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

Why Vote for a Scottish State ?

17 12 2013

Barry Biddulph takes a critical look at, The National Question-Some Basic Principles, by John Molyneux in the Irish Marxist Review and the application of these principles to Scotland by Keir Mckechnie in the same issue.vol 2 Number 8


John Molyneux provides the theoretical framework for the claim that voting yes for independence in Scotland, is not necessarily a Nationalist  vote. In recommending a yes vote Keir Mckechnie maintains that a vote for national independence can paradoxically become a vote against nationalism. Molyneux sets the dogmatic tone : “Marxists support the Right of Nations to self-determination and the National Liberation struggles of oppressed Nations”. (1) In other words,Lenin’s views on the national question are assumed to be true. Yet many Marxists do not support the bourgeois demand of self-determination or regard “National Liberation” as a step to working class emancipation. Rosa Luxemburg  regarded the demand for self-determination as a utopia in the context of imperialism. Indeed,  Marx himself did not support the Right of self-determination as a general principle, even in the case of Poland.

In the words of Michael Lowy, “Marx and Engels supported Poland, less in the name of the general principle of self-determination of nations, than because of the struggle of the Poles against Tsarist Russia”. (2) Nor did Marx support the right of self-determination for the Southern Confederacy in the American Civil War. Engels ruled out the principle of self-determination for nations he regarded , in dubious terms, as ” non historic” or not viable on national or racial grounds.  Keir Mckechnie has a very uniformed  opinion that, “where there is genuine national oppression,then both workers and bosses will benefit from independence”. (3) National unity of bosses and workers is presented in a positive light as if class power and inequality did not exist. This this was not the case in China and many other national struggles in which the worker’s movement and communist organisations were repressed or destroyed. Modern nationalist movements in Zimbabwe and South Africa have not liberated the masses.

There is also a difficulty in Molyneux and Mckechnie attempting to drape themselves in Leninist orthodoxy on self-determination: they accept that Scotland is not and was not an oppressed nation. The division between oppressed and oppressor nations is at the core of Lenin’s position. Then again, the  Leninist Right of Self determination is  rather overcomplicated for a principle.  The right to self-determination does not always apply, and sometimes has to be subordinated to the exigencies of class struggle. So it has the appearance of a principle, but might not apply  in specific conditions. In a sense, it is not a general right. A general right is asserted,  but in a sense you do not have a right,  and  you might ditch it. For instance, Lenin did not always stick to the principle of self-determination following the Russian revolution in the Ukraine ,Georgia and elsewhere. Nigel Harris is clear,that for Lenin : “the issue was still a tactical one has it had been for Marx…. not a matter of general principle” (4)

 Lenin prided himself on what he regarded as his historically specific account of the time and place for the demand for Self-Determination. He situated the demand in the context of what he called the Democratic Bourgeois Revolution .   In Lenin’s view, the period of these revolutions in Western Europe was roughly 1789 to 1871 : ” in England (in Britain excluding Ireland ) the bourgeois revolution has been consummated long ago”.(5) His  historical context for the bourgeois revolution for  self-determination did not apply to Scotland. For Lenin at the time ” it is precisely and solely because Russia, and her neighbouring countries are passing through this phase that we must have a clause in our programme on the right of self-determination”.(6) He saw self-determination  and a radical bourgeois revolution  as  the future in Russia and Asia.These perspectives were proved wrong by historical developments.

Despite all the political rhetoric of revolutionary democracy, the Russian revolution took a different turn. If the spectre of the French revolution influenced the bourgeoisie in a conservative non revolutionary direction in the spring time of people’s in 1848 and after, then the fear of the revolutionary events of 1917 was  also a conservative lesson for the world bourgeoisie . Moreover, the Bolsheviks rooted their regime in the ‘ Party- State’ rather than the Soviets. As a consequence, Bolshevik state building in the “Soviet Union” led to dictatorship over workers. As early as March 1918, Lenin described the international revolution as a fairy tale, and the Soviet State set about establishing  normal relationships with other states. The treaty of Brest Litovsk was part of an overall strategy of consolidating the Bolshevik State rather than a gamble on international revolution. Neil Davidson cynically states that they “decided to survive rather than go down to glorious defeat along the lines of the Paris Commune”. (7)  Communism from below was not given a fighting chance to succeed. Instead, the ‘party- state’ counter-revolution called itself communism.

 Lenin wanted a proper state, a proper army, proper managers in the factories, and proper diplomacy. Defence of the Russian state went hand in hand with  the false perspectives of 1913-14, that the route to socialism in Asia, and other areas dominated by imperialism would be through bourgeois nationalists and bourgeois democracy . Lenin’s address to the All Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East,in 1919, made it clear “you will have to base yourselves on  bourgeois nationalism”. (8) The Italian Communist, Amadeo Bordiga described this as revisionism in terms of class struggle.  Hillel Ticktin notes that the Soviet Union came to terms with the bourgeoisie on its borders, and there was a real conflict between the interests of the USSR as a secure entity, and the needs of Socialism. (internationalism) (9) Neil Davidson wants to minimise criticism of the Bolshevik regime prior to Stalinism and puts it in an understatement,”what did not exist at this stage was a consistent policy of privileging Russian state interests over those of the international movement” (9) But there was nationalism,even if it was inconsistent.

Lenin’s Support for bourgeois nationalism in China, whatever the  qualifications placed on it, proved disastrous for the communist  movement. In China the nationalist army,   trained and armed by the Bolshevik state, inflicted a historic defeat on communism, as a worker’s movement in 1927, from which it never recovered. Nigel Harris who is very much part of the IS/SWP  tradition makes the obvious point : How could the Bourgeois Democracy be so foolish as to allow communist parties to direct independent mass class based movements”.(10) The falseness of the Leninist theses on national liberation can be seen from Trotsky’s Leninist view from 1924 : there is no doubt whatsoever that if the Kuomintang party in China succeeds in uniting China under a national democratic regime,the capitalist development of China will make enormous strides forward” (11) Tragically,capitalist development strode forward  over the bodies of thousands of communist workers in Shanghai, in 1927.

M.N Roy, an Indian Communist, corrected Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International. His  forecast was that the local bourgeois would not play a revolutionary role due to their links with imperialism . Even today some Trotskyists  and Leninists   still support National Liberation movements when the only liberation taking place is of an elite. Surprisingly, Alex Callinicos makes the main point that Lenin did “not however resolve the problem of how the demands of the national struggle against imperialism-bourgeois democratic demands,since they could in principle be met without overthrowing capitalism related to the specific working class struggle for socialism” (12) Yes spot on.

How does an independent Capitalist state in Scotland relate to the struggle to overthrow Capitalism ? Kier Mckechnie is not entirely confident that a Scottish State will advance the class struggle: “there is no guarantee that in itself an independent Scotland would benefit ordinary people”. So why vote yes? The explicit reason given is that it will be a vote to break up the British State, but still preserving the unity of workers North and South. But, if no national antagonism exits between workers North and South, why support a separate Scottish State?  If the border can be ignored what is the point in erecting a new barrier which might generate national hostility or national exclusiveness? In any case, the yes vote will not establish a fully independent state or break up Britain. What is on offer is a shared Monarch, and  Bank of England. The new state will remain part of NATO and the European Union . In any event, as Hillel Ticktin observes,  national independence in imperialism is formal (13)

This judgement echoes Rosa Luxemburg conclusion that “so long as capitalist states exist, so long as imperialist world politics determine and regulate the inner and outer life of a nation,there can be no national self-determination either in war or peace”. (14) Recent events in Greece support this view.  We are left with the SNP policy on trident. If there is no trident in Scotland this will hardy be a body blow to imperialism.  Although NATO membership will probably result in any SNP government ditching the no to Trident policy.  As Mckechnie writes : the SNP are committing a future independent Scotland,not only to remain in an imperialist nuclear alliance dominated by the US ,but to potential foreign intervention in yet more countries”.  This is what Mckechnie describes as the right face of the SNP. Its right face was shown in the alliance with billionaires including links with Rupert Murdoch. There is likely to be  a low corporation tax, and  harsh cuts to help a small capitalist state fighting for survival. So why vote yes ?

Underneath the Leninist justification, the underlying reason for voting yes is what Mckechnie describes as the left face of the SNP; it’s social democratic public face. Alex Salmond has stated that while independence is our idea, our politics are social democratic. The SNP promise to abolish the bedroom tax among other reforms. Advocating a yes vote is a tactic to push the SNP and the new capitalist state left. The entire project is reformist, since Scottish nationalism is not Revolutionary. The hope is  for some  state reforms despite the reality of Capitalist economic crisis and the difficulties for a new Capitalist class at the head of the nation.

Despite the desire to avoid calls for unity with scottish bosses the yes vote is precisely that. If the no vote   helps British nationalism,the yes vote helps Scottish nationalism. Kier Mckechnie asks the question : will a future Scotland be a society of equality and social justice or a low wage pro free market economy which panders to multinational business? He gambles that the Scottish state will provide the national framework for the former ,but the latter is more likely as the social content of Scottish nationalism. Abstention is not on his political horizon.  We should say no to both a British capitalist state and a Scottish capitalist state. A continuing struggle for working class interests  should not sacrifice its independence by dependency on nationalism.

