Friday, 2 January 2015

Death to the Bolshevik meme!

Brothers, sisters, comrades! I come to bury Leninism, not to reanimate its dessicated corpse. I must make some things clear before I set out to try to live up to my vainglorious boast. First, I may be a communist (actually, I am) but I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party, although I must confess that I did once attend a Communist Party meeting after I was summarily expelled from the Socialist Workers Party in the late 1980’s. Since then, I’ve hung around not doing very much at all on the fringes of the far left here in Glasgow.

Those of you who know your left-wing groups will already know two things about me:
  • My views on the questions here before us today are informed by the anti-Stalinist tradition of Trotskyism.
  • The intellectual tools I’ve used in developing my ideas are those of Marxism.
That potted political biography is by way of an introduction to the question I hope some of you are already asking: what’s the importance of long-dead Germans and Russians- however famous, whose contemporary followers’ record in the class struggle is only less ignominious than it has been harmless to capitalism.

Game as I always am to plug for a cheap laugh, I will break the first sod of the political grave I’m trying to dig by explaining that my topic here today is not the failure of this or that more or less useless left group relative to any other, even the most useless. In fact, my topic isn’t even the so-called ‘crisis of the left’ as such. Rather, I’m going to try to explain the enduring impact of the massive bloody defeat inflicted on the working class revolution which swept the world after the 1st World War, a defeat whose effect was to close the door to socialism for close to a century already. In terms of the left, what essentially happened was that this simply wasn’t understood for some 3 generations, so that they were continually calling for advances in a time of retreat with the sorry results with which we are all too familiar when we talk about ‘the crisis of the left’.

Some brief history
The Russian Revolution of 1917 needs little or no introduction from me I’m sure. Historical hindsight tends to be Russocentric but the reality at the time was that Red October was the high water mark of a revolutionary floodtide which swept from Ireland and Spain in 1916, across Europe to Russia in 1917, and back into Germany and Hungary and beyond in 1918/19 and after. History records that the Bolshevik regime was quickly isolated and bled dry by a vicious counter-revolutionary civil war backed by imperialist gold and guns.

More recent scholarship is beginning to paint a less than rosy picture of the regime itself even in its glory days but that’s for another day. The point remains though that, whatever went wrong, the Russian Revolution was one half of the greatest peace movement in history: the revolution which brought the 1st World War to an end; starting in the East in March 1918; and finishing in the West in November 1918. I’ll admit that this interpretation of events in Germany that November is disputed by mainstream historians, but here is the short version of those heady days:
  • 3rd November: the German High Seas fleet mutinies in the face of an order to launch a sacrificial attack against the Royal Navy. Sailors’ and workers’ councils are formed after the fashion of the soviets seen in Russia in February 1917.
  • The revolution spreads like wildfire and the German ruling class realises the jig is up by the 7th.
  • 9th November: the Kaiser abdicates.
  • 11th November: the Armistice is declared.
  • Thereafter: undefeated in the field, the German army withdrew its loyal elements to form counter-revolutionary militias many of which turned out to be proto-fascist.
The rest is history.

Continuing contemporary relevance
Really scratch someone's 'better society' itch and sooner or later they'd play the 'Russia card'- QED supposedly. From that point on you were on a hiding to nothing as you butted senselessly against the utter inevitability of disaster. With the weight of history it brings, the tragedy that was Bolvshevism dooms the mere dream of a fairer, juster world. For all its undoubted achievements, the Soviet regime fell far short of acceptable democratic standards while presiding over a secure but meagre standard of living. Excused by the 'Bolshevik' left- historical necessity or someone else's fault typically, this poor excuse for a society would be relevant even if it was just a topic of historical debate among small circles of history geeks. (There's more to it than that, naturally enough.)

Belied by the media's ritual homages to anti-communism and continual coverage of cold wars old and new, the oft-cited disinterest of your 'average worker' in "all that stuff" is a sign of leftists shrugging at the spectacle of Stalinism as yesterday's problem. It's hardly surprising really- they never really got it. The tankies?- least said; the Trots?- Pythonesque sectarianism says it all; and the non-Bolshie remainder?- well they at least had the merit of originality despite their equal lack of success. The persistent failure of all these local initiatives, leading as it has to talk a a 'crisis of the left' is proof positive of the good sense of all those people who've played the Russia card to get out of signing up for 'the Struggle'. They were right, you were butting senselessly against the utter inevitability of failure. That's the fate of the left in a period of defeat: 3 generations of partial gains, class skirmishing and mass actions leading nowhere- full retreat! Oh calamity.

Left unity?- sore heads all round
All the signs point to the demand for a mass anti-austerity party. Calls for left regroupment to that end fumble at the fetish of the genius Lenin leading his ideal party to a quick early goal only to go on to lose the game (at least 30 years past its sell-by date, that democratic centralist poison was in the system for far too long). The left's continued weakness and divisions notwithstanding, the registration and turnout for the Scottish independence referendum showed that people will come out when their vote matters, and the Yes vote showed the mass appetite for anti-austerity politics. The popularity of Russel Brand shows the breadth of this sentiment.

In their Stalinist manias, the democratic centralists only recognise action insofaras it can be turned to their ends. The balance of class forces has been brought to a simmer by the decline of their methods; it should be brought to the boil by their decided and determined rejection. Death to the Bolshevik meme!