivan Roots another historian,the politics of envy is “a cardinal sin in the eyes of those comfortable enough not to be tempted by it. (2) Exactly.   In 1976 J.C Davis “no more approves of Winstanley than he does of Christopher Hill” (3)

Diane Purkiss, who has recently written a book on the civil war, continues these dubious polemics and no more approves of Brian Manning’s books than she does of Winstanley. In her “People’s History” of the civil war, Purkiss sneers that for all his talk of locality Winstanley was an incomer and a townie,he might know how to graze cattle, but did he know how to grow food ? (4) Even if he was successful at grazing, he was a cattle entrepreneur ; hence he was a hypocrite in opposing commercial buying and selling. This is a perverse and poisonous polemic. Even when describing the difficulties of cloth trading in an economic crisis and the disruption of trade due to the civil war-specifically Winstanley’s trade links with Ireland she still has contempt for him as a loser. “He was never much of a business man”. (5) Here we have the conservative stereotype of the inadequate revolutionary projecting his own faults onto Society.

The diggers on St Georges hill were local parishioners. Not all parishioners were born in the Parish. Winstanley had been provided with a small piece of land by his father in law who saved the family from abject poverty. He worked as a cow- herder,scratching a living  from the land without hired labour. The allegation that he was a townie seems to come straight out of the reactionary contemporary politics of the countryside alliance. The diggers seemed to have earned their nickname and strenuous efforts were made to break their tools. If they were incompetents why not leave them to starve on St Georges Hill?  The difficulties of commercial activity for small traders like himself in the 1640′s would have given him insights into the drawbacks of buying and selling and helped him identify with those in poverty who had lost their right to the commons through enclosure. In any case,he understood that the market and capitalist development was separating the people from the land and their means of subsistence.

That only leaves her hint that since Winstanley was some kind of communist advocating common ownership of the land ,he must be some kind of totalitarian; a common theme from the cold war period.  In the words of Diane Purkiss :”By the end he too had come to believe state power might be needed to support and control his ideal society”. (6)  This is a reference to Winstanley’s Law of Freedom in a Platform written following the defeat of the diggers after a year of peaceful and brave resistance to the violent harassment of their community by the local rich.  Purkiss cannot avoid mocking Winstanley as the revolutionary who bent his knee to Cromwell’s authority  by appealing to him to implement the platform.

But Winstanley wanted to do everything he could and have his final say even if it would serve only to pacify his own spirit or the fire in his bones as he put it. Marie Louise Berneri’s opinion is that “from the contents and tone of he appeal,however,it is clear Winstanley had little hope that Cromwell would carry out the programme” (7) Marie added that Winstanley placed demands on Cromwell all the better to criticise him later when the revolution might revive. She might have a point, but it seems more likely that he was putting down a historical marker which would be a historical vindication for the True Levellers, warning Cromwell that if he refused to implement the platform, and look to the interests of the poor, he would lose his reputation in the historical long run.

Winstanley had experienced defeat and was  aware of other digger settlements suffering the same fate in the context of Cromwell’s ruthless crushing of the Leveller rank and file at Burford. He might not have been fully aware that this was a historical turning point ,but he  knew  Cromwell’s army was becoming an instrument of order and reaction. In this counter-revolutionary situation independent attempts to work the land as free men would have seemed impossible to him. Hence a desperate  appeal to Cromwell in the hope that this might influence the army in some way to reverse the reactionary trend. His conscience would not allow him to concede defeat without one last attempt to advocate the virtues of common ownership. We should remember that when he was summoned to explain himself to Fairfax, the practical leader of the army, a few weeks after the occupation of St Georges Hill, he made no such appeal. Both Winstanley, and Everard another digger, refused to doff their hats to Fairfax. They simply informed the general what they were doing.

Far from advocating a form of state collectivism Winstanley made the revolutionary point that there was no middle road :  it was freedom or tyranny. Freedom was sharing the earth as a common treasury without a property-owning state.The social context of older male voting rights was freedom from wage labour and commercial activity. Marie Berneri sums it up in modern terms : in his ideal commonwealth there is neither money, nor wages and each gives according to their ability and receives according to their need” (8) But this description is not accurate because the phrase ” each according to their ability” did not apply to women.  All male  officers of his Commonwealth would be subject to an annual election. Winstanley wanted to see “that the free possession of the land and liberties be put into the hands of the oppressed commons of England” (9) This is the point of the Paris Commune of 1871 : there can be no political freedom without economic freedom.

Winstanley’s views are remarkable from a remarkable period in history. However, he was very much a man of his time in a fundamental sense. Women are almost invisible in his Commonwealth.  The family unit is still in place with an  older man as the head of the family, responsible for children and wives. The family  would be a consumption unit. He envisaged liberty to marry for love, and wives and husbands to enjoy each other.  Adultery would not be a crime subject to punishment. Yet despite his patriarchal views he did propose to have the death penalty for anyone who raped a woman. The executioners like the solders would be elected  locally. There was then a contemporary  stress on punishment. Even so, he was far ahead of his times,in a sense too advanced, since he was out of step with historical development. Cromwell’s regime facilitated the further growth of capitalism and colonialism.  What Winstanley understood was that the separation of the producers from the means of production could only result in oppression, and  inequality.   As Norah Carlin put it : ” in the law of freedom Winstanley is concerned with abolishing the state. (10)

Barry Biddulph

January 2014.


1 Gerrard Winstanley, A Watchword to the City of London. Winstanley and his followers were not in a position to use force against their enemies, but in any case he believed that the sword created the problem of inequality in the first place and was not a solution.

2 Ivan Roots,introduction to David Petegorsky,Left Wing Democracy in the English Civil War,sandpiper books 1999,p.5

3 As above, p.9

4 Diane Purkiss,The English Civil War,Harper Perennial, London, 2007,p.526

5 As above p.520

6 As above,p.524

7 Marie Louise Berneri,Journey Through Utopia, Freedom press 1987,p.150

8 As above p.169

9 Gerrard Winstanley, The law of Freedom in a platform.

10  Norah Carlin,Marxism and the Civil War,International Socialism Journal 10, winter 1980-81 p.122


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