1 John Molyneux, The National Question-some basic principles, Irish Marxist Review.(vol 2 Number 8 )

2 Michael Lowy, Marxism and the National Question,in Revolution and Class Struggle,Edited by Robin Blackburn,Harvester Press, 1978.p.137, see also Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins, university of Chicago, 2010, p.151 “At no time however did Marx make National Self Determination into an abstract principle”

3 Keir Mckechnie,Yes to Independence-no to Nationalism,Irish Marxist Review. (vol 2 number 8 )

4 Nigel Harris,National Liberation,Penguin Books,London 1990,p.60

5 Lenin, The right of Nations to Self Determination,Progress Publishers,Moscow ,1971,p.83 Lenin stated that in putting forward the demand for self-determination he was not putting forward the ideal of small states. On the contrary,”other conditions being equal the class conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger State”. p.33

6 Lenin, ibid, p.50 see also the Historical Destiny of the Doctrine of Karl Marx, in Lenin : Revolution, Democracy, Socialism edited by Paul Le Blanc, Pluto Press ,London, 2008, “The West had finished with Bourgeois revolutions.The East had not yet risen to them”. p.220

7 Neil Davidson,How revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Haymarket Books Chicago 2012, p.245

8 Lenin,address to the Second all Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the People’s of the East, November 22 ,1919. And again “the task is to wage a struggle against medieval survivals and not against Capitalism” He had already stated in May 1913 in Backward Europe and advanced Asia,that the mighty democratic movement in Asia will show that collectivism lies through democracy,”the Bourgeoisie here is as yet siding with the people against reaction”His position at this point and later was the bourgeoisie might vacillate and, we must put pressure on them. Although there was flexibility and qualifications about independent proletarian activity this was a two stage theory.

9 Neil Davidson, ibid ,p.245. The Bolshevik State supported Turkish Nationalists during the repression of communists and workers between December 1920 and January 1921. Radek and other Bolshevik leaders claimed the  Nationalists were objectively revolutionary in the first phase of the National Revolution.

10 Nigel Harris, ibid ,p.123.

11 Neil Davidson ibid ,p.217

12 Alex Callinicos,Marxism and the National Question,  in Scotland Class and Nation, edited by Chris Bambery, Bookmarks,London,p.44

13 Hillel Ticktin, Marxism,Nationalism and the National Question,after Stalinism, Critique 36-37, June 2005, p.21

14 Rosa Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Edited by peter Hudis and Kevin B Anderson,Monthly Review Press new york ,2004,p.325 (The Junius Pamphlet )

Mandela : A Hero for Capitalism

11 12 2013

Today in Johannesburg the biggest ever gathering of leaders of global capitalism is taking place to honour Nelson Mandela. They have already flooded the media with a chorus of adulation for the man and his achievements. Current and former political leaders have all rushed to heap praise on him and hold him up as a role model for future generations. The stench of hypocrisy is of course everywhere but none more pungent than that provided by the British Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron. In 1985 he was a leading member of the Federation of Conservative Students which produced the “Hang Mandela” posters and tee-shirts in support of apartheid. In 1989 he celebrated Mandela’s 26 years in prison by journeying to South Africa at the invitation of the Botha Government to discuss how to bust sanctions against apartheid. Interviewed this morning in Johannesburg on Radio 4 he did not call him a terrorist but “Madiba”. Vomit bags all round.[1]

Mandela was an exceptional man and in many ways an admirable one, not least for his bravery, his steadfastness to his cause through 27 years in prison and his sharp political insight. However, what today’s world leaders are really praising him for is the role he played in rescuing South African capitalism from the cul-de-sac of Apartheid, thereby preventing the country descending into a bloodbath of civil war and, consequently, for the service he rendered to western imperialism.

Capitalism is a system of class exploitation and oppression which reveals its brutality in naked violence when its wage-slaves stage any fight-back. The leaders it produces, such as those now praising Mandela, are generally unheroic hypocrites. Yet the system has need of heroes. It needs leaders who can camouflage the primary oppression of its wage-slaves by removing non-essential second order areas of oppression, such as racial or sexual oppression. It needs leaders who can disguise the system’s primary oppression of the working class, an oppression based on wage labour, with fine sounding phrases such as democracy, freedom and human rights for all. Leaders who can do this, such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela become its heroes. In reality capitalism has no interest in democracy, freedom or human rights. These are baubles with which it dresses itself up from time to time. We need only to remember how US, UK and European leaders were quite happy to support the Apartheid regime for forty years while democracy, freedom and human rights were trampled underfoot in the most open and flagrant manner, to understand this. Western regimes provided military equipment and intelligence to the regime to help it repress its external and internal enemies, such as the ANC and Mandela himself, and were quite happy to let African Nationalist leaders, who risked their lives for such things, rot in prison. Today Mandela is being elevated to secular sainthood and praised for forgiving his enemies amongst whom, of course, are the predecessors of those global leaders who today sing his praises. He is being held up as an example of how struggles for reforms within capitalism can lead to a better world.

It is now 19 years since the ANC came to power in South Africa and much of the myth of the “Rainbow Nation”, the better life for all, the justice and equality has been exploded. However, the aura of Mandela and the heroic freedom struggle has provided cover to the ANC regime as it enforced continued exploitation and oppression of the South African working class. With Mandela’s death this aura will fade. His death marks the end of a phase of South African history.

Mandela’s Life

Mandela’s life was remarkable by any standard. He was born in 1919 into the family of a minor Xhosa chief, a chief, however, who was not independent but beholden and ratified in his position by the SA state. He was educated at a Methodist mission school and remained a Christian all his life. He studied law, first at Fort Hare University, the school for many future leaders of the national struggles throughout Southern Africa, then at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. From its outset the ANC was dominated by western educated lawyers and journalists who had turned their backs on tribal society and demanded equal rights in capitalist society. It is little wonder, therefore, that Mandela gravitated to the ANC which he joined in 1943. Mandela’s ability and fighting spirit were soon recognised and he rose rapidly in the organisation. He was, however, generally dissatisfied with the passive leadership of the ANC and in 1944 he was co-founder of the youth section through which he tried to pursue a more radical resistance. In 1947 he was elected to the executive committee of the Transvaal ANC. The coming to power of the Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948 saw the start of legal entrenchment of Apartheid making the situation for the African majority even worse. In the early 50s, by which time he had become a practising lawyer, he and other ANC leaders tried to oppose the apartheid system with passive, Gandhi type, protests. However, peaceful protests of the early 1950s achieved nothing but repression.

In 1955 the principal programmatic document of the ANC, the “Freedom Charter” was produced and adopted by the organisation the following year. 1956 saw Mandela, together with 155 others, charged with high treason for attempting to overthrow the state by violence. The trial was to last 6 years and end with acquittal of all the defendants, much to the embarrassment of the regime. In 1960 the notorious Sharpville massacre took place. The police shot dead 69 unarmed people protesting against the internal passport system, which obliged all black people to carry a pass, which was used to restrict the areas in which they could live and work. The massacre was followed by the declaration of a state of emergency and the banning of the ANC. These events convinced Mandela that peaceful resistance to the regime was hopeless. He then travelled abroad to organise an armed resistance wing to the ANC. On returning to SA he was arrested, apparently after the CIA tipped off the SA police, and convicted of relatively minor charges, such as leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike. While in prison however he was charged with treason again. This led to the famous Rivonia trial of 1963/64. During this trial he defended himself admitting the charges and turning the trial into an indictment of the injustices of apartheid and the crimes of the regime. His famous final speech stated how he cherished the ideals of a democratic and free society where all were equal and declared that this was an ideal for which he was prepared to die. Instead of the expected death sentence Mandela and the other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, with the result that he spent much of the next 27 years in the notorious Robben Island prison off Cape Town.

In the 70s and 80s the social situation in South Africa suffered a sharp deterioration. Protests intensified but massive repression and killing of protesters, on a scale dwarfing the Sharpville massacre, proved insufficient to stabilise the situation. Within the economy it had become clear to the main factions of the South African capitalist class that the migrant labour system in particular, and Apartheid in general were leading the country to catastrophe. The increased capital intensity of South African capitalism meant that a skilled stable working class was required. The strategy of the capitalists was to create an African middle class which they could use as an ally against the working class. They aimed to do this via an organisation they set up called the “Urban Foundation”, and at the same time set up African trade unions which they hoped could be used to control the class struggle. Of course, this strategy meant providing political rights to Africans as well as other rights granted to workers in the metropolitan countries. There was only one political force which could implement such a programme and that was the ANC. One of the problems with bringing the ANC into government was its endorsement of the “Freedom Charter” which called for a raft of state capitalist measures such as the nationalisation of the land, banks and mines. SA capital considered these measures suicidal in the period of globalisation. Therefore, before the ANC was un-banned the key sectors of South African capital, particularly the mining corporations, held discussions with the ANC leadership during which they were assured that the measures of nationalization enshrined in the charter would not be implemented. The ground was now prepared for the un-banning of the ANC and the release of its leaders which occurred in 1990. Mandela walked out of prison in February 1990 and so began a process of negotiations which led to the famous election of 1994 and a democratic constitution. In recognition of his role in avoiding a civil war and a bloodbath Mandela was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1993. The 1994 election led to victory for the ANC and Mandela’s installation as the country’s first democratic president. He remained as president until 1999 when he retired.

ANC and the South African Working Class

The ANC has always presented itself as an African national movement, that is, a movement which represents the interests of the entire African population. In fact the population of any country consists of classes, the main classes being the capitalist class and the working class, the former living off the exploitation of the latter. These classes have diametrically opposed interests. It is therefore simply deception to pretend that a political movement can represent the interests of the nation as a whole. In reality the ANC has always been a party representing the rising African bourgeois class and its period in power has proved this.[2] The ANC’s flirtation with the African working class has been a cynical manoeuvre to recruit workers as its foot soldiers with which to batter down the Apartheid regime and the resistance of Afrikaner nationalism. In its period in power from 1994 the ANC has taken over the management of South African capitalism and carried out this task like any other capitalist government in this period. The famous nationalisations promised in the Freedom Charter have remained firmly on paper and not been carried out. Privatisations, however, and opening of the country to global capital have been carried out. Workers’ living standards have been cut, while unemployment has increased. Where workers have tried to fight back they have been met with the full force of state repression. The most infamous example of this was the Marikana massacre of striking miners on the 16th of August 2012, where the ANC’s police shot and killed 34 striking miners in a display of naked and calculated class violence. At the same time the power of the state has been used to promote the ANC party elite into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie through the famous Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. This programme has created a handful of black millionaires in positions of power in the mining and industrial corporations, a process which the regime tries to present as compensation for the sins of the past century, and as a demonstration that the position of Africans is improving. However, at the same time as they promote themselves to the ranks of the capitalist class they are creating an ever growing urban underclass dependent on state welfare payments and the gap between rich and poor is getting ever wider. Creating a black bourgeois class was, of course, always the ANC’s programme, but the lie, which it has maintained, is that this would somehow benefit the African working class. This lie has been cruelly exposed. On the one hand the ANC has produced a situation where, according to its own calculations, 9% of the capital of mining corporations is in the hands of black capitalists while on the other hand it has created a situation where:

  • 40% of the working age population are unemployed. This represents 6 million workers 2.8 million of whom are between 18 and 24.
  • The urban underclass, surviving on welfare payments, has increased from 2.5 million in 1999 to 12.5 million in 2012!
  • 50% of the population live below the poverty line

The famous equality for which the ANC stood had produced a society which according to Oxfam is, with Brazil, now the most unequal in terms of wealth, in the world.

Mandela was, of course, aware of the capitalist nature of the ANC’s political programme and stated this at his trial in 1964, where he described the Freedom Charter in these words:

“The charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. The breaking up and democratization of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”

What precisely this entailed has now been shown at Marikana.[3]

Workers and the National Struggle

Today it is a Marxist axiom that the working class should not subordinate its political forces to those of the bourgeoisie, which, of course, includes the bourgeois nationalist forces such as the ANC. As far as South Africa is concerned we have written and spoken many times about the danger of subordinating the class struggle to the demands of the national struggle, pointing out that as soon as the national struggle is successful the national bourgeoisie will turn their fire on the working class. This has happened in South Africa with a vengeance, and not only at Marikana. Empirical evidence of the dreadful situation South African workers now find themselves in is there for all to see. We quote from a recent text by “Abahlali Basemjondolo” the shack dwellers association. In a text called “The housing list versus the death list” they wrote:

“We are supposed to be living in a democratic country, a country of justice, a country where everyone should be treated as one. Yet there is a huge inequality. That inequality is economic, it is spatial and it is political. We remain divided into rich and poor. We continue to be allocated to different kinds of places that are meant for different kinds of people with different kinds of opportunities, different kinds of lives and different kinds of rights. We continue to be divided into those that have the freedom to express themselves and those that face all kinds of intimidation and repression if we commit the crime of telling the truths about our lives.

For the poor this country is a democratic prison. We are allowed to vote for our prison warders and managers but we must always remain in the prison. We must remain in silence when our shack settlements are illegally destroyed leaving us homeless. We must remain in silence when we are forcibly removed to transit camps that are only fit for animals but not for people. We must remain in silence when we are told to return to Lusikisiki*[4]* or taken to human dumping grounds far outside the cities. We must remain in silence when we are threatened, beaten, shot and killed. The politicians think that when we refuse to be silent, and when we resist repression, they can silence us by throwing some meat at us. After all these years they think that we are dogs. We are not dogs. We are people. We will continue to rebel until we are treated as human beings.” (30/10/13)

Another statement, this time from a mechanic, Ntshimane Nolala, reported by the BBC, expresses the view that black workers have been deceived into support of the ANC and the sacrifices of the national struggle have all been in vain. The words are more or less exactly what our previous texts have warned would happen. He told the BBC that:

“The only thing blacks got was the vote after every four years and the spattering of a few black elite [politicians] whose aspiration is to be next to Mandela and those of his ilk.

Today I work as a mechanic, I have no formal qualification; everything I know about fixing taxis I taught myself — this government of black people does not care about me, it has no time for me.

Yes we are free to go where we want to without fear but we are still not free, not in economic terms.

What you have in South Africa now is a handful of black people looting the scraps off the table left by those who control the economy; our leaders are enriching themselves now while the majority still have nothing — that is what has become the legacy of our freedom.

Those who died for this freedom sadly died for nothing in my view.” (6/12/13)

Much of the argument for supporting the national struggle, made by the Stalinists and Trotskyists, started from the view that Apartheid was essential to South African capitalism and hence ending it would bring South African capitalism crashing down. This would weaken western capitalism and produce a crisis in the developed capitalist countries etc. This has been shown to be complete nonsense. If anything South African capitalism is stronger as a result of the abolition of Apartheid, western imperialism has been strengthened and the class issues more confused than before.

The political arguments, these groupings defend for a two stage revolution or a permanent revolution the first stage of which amounts to state capitalism, are equally false. Any political organisation which takes on the tasks of administering capitalism, supposedly in the interests of the working class, can do no more than divide the surplus produced by the system in a more equitable way. The system remains capitalist, workers remain exploited, separated from the means of production and alienated. Meanwhile the demands for capitalist accumulation remain. The infrastructure of this system inevitably imposes itself on the political superstructure and the administrators of the system form a new exploiting class as occurred in Russia in the 1920s.

The ICT has consistently advocated that workers should pursue their own class interests for wages and conditions independently of the bourgeois nationalists. In South Africa this would have allowed the class issues involved to be clearly seen. Instead these issues have been obscured by a smokescreen of liberalism and moral outrage at racism and now, cries of betrayal by the ANC. The result is a great confusion. Projects to change the ANC leadership or to return to the state capitalism advocated in the “Freedom Charter” as, for example, the ex-ANC youth leader Malema and his “Economic Freedom Fighters” organisation advocate, are a great waste of time.

In the longer term the only struggle which can benefit the working class is that to overthrow the capitalist system and the construction of higher social form of social production, namely communism, and this has nothing to do with the system of state capitalism which was constructed in Russia. Attempts to reform the existing system, so it benefits the working class, only sow illusions in a struggle for what is now impossible. The struggle of the world’s workers needs to take a revolutionary direction. This struggle is an international one and the global working class needs to provide itself with the political organisation to carry this through.

As we wrote at the time of the Marikana massacre:

“The tragedy is that the murderous violence of capital has no borders. The same things are happening in China, Brazil and many other countries on the so-called periphery of capitalism whilst in the “democratic” West nothing like this is taking place for the simple reason that there is no visible revival of the class. However at the first significant sign of a working class response even in our political latitudes the axe of repression will not be long in striking. In Italy, for example, the juridical weapons are already in place and comprehensive experiments have already been carried out on the ground (Genoa in 2001) even though this was not realised at the time.

It is no longer a time “just” to denounce the scandal of Marikana, to weep for the dead of the international working class, it is also time to make a real effort and organise a class party, a revolutionary programme, so that the future revival of the class struggle will not have as its target just the repression of the international capitalist class but also the political objective of overthrowing this class-divided society, of breaking the iniquitous relationship between labour and capital and of destroying the mechanism of capitalist productivity. The tragic episode of Lonmin*[5]* and the 34 slaughtered workers is not the local story of a brutal event in far-off South Africa but is one act in a tragedy which is destined to be played out wherever the working class tries to raises its head”.


10 December 2013

[1] Not to be outdone, Blair also lied (surprising that) when he told Radio 4 that Mandela was always magnanimous to “Mrs Thatcher” (who condemned Mandela as a “terrorist” but supported the butcher Pinochet) when in fact he had refused to meet her. Perhaps, though, the hypocrisy of those who are going is matched only by the hypocrisy of those who are not. Benjamin Netanyahu is not going, citing the cost. This from the man who had a $180 000 bed installed in the Israeli state jet he used for his trip to London for Thatcher’s funeral. No mention, though, of the fact that Israel was one of the most resolute and materially supportive of the apartheid regime (and runs a good one of its own).

[2] See

[3] See Both the above articles can be found in pamphlet form in “The New Turmoil in South Africa” (£2 including postage from BM CWO, London WC1N 3XX)

[4] A small town in eastern Cape Province.

[5] Lonmin is the UK mining comp

ANC – A Hundred Years in the Service of Capital

6 12 2013

In January 2012 the African National Congress celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its foundation and spent R100 million (£8.2M) on the party. It has now held power continuously for almost 18 years and so its leaders saw this as a great cause for celebration. However, the celebrations were largely for the political elite and the few who have enriched themselves from the ANC’s rule. The working class, the unemployed and the impoverished millions, who have nothing whatsoever to celebrate, were conspicuous by their absence.

The ANC was founded shortly after the creation of the Union of South Africa by a handful of western educated lawyers and journalists at a time when African society still was largely tribal although the tribal economic subsistence system was being destroyed by capitalism. The ANC’s founders turned their backs on tribal society and demanded equal rights for Africans within the emerging capitalist society, rights from which the settlement after the Boer War and the act off Union specifically excluded them. A further century of capitalist development, which has entirely destroyed tribal society, replaced it with capitalist society, and produced a predominantly African working class, has seen the ANC rise to become the dominant bourgeois force in South African politics.

The ANC which has always presented itself as a national movement, in particular one representing the interests of the entire African population, has in reality always been a party representing the rising African bourgeois class. The ANC’s flirtation with the African working class has been a cynical manoeuvre to recruit workers as its foot soldiers with which it has been able to batter down the Apartheid regime and the resistance of Afrikaner nationalism. In its period in power from 1994 the ANC has taken over the management of South African capitalism and carried out this task like any other capitalist government in this period. Privatisations and opening of the country to global competition, while workers living standards have been cut, have been the order of the day. At the same time the power of the state has been used to promote the party elite into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie through the famous Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. This programme has created a handful of black millionaires in positions of power in the mining and industrial corporations, a process which the regime tries to present as compensation for the sins of the past century, and as a demonstration that the position of Africans is improving. However, at the same time as they promote themselves to the ranks of the capitalist class they are creating an ever growing urban underclass dependent on state welfare payments and the gap between rich and poor is getting ever wider. Creating a black bourgeois class was, of course, always the ANC’s programme, but the lie, which it has maintained, is that this would somehow benefit the African working class. This lie is now being cruelly exposed. Although the issues of racial division and racial oppression have always clouded the South African situation, and have been exploited to the hilt by both the Afrikaner nationalists and the African nationalists, the real contradictions in South African society, as in capitalist society the world over, are those of class. The interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed and the ANC cannot reconcile the two. On the one hand the ANC has produced a situation where, according to its own calculations, 9% of the capital of mining corporations is in the hands of black capitalists while on the other hand it has created a situation where:

· 40% of the working age population are unemployed. This represents 6 million workers 2.8 million of whom are between 18 and 24.

· The urban underclass, surviving on welfare payments, has increased from 2.5 million in 1996 to 12 million in 2006[1]

· 50% of the population live below the poverty line

· 7 out of 10 black children grow up in poverty[2]

· Life expectancy has decreased from 65 years in 1994 to 53 years in 2009[3]

Such contradictions are threatening to tear the organisation apart. In the shameless enriching of its top members the ANC government has mired itself in corruption and cronyism which extends right up to the presidential office. At the 100th anniversary of its foundation there is actually little cause to celebrate.

18 Years in Power

Since coming to power the ANC has been in a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This has been designed to shore up its power and provide political cover for its attacks on the working class. Needless to say workers have resisted the erosion of their wages and living standards and the last 2 years have seen massive strikes. In 2010 there was a civil service strike involving 1.3 million workers which lasted 20 days, and in 2011 there have been strikes in the mines, energy, petroleum, metal and paper sectors which have seen hundreds of thousands of workers down tools for pay increases. Although COSATU does its best to control and defuse these strikes, the general deterioration of workers’ conditions is putting pressure on the alliance and opening up fissures in the ANC itself. It was undoubtedly pressures from those feeling dispossessed and betrayed by the ANC which led to the ousting of the previous president Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and his replacement by the more populist Zuma. The ousting of Mbeki has led to his fraction leaving the ANC and forming a new political grouping Congress of the People (COPE).

A further rupture, and a potentially more explosive one, has been opened by the disciplining and suspension of the ANC youth leader Julius Malema. Malema was a key supporter of Zuma during the defenestration of Mbeki, but the continual deterioration of the condition of workers and the poor has led him to turn his fire on the Zuma leadership and call for the nationalisation of the mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land. These issues, which are actually specified in the “Freedom Charter,” adopted as the ANC programme in 1956, are now quite contrary to the demands of South African and international capitalists and, of course the ANC leadership. Consequently they are a great embarrassment to the ANC. His raising of these demands from the past is like the proverbial ghost appearing at the wedding feast to wreck the party. Although he has been silenced and suspended from the ANC for a period of 5 years he is giving voice to widely held grievances and the demonstrations at his trial show he has a strong following which is not going to be placated by the silencing of one man.

The unemployed are also finding a voice. A spokesman for the Unemployed People’s Movement accuses the ANC of betrayal:

“During the struggle our leaders embodied the aspirations of the people. But once they took state power they didn’t need us anymore. We were sent home. We are only called out to vote or attend rallies. But all the time our people are evicted from farms, paving way for animals as farms are turned into game reserves under the pretext of tourism. Our people are evicted from cities. Our people are denied decent education.”[4]

In recent demonstrations, the unemployed demanding jobs, housing, running water and electricity have been met with ferocity similar to that of the Apartheid regime. At a demonstration in the town of Ermelo, in one of SA’s poorest provinces, 2 protesters were shot dead by the police. At another demonstration, over precisely the same grievances, in the town of Ficksburg, a protester, Andries Tatane, was beaten to death by police in full view of the television cameras.

An explosive social situation is building up and could detonate if welfare payments are cut back. Certain commentators from within the ANC are looking nervously at the events of the Arab Spring, and seeing them as prefiguring the future for SA[5]. While it is understandable that those in the Unemployed People’s Movement and some in the ANC youth organisation see the ANC as having “betrayed” them is this really true?

Development of the ANC

As mentioned above the ANC developed in a period when African society was in the process of being changed from a tribal economic system with Africans producing their needs directly from the land to a capitalist one in which tribal men and women were converted into wage labourers. However, the enforced separation of tribesmen from their means of production, namely their land[6], and their conversion into wage labourers was accomplished by open violence and a doctrine of racism which tended to obscure the developing class divisions. Marx makes the following observation in regard to the separation of the producers from their means of production in the colonies:

“It is otherwise in the colonies. There the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist. The contradiction of these two diametrically opposed economic systems, manifests itself here practically in a struggle between them. Where the capitalist has at his back the power of the mother-country, he tries to clear out of his way by force, the modes of production and appropriation, based on the independent labour of the producer. … To this end he proves how the development of the social productive power of labour, co-operation, division of labour, use of machinery on a large scale, &c., are impossible without the expropriation of the labourers, and the corresponding transformation of their means of production into capital. In the interest of so-called national wealth he seeks for artificial means to ensure the poverty of the people.”[7]

The major part of the dirty work of converting Africans into wage labourers was accomplished by the British who were quite clear as to what needed to be done. After the military defeat of the of the various tribes the British authorities started to expropriate their land and impose taxes on them in order to force them into wage labour to get the money to pay the taxes. Even after military defeat, however, this met with resistance just as described by Marx. For example the imposition of a £1 annual poll tax in Natal led to the 1906 Zulu rebellion. Earl Grey the British colonial secretary, writing in 1880, put the issue nearly as clearly as Marx. He wrote:

“The coloured people are generally looked upon by the whites as an inferior race, whose interests ought to be systematically disregarded when they come into competition with their own, and should be governed mainly with a view to the advantage of the superior race. For this advantage two things are considered to be especially necessary: first facilities should be afforded to the white colonists for obtaining the possession of the land theretofore occupied by the Native tribes; secondly, that the Kaffir population should be made to furnish as large and as cheap a supply of labour as possible.”[8]

The process set in motion by the British continued after the creation of the Union of SA and the most significant clearing Africans from the land was accomplished the year after the foundation of the ANC by the 1913 land act. This restricted African occupied land to 7% of the total land, outlawed squatting on white owned land and sharecropping. Africans were forced to become labourers on the white owned farms or workers in industry or the mines. Provision of labour for the mines, however, had been a problem for South African capitalists from the start. In the period after the Boer War the British imported Chinese workers as unskilled labour to work the mines as insufficient African workers could be found. The separation of Africans from their lands was of course the key to the solution of this problem. It allowed the migrant labour system, which was eventually enshrined in Apartheid dogma, to become the norm for the mining industry. The mining houses organised a joint recruitment agency, the Native Recruiting Corporation, which operated from 1912 onwards and recruited from the South African areas reserved for Africans, which were to be reduced to a mere 7% of the country the following year, and from the British protectorates and Mozambique.

The overt racism which accompanied this process obscured the reality of what was really happening, and was of enormous benefit to South African capital since it produced a separation of white and black workers. Enormous pay differentials between blacks and whites existed and strikes on the mines were racially divided and so could be more easily defeated. This was the case for the most significant strikes, the white miners’ strike of 1922 and the black miners’ strike of 1946. The insurrectionary strike of white miners in 1922, actually inscribed on its banner the contradictory slogan “workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.”

This is the historical context in which the ANC emerged, and it was also within this context that African workers imagined that the ANC could represent their interest since both African workers and African bourgeoisie were discriminated against and excluded from political rights. This was, however, a serious mistake as 18 years of ANC power have shown. From its foundation the ANC has represented a westernised elite wanting to have their share of the spoils of capitalism, and has not attempted to disguise this. Mandela speaking about the Freedom Charter’s demand for the nationalisation of the mines and industrial corporations said the following:

“The charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”[9]

Mandela again returned to this issue in his famous speech at his trial in 1964 where he said:

“The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the Freedom Charter. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.”[10]

It is therefore incorrect to describe the ANC government since 1994 as having “betrayed” the working class as its opponents now do. It has implemented a bourgeois programme and is doing its best to foster an African bourgeois class in broadly the terms described by Mandela above.

Rise to Power

By the mid 1970’s it was clear to the main factions of the South African capitalist class that the migrant labour system in particular and Apartheid in general were leading the country to catastrophe. The increased capital intensity of South African capitalism meant that a skilled stable working class was required. Their strategy was to create an African middle class which they could use as an ally against the working class via the Urban Foundation, and African trade unions which could be used to control the class struggle. Of course, this meant providing political rights to Africans as well as other rights granted to workers in the metropolitan countries. There was only one political force which could implement such a programme and that was the ANC.

As we have shown above the ANC was on the bourgeois side of the class barricades and this made its co-option as a tool of Western and South African capital possible. Before the ANC was unbanned the key sectors of South African capital, particularly the mining corporations, had received assurances that the statist elements of the ANC’s programme, particularly the nationalisation of the mines would not be implemented. These were demands from the 50s which were considered suicidal in the period of globalisation. The slow deterioration of the social situation in the 80’s finally convinced even the Afrikaner nationalists that bringing the ANC into power was the only route by which South African capital could be rescued from the cul-de-sac in which it was trapped.

Since coming to power the ANC has not fundamentally changed the structure of South African capitalism. Having the ANC in power has benefitted South African capital in many ways, particularly in giving it access to the rest of Africa and making the opening up of trade with China, India and Brazil easier. The programme of Black Economic Empowerment which was, in fact, initiated by the South African corporations, not the ANC, has resulted in a few extremely wealthy black men who have no desire to change the present structure of things, and still remain in the top organs of the ANC. Politicians such as Cyril Ramaphosa, one time secretary of the National Mine Workers Union, and Tokyo Sexwale, ex-Robben Island prisoner, have become two of South Africa’s richest men through BEE. Both still retain their seats on the ANC’s national executive committee.[11]

All the above simply describes how the ANC has become the executive arm of South African capital. It is small wonder that the interests of the working class are ignored. The question which must be asked, however, is this “was the working class correct to ally itself with the ANC.” Our answer is emphatically “NO.”

Workers and the National Struggle

Today it is a Marxist axiom that the working class should not subordinate its political forces to those of the bourgeoisie, which, of course, includes the bourgeois nationalist forces. As far as South Africa is concerned we have written many texts pointing out the danger of subordinating the class struggle to the demands of the national struggle. The events since 1994 have certainly born out our predictions. Many of these texts, written largely during the 80s retain their immediacy and a certain prophetic quality and we intend to republish them in pamphlet form within the next few months. An example of this is a text published in April 1990 in our paper Workers Voice. We wrote:

Many black workers look to Mandela as the man who will free them from exploitation and hardship. They are greatly deceived. ….In fact the ANC’s objectives have nothing to do with the working class’s interests, they are to use the power of the state to foster a black capitalist class. …South African workers have no interest in placing themselves in the infantry of the African nationalists.[12]

Instead we advocated that workers should pursue their own interests independently of the bourgeois nationalists. This would have allowed the class issues involved to be clearly seen. Instead these issues have been obscured by a smokescreen of liberalism and moral outrage at racism. The result is a great confusion with talk of betrayal and projects to change the leadership of the ANC which can only be a great waste of time.

Much of the argument for supporting the national struggle, made by the Stalinists and Trotskyists, started from the view that Apartheid was essential to South African capitalism and hence ending it would bring South African capitalism crashing down. This would weaken western capitalism and produce a crisis in the developed capitalist countries etc. This has been shown to be complete nonsense. If anything South African capitalism is stronger as a result of the abolition of Apartheid, western imperialism has been strengthened and the class issues more confused than before.

Behind these arguments lies the theoretical debate between Lenin and other communists including Bukharin, Piatakov and Rosa Luxemburg on support for the national struggle. This argument was fought out in the period before and during the First World War. Those who argued like Luxemburg, that in the epoch of imperialism the national question is now a thing of the past, have been vindicated by the 100 years of history which have elapsed since these exchanges. However, in the Third International the Theses on the National and Colonial Question were a confused compromise between the views of Lenin, who saw cooperation with the local bourgeoisie as desirable and those (like M N Roy) who argued for an outright independent communist struggle in the colonies. This confusion was to have dire consequences for the revolutionary movement. The most tragic illustration of this confusion came in China 1926-27 when Stalin, following the original Theses but forgetting that they had called for an independent working class movement, instructed the Chinese Communist Party to place itself at the disposal of the bourgeois Koumintang of Chiang Kai Shek. This resulted in the brutal massacre of Chinese workers in Shanghai and Canton[13].

Lenin’s positions were developed in the period before World War 1 when he considered the bourgeois democratic revolution was on the historical agenda for Russia. He changed his position on nature of the future Russian revolution in April 1917 but never followed through the consequences of this. If the communist revolution is on the historical agenda, and this revolution needs to be international, as the Bolsheviks openly admitted, bourgeois nationalist revolutions can only obstruct and weaken the struggle for communism.

Lenin’s support for movements for national self determination in Europe undermined the programme for working class emancipation. This became more confused in the debates in the Third International with Lenin arguing that national movements in the colonies should be supported as they weakened the imperialism of the colonising nations. In this he was following his earlier work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism where he had argued that;

Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle with competitors.[14]

He argued that the colonies were a key source of the “super profits” with which the imperialist powers bribed their workers to maintain social peace.

Out of such enormous super profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their own country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders in the advanced countries in a thousand different ways.[15]

Cutting off this source of super profits, he argued, would precipitate a crisis and make revolution in the capitalist heartlands easier. In the event, decolonisation did not produce the crisis in the capitalist heartlands which Lenin had so confidently predicted. This is because the capitalist system is a global system, extracting and distributing surplus value globally, and the replacement of colonial bourgeois regimes by local bourgeois regimes does not alter the system as a whole in any essential way.

Lenin also maintained that national bourgeois revolutions in the colonies could occur at the same time as communist revolution in the capitalist heartlands and in some way support this revolution.

The social revolution can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic revolutionary movements, including national liberation movements, in the undeveloped, backward oppressed nations.[16]

On the contrary the communist revolution must be a world revolution and the bourgeois nationalist revolution could never support the world revolution. The world revolution would have to overthrow bourgeois nationalist revolutions if they occurred at the same time.

The mistakes of Lenin and the Third International have bequeathed a poisonous legacy which has been taken up by the left wing of the bourgeoisie, namely the counter revolution, with a vengeance. In the case of South Africa the arguments of a white workers aristocracy of labour, the theory of super profits going to the workers in the capitalist heartlands and the idea that the bourgeois nationalist revolution in the underdeveloped countries supporting workers struggle in the metropolitan countries have all been trotted out in order to justify subsuming workers struggles under the nationalist struggle.

Today the increasing globalisation of capital has made the national state national only in the sense that it is dominated by the bourgeoisie of a certain nationality. In its key aspects it exists as an agent of international capital and the imperialist alliances in which it finds itself. This can be seen in the fact that the coming to power of the ANC was facilitated by US and European capital via financial sanctions and pressure. After the removal of the threat of Russian advances in South Africa in 1989 this pressure became irresistible.

The ANC and African Nationalism in general stand completely discredited after 18 years of power. What is needed now is a clean break from the forces of nationalism and their allies COSATU and the SACP. These forces must be recognised as part of the bourgeois front opposing the emancipation of the working class. Future struggles should be outside and against these organisations. They need to be united across racial divisions and pursue class demands. Ultimately they need to be united with workers struggles worldwide and directed to the overthrow of capitalist social relations and the establishment of a communist[17] world. CP


[1] See Financial Times 5/9/2011 and 28/10/11

[2] Financial Times 12/11/11


4 See Ayanda Kota quoted in Counterfire

5 See for example M. Mbeki “South Africa. Only a matter of time before the bomb explodes” Mbeki is media consultant to the ANC. see

6 Under the Bantu tribal system land was occupied by the tribe. Individual ownership of land did not exist before it was instituted by the colonial authorities.

7 K Marx Capital Volume 1 Chapter 33

8 Quoted in The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa, B M Magubane, Monthly Review Press.

9 Mandela authorised biography, Anthony Sampson 1999

10- Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela p. 435

11 See M Mbeki Architects of Poverty p. 158.

12 See Workers Voice No 51

13 For a description of these events see H. Isaacs The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.

14 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Peking Foreign Language Press p. 98

15 Ibid, Preface to the French and German editions.

16 Lenin Collected Works Volume 23 p. 60.

17 By communism we mean a system of global production for human needs controlled by workers through workers councils. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the state capitalist systems, incorrectly called communism, which existed in Russia and China.



29 11 2013

In what sense did Marx propose to “smash the state”?

It is well known that one of the formative political experiences of Marx’s life was his effort to mount a public defence of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was the most dramatic and, to Marx, the most inspiring anti-capitalist revolt of his time. As the Franco-Prussian War wound down, the workers of Paris rose up and deposed the French State’s authority, replacing its rule with a new form of popular self-organization that, in Marx’s memorable phrase, did not reproduce or reorganize the state, but “smashed” it.

But what did Marx mean by “smashing the state”? And what was the nature of this Commune that he held up as a model for anti-capitalist revolution?

Should we think of the Commune, as some do today, as a “workers’ state”? Or should we think of it as, on the contrary, a form of participatory-democratic, specifically anti-statist, community-based working-class self-organization?

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Here, Marx and Engels actually make it hard to say quite which interpretation they would endorse, because sometimes they use language encouraging the statist interpretation of the Commune, and sometimes they deny outright that it was a state, “in the proper sense of the word.”

A typical statist reading can be found in a comment by Engels, in 1891, that the Commune “shattered” the “former state power,” and “replaced” it with “a new and truly democratic one” (628; page #s refer to Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed.). But this suggestion, that the Commune created a “new and truly democratic”state, seems to contradict something Engels said in 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Indeed, so insistent was he that the Commune was not a state in the proper sense, that he proposed, speaking on behalf of Marx and himself, that socialists should “replace [the word] state everywhere by Gemeinwesen[community], a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word,commune” (Letter to Bebel, 1875).

For his part, Marx also seemed ambivalent. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the state when he called the Commune “a working-class government” (634). On the other hand, he regarded the most important lesson of the Commune to be the insight that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (629). This insight, that we can’t just “take power” by putting the workers’ movement at the helm of the administrative, coercive and legislative apparatuses of the capitalist state, was in fact the only correction to the argument of the Communist Manifesto that he ever explicitly proposed. The Manifesto had failed to insist that a working-class revolution would have to smash the state, rather than taking it over, Marx concluded.

Rather than getting bogged down in verbal technicalities about the meaning of the word “state,” let’s look at what Marx thought the Commune was doing, and try to see, substantively and concretely, what he meant when he said that it smashed rather than taking over the state.

To save time, I’ll get right to the point: As Marx says, “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society” (633). In other words, the state power, exercised from above, was replaced bycommunity control from below. Thus, the Commune “got rid of the standing army and the police,” according to Marx (632). “The whole of the educational institutions,” he adds, “were cleared of the influence of…the State” (632). “Judicial functionaries,” he tells us, “were divested of” their “sham independence,” and placed under community control. Or, as he vividly puts it, “like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable” (632). Moreover, and also like all other public servants, they were to be paid an average worker’s wage (632). Both the legislature of professional politicians and the administrative branch of government were to be fused (632) into the Commune’s democratic assembly, delegates to which were, once again, “elective, responsible, and revocable,” and paid the prevailing worker’s wage.

The basic idea of smashing the state, as Marx uses this term, is evidently quite clear from these passages, and countless others like them in Marx’s main work on the Commune, and his main contribution to so-called “state theory,” The Civil War in France. What he means by “smashing the state” is that the various elements of state power – the coercive apparatus; the administrative apparatus; the legislative-executive apparatus; and the judicial apparatus – this whole system of state power is either (a) abolished outright (“amputated”), or (b) in cases where it has what Marx calls “remaining legitimate functions,” these are placed under direct community control by the working class, from below.

Community control, as Marx understands it, includes four elements: that all functionaries are paid the prevailing wage in the community, and are elected by, accountable to, and removable by, the community. Thus, smashing the state, for him, means two things: abolition of all illegitimate functions, and subordination of legitimate functions to direct popular control from below.

Now, every reader of Marx will agree that he regards this process as a “conquest of political power” by the working class, or as some now say, the 99%. But is it a state? Certainly workers were governing; they were “dictating” the terms of social cooperation. Workers ruled Paris for the two months that the Commune lasted. But all of this is consistent, perhaps mostconsistent, with Engels’ formulation: that the Commune was “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word,” but a form of community-based working-class self-organization, or what Marx called “the proletariat organized as the ruling class” (490).

Dictatorship, yes; state, no.  Conquest of (social) power, yes; conquest of state power, no.

The Emergence of the Conception of Communism.

8 11 2013

Charlie Mowbray looks at the origin of the idea of Communism.



Sylvain Maréchal

“The first appearance of a really active communist party is found within the framework of the bourgeois revolution, at the moment where the constitutional monarchy is suppressed. The most consistent republicans, in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti are the first to have proclaimed these “social questions”. The “Conspiracy of Babeuf” written by his friend and comrade Buonarotti, shows how these republicans derived their social insight from the movement of history. It also demonstrates that when the social question of princedom versus republic is removed, not a single social question of the kind that interests the proletariat has been solved.
Karl Marx 1847 Moralising criticism and critical morality in Marx/Engels Sur la Revolution française, Paris, Messidor/Editions sociales, 1985 p. 91

Gracchus Babeuf developed the ideas of his group in the aftermath of the crushing of the Enrages in 1793. In many ways, his communism is a step back from that of the Enragés. Not only was it to turn away from the mass action of the Enragés, rooted as they were in the popular quartiers of Paris, towards conspiratorial action by small and secret enlightened elites, but it could also be argued that Babeuf represented the extreme wing of bourgeois republicanism. He attempted to amalgamate the revolutionary idea of the emerging bourgeoisie- democracy- with the revolutionary idea of the embryonic working class-communism. Babeuf wanted to introduce democracy and then to build communism, in small stages. The people, through a democratic Constitution, would veto all laws until the maintenance of all citizens should be assured by law, as Kropotkin notes. In fact, Babeuf thinks that an individual, if he has enough of a strong will, can introduce communism single-handedly. Thus was built the way to the Caesarism of Napoleon, (even though it was the young Corsican officer who was to break up the Babouvists’ Club de Pantheon and have its doors padlocked) and Babeuf uncannily anticipates Lenin here. It should be remembered that the principal subscribers to the Babouvists’ paper were bankers, manufacturers, financiers, high officials, functionaries and professionals. They supported the Babouvist grouping because they had been closely linked with the Jacobin dictatorship and were fearful of the growing threat of White reaction. They supported Babeuf in spite of his avowed communism. It is possible that a triumph of Babouvism would not have led to the establishment of a communist society, but would have speeded up the advancement of capitalist society, in the process by-passing the Bonapartist phrase, a costly and destructive phrase for emerging capitalist society. This is not to deny the courage and conviction of Babeuf, but to recognise that he could have quickly become a prisoner of these bourgeois forces. The Babouvists used every means possible at their disposal, means which became those of every succeeding revolutionary grouping- newspapers, posters, songs, public meetings. (These methods were copied by the group around Thomas Spence in Britain).
In many ways the ideas of the Enragés were an advance on the land communism of the Diggers, moving on to include communism of the means of subsistence, but it was still a partial communism. This admitted individual possession side by side with common property and while proclaiming the right of all to the entire sum of the fruits of production, it still recognised an individual right to the “superfluous” by the side of the right of all to the products ‘of first and second necessity’. Whilst people like Babeuf were to develop communist ideas they linked this to a special elite carrying out a revolutionary dictatorship.
The Enragés, on the other hand, were to develop libertarian ideas of communism. They hated the State.
As Kropotkin notes:
“It is obvious that communism in 1793 did not appear with that completeness of doctrine which is found with the French followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon….In 1793 communist ideas were not worked out in the quiet of a private study; they were born from the needs of the moment. This is why the social problem showed itself during the Great Revolution superior to the socialism of 1848 and of its later forms. It went straight to the root in attacking the distribution of produce.
This communism certainly appears fragmentary to us, especially as stress was laid by its exponents upon its different separate aspects; and there always remained in it what we might call partial communism. It admitted individual possession side by side with common property, and while proclaiming the right of all to the entire sum of the fruits of production, it yet recognised an individual right to the “superfluous”, by the side of all to the products of “ first and second necessity”. Nevertheless the three principal aspects of communism are already to be found in the teachings of 1793: Land communism, industrial communism, and communism in commerce and credit.”
The Great French Revolution. p.508 Elephant Editions.
Communist and anarchist ideas emerged from among the sans-culotte masses during the Revolution. They were to be formalised in writing and speeches in various ways by Roux, Leclerc, Varlet, Babeuf, Maréchal and Buonarotti. The revolutionary tradition of the clubs managed to survive under the rule of Louis Philippe, with the secret Communistes Materialistes groupings of the indefatigable Blanqui and of Barbès. However, the outlook of these groupings was greatly affected by the radical Jacobinism of the Babouvists, not to mention the repressive conditions under which these groupings were forced to operate.
Sylvain Marechal
Maréchal, whilst linked to Babouvism, deserves an individual mention. Sylvain Maréchal was born in 1750, the son of a wine merchant in the Les Halles district of Paris. He trained as a lawyer, but could not practice because of an acute stutter. He then obtained work in a library. His reading quickly led him to an atheist position. He began to write and publish on the subject. This lost him his job, and he was driven into poverty. He managed to get other library work and eventually pulled himself out of his straitened circumstances.
He wrote and published an almanac containing a revolutionary calendar, with a drastic revision and renaming of the months. This caused it to be burnt on the orders of the Parlement of Paris, and Maréchal to be condemned to three months imprisonment in 1788.
This confirmed his evolving republicanism, and he began to write on the subject. His The First Lessons of the Oldest Son of the King, which appeared later in the year, stated that there was no need for kings, even the best intentioned. “Misfortune to the people whose king is generous! The king can only give what he has taken from his people. The more the king gives, the more he takes from his people”. Maréchal called for a general strike of producers and called for the earth to be taken in common by all who lived on it.
Maréchal continued his atheistic and anti-clerical agitation with the coming of the Revolution, through newspapers and pamphlets. He made the acquaintance of Babeuf in March 1793, supporting him financially and helping him to get out of prison on provisional liberty. He disapproved of the Terror, and used his standing as a revolutionary to help people avoid execution. He felt that the Terror had been an instrument to replace the rule of the monarchy and aristocracy with that of businessmen and landowners.
He kept in contact with Babeuf during the latter’s protracted stays in prison and he eventually was involved in the Babouvist leadership. He wrote the Manifeste des Egaux (Manifesto of the Equals) for the grouping, although the majority of Babouvists had not approved it.
In this Manifesto he argues for a stateless communism. “The French revolution is only the front runner of another revolution much grander, of much greater occasion, and which will be the last”. He advances the notion of the common good, of a common wealth, where there will be “no more individual ownership of the land”, because “the earth belongs to no one. He called for an end to a system where the vast majority “toils and sweats at the service of and for the pleasure of an extreme minority”, and for the disappearance of “revolting distinctions between rich and poor…between governors and governed”.
Maréchal avoided imprisonment with the repression of the Babouvist movement. He remained outspoken, using his book History of Russia to hide a veiled attack on Napoleon in 1802. He died the following year.
Whilst being at the forefront of those who were developing the idea of communism, it should be noted that he still could not shed all the prejudices of his age. Thus one of his last works was Projet de loi portant défense d’apprendre à lire aux femmes (Law Project Prohibiting Women from Learning to Read), written in 1801.

The emergence of the conception of Communism
It should be remembered that neither Babeuf nor Maréchal had invented the term “communism”. The idea of a free and equal society brought about through the sharing of the fruits of the earth goes back to a multitude of religious and philosophical writings.
A first written mention of the word “communist” itself was found in the book of condolences of the parish of Guillestre (Hautes Alpes) in France in 1789. Babeuf, of course, never used the word himself, calling himself a communalist, believing that a community of goods would result from a community of work.
With the fall of Robespierre there is a mention of the word communism when Restif de la Bretonne talks about a general assembly of the Club du Pantheon, which was one of the most democratic in Paris. “A citizen demands the rejection of the Constitution and the establishment of communism. This eye-witness report was published in Paris in 1797”. (Marius Berou in an article in Le Peuple no 1537 20th November 2002 p 8-9)

Excerpts from The Idea: Anarchist Communism Past Present an

“our time is coming again”

29 10 2013

Originally posted on the commune:

Sheila Cohen reviews New Trade Union Activism: Class Consciousness or Social Identity? Sian Moore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Yet another pricey, “academic” book – but one with an interesting message. In New Trade Union Activism Sian Moore, who teaches trade unionists at London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute, examines the increasing – and, to some of us, questionable – phenomenon of new forms of worker representation. By contrast to the staunch shop steward of the past, who simply took on whatever problems the daily toll of workplace exploitation threw up, the last ten years or so have seen the growth of specific “reps” for apparently every conceivable contingency – learning reps, equality reps, environmental reps, etc., etc.

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Hungarian Revolution – Interview with Nicholas Krasso

6 10 2013


More than fifty years since the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the events have faded and their meaning and importance to socialists perhaps lost in time. The struggles, the barricades, the workers councils and resistance to Russian imperialism are a vague memory even for those involved in the movement at the time.  The real struggles and aspirations of the Hungarian revolution will be reduced even further to the strong box of history by the official commemorations attended by the great and the good of the bourgeoisie who will claim the mantle of the freedom fighters of 1956.  In so doing they will continue such myth as the decisive role in the  fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe was played by the prayers of Pope John Paul II and the foreign policy of the American President Ronald Reagan and his ally Thatcher.

All of these commentators who to point to some politician and higher saviour aim to perpetuate their own rule and survival of global capitalism by keeping alive the lie that Stalinism truly was ‘really existing socialism’ as opposed to exploitative state-capitalist regimes.   They do all in their power to deny that working class people themselves through decades of struggle preceded the final collapse of totalitarian ‘communism’.  Whilst Stalinism had given an outwards appearance of stability, and cohesion it was wracked by the instabilities of social and class contradictions on a more extreme form than traditional capitalism.   This false image of stability was spread through the labour movement by the   Communist Party and their apologists.  But despite their best efforts propaganda could not hide the reality for ever; the rule of capital and its exploitation produces it dialectical opposite working class resistance and revolt.

Even at the height of Stalin’s power there was resistance, in the Vorkuta slave-labour camps, the Ukrainian partisans, and revolutionary strikes in East Germany in 1953.  Hungary in 1956 was on a whole new level, whilst would take a further three decades of struggle it was the beginning of the end of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, and initiated the start of the disintegration of the western Communist Parties.

For the new generation of socialists in the West it is imperative to reclaim the truth of the Hungarian revolution which was watershed in modern history.  A revolt which did not reduce its conception of freedom to the ‘free market’ but returned soviets as organs of workers’ power to central Europe.  This interview with Nicholas Krassó, a Hungarian Marxist who played an important role in workers councils in 1956 gives us an insight to the true history the revolution.

Krassó (1930–1986) joined the Communist Party of Hungary at the age of fourteen in 1945, in 1950 he was banned from university during the repressions again the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs.  Along with Lukacs he was part of the anti-Stalinist Marxist circle during the revolution.   Forced into exile he

joined the editorial committee of the New Left Review in 1965.  This interview was first published from the Canadian-Ukrainian socialist journal Meta, no.3-4, 1976.

Chris Ford

Interview with Nicholas Krassó

It must be unique for a revolution to begin with a mass demonstration in solidarity with the people of another country. Why did the demonstration in support of Poland on 23 October produce a popular uprising in Budapest?

The international context was very fundamental. In 1955 the Soviet Union had accepted Austrian neutrality, and in 1956 Khrushchev had recognised Yugoslavia as a country on the road to socialism even though it was outside the Warsaw Pact. And now suddenly Gomulka was being swept into power in Warsaw and he also seemed to be taking a neutralist position.

So it seemed that everybody around us was taking a neutralist stand and we Hungarians were again missing the bus, just as we had been the last satellite of Hitler at the end of the war.

The student demonstration in solidarity with Gomulka’s Poland had been banned a day or two before, but on the 23 October itself, at about midday, the radio announced that the ban had been lifted. This turned what would have been a largely intellectual affair into a mass mobilisation with workers pouring out of the factories in the suburbs towards the centre of the city. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the demonstration, with the dramatic events in Poland (which filled the newspapers) fresh in their minds.

The gigantic crowd reached the Parliament Building and everybody wanted to hear Imre Nagy, People kept going to fetch him while actors recited Petofi poems from 1848. But it was well over an hour before Nagy finally agreed to appear in front of an increasingly restive crowd, and a more incendiary speech could not have been made: he called on the people to remain calm and trust him and return home after singing the national anthem.

This convinced large numbers of people that they would have to act themselves: Nagy was an anti-climax. A section of the demonstration went over to the radio building. The AVH forces fired on them: the uprising began.

Soviet troops occupied Budapest almost straight away. What was the character of this first Soviet intervention?

It was about two o’clock the following morning when I saw the first Russian tanks entering Budapest. The next morning, when I walked across the city to the Writers’ Union, there were Russian tanks all along the boulevards. They were not doing anything; just standing by, making a demonstration of strength.

It is a myth to say that there was heavy fighting between the Russians and the youth during this first Soviet intervention. It is true that AVH cars were entering the small streets shooting. But apart from anything else, the tanks were too big to enter the small side streets.

Occasionally the freedom fighters would run out with Molotov cocktails and blow up a tank. Then other Russian tanks would respond by moving up and down the boulevards, firing at houses that were in no way connected with the uprising. And soon lots of tank crews raised the Hungarian flag and people were saying that they had come over to our side, but when one talked to the Russians it became clear that they had put up the flags because they didn’t want to be blown up.

At the same time they did not have orders to crush the uprising during this first intervention.

What were the main forms that the uprising took?

The anti-Stalinist movement had remained a student, and intellectual affair, focused on the Petofi circle debates and the various official organisations of intellectuals until the Rajk funeral on the 6 October 1956, when about 20,000 people participated. And it was really only during the night of the 23 October that the tremendous popular uprising burst forth, spreading throughout the country.

It was the young people, including very young school­children, who were doing most of the fighting in various parts of the city. The adults were organising the general strike and the workers councils and all kinds of revolutionary committees.

The general strike began immediately, and the workers councils were set up completely spontaneously, at first on an improvised basis. They often started with the workers refusing to allow the Party secretary into the factory premises and then setting up councils to run things.

The national bank had its own revolutionary council and so the workers were still paid while the general strike was on. And there was absolutely no problem with telephones, gas or electricity – these services were maintained by their respective workers councils. Peasants were coming into the city to sell food in amazing amounts.

Of course, it was not workers’ management over production because the whole task was to push forward the general strike. There were workers’ councils for factories and workers’ councils for districts. Their fundamental functions were to organise meetings, frame demands, keep up the general strike and organise the weekly distribution of wages.

It was extraordinary to see how identical the demands were: freedom of parties to operate, withdrawal of Russian troops, withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, neutrality, the right to strike, and so on. There were only very occasional deviations to the right or left.

Left deviations would include demands like freedom only for those parties adhering to public ownership of the means of production – this demand came from several factories. Then there was the occasional right-wing point, like the rather silly demand for the re-introduction of religious teaching in schools.

I myself was elected to one of the district workers councils. On Friday 26 October I spoke at a huge public meeting in Ujpest, the biggest industrial area after Csepel. Because they liked what I said, they elected me a member of the Ujpest Revolutionary Council then and there. I had never been to the district in my life before, except to watch the odd film.

The head of the council was a carpenter. I stayed in Ujpest for the next three days, and returned later after the second Soviet intervention.

The atmosphere among the intellectuals, who had played a leading role before October, was transformed after the uprising began. On the morning of 24 October I went into the Writers’ Union, and the writers were just sitting there, with their heads as though in mourning; and some were becoming very poetic. One told me he would just like to sit and let his tears flow and flow and flow.

I said to Dery that surely the writers were at least partly responsible for what was happening, and shouldn’t they consider what was to be done? And he replied:” Why? We are writers, and we just told the truth. We are not politicians, we were just telling the truth.” They really felt everything was lost.

This was in complete contrast with the total optimism of the teenagers who were making the uprising. Generally the attitude of the intellectuals were pessimistic, but the workers and the young people, feeling their power, were filled with optimism.

The period between the first and second Soviet interventions gave a breathing space for some kind of organised leadership to emerge, around Imre Nagy, or in opposition to him. Isaac Deutscher called Nagy a kind of Bukharinite, and a possible harbinger of a Hungarian Thermidor. What was your attitude to Nagy, and to the problem of political leadership?

In a certain sense the analogy with Bukharin is valid. Nagy was an agrarian socialist in origin. He had participated in the civil war in Russia with the Bolsheviks, and belonged to the Lander-Lukacs faction against Bela Kun’s ultra-left voluntarism in the 1920′s .

He spent the 1930′s in an agrarian institute in Russia doing endless research to prove the feasibility of a radical agrarian reform in Hungary, against the whole record of the Kun CP, the Social Democrats and the reactionaries who had all in different ways opposed a land redistribution as economically disastrous.

Nagy was undoubtedly a very courageous man. In 1949 he had stood out in the Central Committee against the Stalinist plan for forced collectivisation. His concern for the peasantry in the 1950′s was, in itself, absolutely justified. But something of the agrarian socialist remained in him, and criticism of the one-sidedness of his pre-occupation with the peasantry to the point of underestimating the problems of the workers would also be justifiable.

Moreover, in the field of political manoeuvre and organisation, Nagy was very naive, unlike Rakosi or Gero who were very acute in political intrigues. Nagy’s whole idea was to stand for moral purity against Rakosi’s dirty ways: and this moral condemnation of Stalinist practices were, of course, absolutely justified, but it was not enough to meet the organisational and political tests of the crisis.

There was simply no leadership which represented the line that I thought should be followed, so my position was to support these ‘Bukharinites’, back them in forming a government, but try to build a opposition to them at the same time. But here there was this complete organisational vacuum. This was the problem, not whether Nagy might be opening the door to Thermidor – Nagy might have moved towards some kind of NEP, but this would not have been disastrous in the Hungarian context.

The unanimity of the workers’ political demands were really extraordinary. But equally striking was the fact that nowhere did the workers show clear ideas as to how to achieve their demands. There is, of course, nothing remarkable about this, except to those who are submerged in a workerist mysticism.

Nowhere was the slogan ‘All Power to the Workers Councils’ raised, or at least I didn’t come across it. The initiative to create a central workers council came from myself, and I didn’t hear about it from anyone else.

The general strike was continuing and was fully fledged. The workers felt their strength and believed that the general strike would solve everything, even after the second Russian intervention. They believed that the Russians would not be able to stabilise the situation because the workers would not start working.

This is of course true, but things become more complicated. The strike may go on, but the mass of workers are sitting at home and the force of inertia sets in. Also,it will not be possible to continue to get money each week from the national bank, and the children begin to starve.

It is true that you have the active minority, and they can be decisive, leaning on the support of the great mass. But then another problem came up: there was this tremendous reaction against Stalinism, against a situation where every meeting was manipulated.

Rigged meetings are obnoxious, but this does not mean that the active minority can leave things without any previous plans or arrangements, relying entirely on spontaneity. Political strategy and tactics have to be worked out and consciously put into practice in an organised way.

But here another problem arose: there was this ideology that the tasks of intellectuals was to get things started and then leave it to the workers to carry everything through. This is, in fact, completely alien to Marxism, to Lenin’s outlook, this idea that the intrinsic virtues of the masses will sort things out. These virtues are great but not of that kind, not of the kind to be clear about the political relationships in the situation.

What, then, is your attitude to the view that there was at least the possibility of a counter-revolution? This is the official CP position, and was also held by Deutscher at the time. Furthermore, every bourgeois commentator in the West hails the Hungarian Revolution as his own. In particular, what do you think of the view that Nagy might have given way to a Minszenty-type regime?

There is a sexist German expression, ‘Madchen fur Alles’ a girl for all purposes. The Hungarian Revolution was destined to be treated in this way everyone has taken it as a justification of their outlook. This was an instant reaction to the event; for socialists of all kinds, for anarchists, liberals, fascists and conservatives, it was their revolution.

And it could hardly have been otherwise, considering that Hungary had been dominated by a Stalinist state that was opposed by the entire population, and, having had a complete organisational monopoly, when this state crumbled it left behind a total organisational vacuum. There had been no parties, no free trade unions and even the cultural organisations could be formed only by the state.

The Hungarian masses, and in the first place the Budapest working class, rose up in a tremendous national uprising without any organised political expression on a national scale. And before the forces of the Hungarian Revolution could acquire a definite political form, the process was crushed by Russian intervention. In defeat, the uprising could serve a multitude of causes.

Kadar’s own theory of counter-revolution, as outlined in the Party’s December resolution, was curious. It said that the reform movement before the revolution had been correct – an anti-dogmatic, anti-sectarian thing. But when this programme was taken to the streets, it became counter-revolutionary!

The model he was following here was Stalin’s line of 1927 that the Trotskyists had ceased being a working class tendency and had become an agency of imperialism by taking their programme to the streets. But Stalin’s version had involved a supposedly incorrect line being taken to the streets. This time what was declared to be counter-revolut­ionary was taking a correct line to the masses!

As for the Kadar claim that there would have been a Minszenty-led return of the ancien regime, this was not on the cards. Minszenty had indeed protested against the land reform in 1945 and undoubtedly remained its enemy. After all, the Catholic church had been the biggest single landlord in the country. But Minszenty was not only an ultra-reactionary: he was a fool and always equivocating as Cardinals do.

In his broadcast speech during the uprising, he did not actually say the land reform should be overturned: he made allusions which could be interpreted in that way. But a return of landlordism was completely out of the question. Whoever tried to carry it through – and it is conceivable that Minszenty might have tried it later – would have committed political suicide: after all the main social base of any clerical reaction would have been the Catholic peasantry.

When I left Hungary, through the Catholic, Western part of the country, the peasants on the train were saying how much they had been attached to the Cardinal:”After all”, they said, “he was the only really courageous man who had stood up against the Communists, and what a disappoint­ment it was for us that his speech had called for the land to be returned to the landlords.” Actually he hadn’t said this, but I was delighted to hear the peasants misinterpreting him in exactly the right way.

Of course, anti-communist moods were very obvious among the masses after the start of the uprising. But they must be put into perspective.

I remember asking a worker what he thought the chances of the Nagy-led CP were. And he said: “Oh, nil. They might get four or five percent. No Communist has a chance, even if he is Imre Nagy.” What then was needed? “A completely new Hungarian workers party”, he replied.

To test the reaction, I asked: “You wouldn’t want a united workers and peasants party?” And his response was: “Oh, no. It’s only in full communism that the interests of the workers and the peasants will be the same, and then both classes will disappear.” This sort of thing was common: people expressing anti-communist attitudes, but at the same time showing that they had internalized many of the transformations that had taken place during the previous ten years.

Undoubtedly some kind of anti-Marxist Christian Socialist movement would have gained ground – though one cannot say to what extent. Nor can one rule out the possibility of a return of small capital, perhaps going further than NEP in Russia. All these possibilities remain in the realm of speculation, and would have been decided in the course of a political struggle which Russian intervention precluded.

Not since 1917 have we seen workers councils of such an advanced scope and level of organisation as were thrown up in the Hungarian revolution. You played a key part in setting up the Budapest central workers council. How was it formed?

After the second Soviet intervention, I returned to Ujpest to see what was happening to the workers council there, to which I had earlier been elected. In the town hall both the Stalinist town council and the revolutionary workers council were operating, occupying separate rooms. And when I arrived the two councils were having a joint meeting. This was typical: they kept on arguing with the Stalinists, and I thought, what’s the point?

Anyway, listening to the discussion I came to the idea of creating a central workers council. I drafted a proclamation and when the meeting ended I put my proposal to the revolutionary workers council.

The proclamation simply said that at the moment there is dual power in the country: the Kadar government is just there on paper, it’s non-existent. There are only two powers: one is the Russian armed forces, and the other is the Hungarian people and in the first place the Budapest working class.

One of these two powers is organised – the Russian Army -but the other is still unorganised, so we must organise it. We must create a central workers council.

They accepted it. The proclamation was handed over to the students’ revolutionary council for distribution. We called a meeting of delegates of workers councils to set up the central body along with a newspaper that would be its organ.

I was to present the plan to the meeting of workers council delegates, and I felt I had to have the backing, otherwise people would say: who is this adventurer? What does he represent? So the carpenter chairman of the Ujpest council agreed that I should sit as part of the presidium of the Ujpest council that was convening the meeting, and speak first.

The meeting was to be at the Ujpest town hall, but when we arrived it was surrounded by Russian tanks and the members of the Ujpest council had all been arrested the previous night (as I learned later, many of them were hanged). We moved the meeting to United Electric, a big factory making sophisticated electrical appliances, with a consequently very social democratic revolutionary workers council. So this council formed the presidium.

There were about eighty or ninety delegates from different factories: not as many as we hoped for, but about thirty of the biggest factories were represented. Each delegation stood up in turn and read out their demands, one two-three four, amazingly identical. I was alone, with no backing, and when it came to my turn the situation became almost farcical.

The elderly social democratic chairman asked: “What factory are you from?” “None”, I said. ‘What right have you to be here?” I said that I had actually organised the meeting. The chairman replied: “This is untrue. This meeting is a historical inevitability.” So I was demagogic in return: “These kind of philosophical points should be discussed after the events are over. Now we have more urgent matters to confront.”

So the chairman said: “All right, speak for ten minutes.” And he was ostentatiously looking at his watch.

There were some unpleasant noises in the hall after I had mentioned the word ‘compromise’. And in fact I had started with it, saying that it was very impressive how identical all the demands were, but so far nobody had said a single word about, how to win them. Ideals are not enough. We have to decide to get the essential thing, and be ready to compromise on other questions.

What was important was to have nothing to do with the Kadar regime and to have internal democratisation. The workers council had to be turned into a real force for democratisation. At the moment we shouldn’t talk to anybody and should develop the general strike, but with a more organised leadership.

This meant organising a really strong central] workers council in Budapest. And When the Russians realised that they couldn’t stabilise without us, they would have to talk to us. Kadar was irrelevant: there is no point in talking to the servants when the masters are there. This was frankly a compromise plan – it did not take up the question of the Warsaw Pact, but concentrated on the internal question.

The speech made no impact. The meeting decided to set up the central workers council, but the only other decision was diametrically opposite to my conception: a delegation was elected to go and negotiate with Kadar, while simultaneous­ly insisting that it did not recognise him.

The central workers council continued to exist and held a second full meeting, but the working class was trapped. Kadar was ready to promise just about anything after the general strike was called off.

The workers demanded the right to strike? He fully agreed with the workers. He wholeheartedly concurred that the workers should be able to strike, but first this particular strike must stop.

The Russian troops must withdraw? Absolutely! And as soon as law and order was re-established, he would personally start negotiations to this effect. In short, Kadar was sufficiently trained in the art of politics to know how to concentrate on the essential and reach his objective.

The discussions went on until Kadar,and the Russians felt strong enough to arrest some of the workers’ leaders and then mass arrests followed. The workers councils continued in many areas through November and into December.

In January 1957, the workers councils in Csepel, the working class bastion, issued a declaration that they didn’t want to deceive the working class any longer by a resistance that was a sham resistance. So in order to be true to their class they had decided to declare their own dissolution. The Workers council movement had ended. The repression of the leaders of the working class was terrible.

Could you sum up the meaning of the Hungarian Revolution?

I have often remembered the 19th Party Congress in the Soviet Union in 1952. Stalin kept silent throughout the Congress till the very end when he made a short speech which covers about two and a half printed pages. He said that there were two banners which the progressive bourgeoisie had thrown away and which the working class should pick up – the banners of democracy and national independence. Certainly nobody could doubt that in 1956 the Hungarian workers raised these two banners high.


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