Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Pakistan: workers, peasants take lead to revive a political tradition

Abdul Khaliq
Lahore, 2nd February 2010

Despite prevailing fear of everyday explosions and suicide bombings
across Pakistan, over 10,000 power loom workers and peasants braved
their way to Dhobi Ghat ground, Faisalabad on 29th February 2010. Do
doubt a marvelous indicator of their commitment to the working class

Though much bigger gathering was being expected but under the given
scary circumstances, when masses prefer to stay at home, everyone is
gripped by fear of suicide bombings, including mainstream political
parties, which are evasive to come in the open and organize public
gatherings, workers and peasants opted and dared to come out to
register their demands in a powerful way.

In this apolitical atmosphere, they have revived the much needed
tradition of 1970s and 1980s of big political gatherings, when people
use to attend such gathering in huge numbers and sit for hours to
listen their leaders.

Thus the show was successful by many aspects and achieved, to large
extent, its objectives of getting working classes together and closer
at a united platform in order to forge durable future unity. It
conveyed not only strong message of workers-peasants resistance to the
neo-liberal policies of the rulers, but also renewed the hope of
possibility of collective struggle of the progressive forces in

The public meeting, jointly organized by Labor Quami (national)
Movement (LQM) and Anjuman Mzareen (Tenant committee) Punjab (AMP) was
attended by a large number of right-based civil society groups,
movements, alliances, networks, trade unions, left parties, women
groups and addressed by their representatives. International delegates
from Fourth International (Pierre Rousset) and Socialist Alliance
Australia (Simon Butler) also spoke on the occasion and voiced their
solidarity with the workers and peasants of Pakistan.

Following resolutions, comprising just demands of the working classes
of Pakistan was presented, widely circulated and adopted with
thundering claps on the occasion:

·        Government should issue social security cards to all the
workers forth worth and fix minimum wages of workers at Rs. 15000.

·        Go away with anti-labor laws, restricting formation of new
trade unions and stop vindictive actions against the labor leaders.

·        Reinstate forthwith all the workers thrown out of the private
enterprises during Musharraf regime and present PPP government.

·        Increase the number of labor courts through effective
pro-workers reforms in order to provide cheap and speedy justice to
the laborers.

·        Effective measures be taken to end electricity load shedding,
which has crippled the power loom industry, rendering thousands of
workers jobless.

·        Financial packages be announced for small power loom units,
end yarn hoarding to sustain running of power looms and livelihoods of

·        State notification be issued to increase and make wages of
all power loom workers at par across the country.

·        End with contract and daily wages system; regularize all
employees in state and private sector.

·        Labor laws be strictly implemented, a tripartite
(worker-employers-government) conference be called in to devise new
labor policy.

·        End the on-going privatization process of state-owned
enterprises and halt the privatization plan of Pakistan Railways.

·        Women workers be paid equal wages to that of men workers.
Home-based women workers be recognized as workers and counted as
skilled labor force.

·        Legislation be introduced to protect the labor rights of the
informal sector workers, being exploited at the hands of the middlemen
and contractors.

·        Industry status be granted to bangle-making in Hyderabad.

·        Strict implementation of Bonded Labor Act 1992. Bosses be
forced to end advance system, act upon government notification
regarding payment of just wages at brick kiln factories.

·        Stop unlawful cut on pensions of communication pensioners in
Hazara division and ensure repayment of the deductions forthwith.

·        Implement minimum wage law (Rs. 6000) for all the workers
across the country and especially in Hattar industry, Hazara Division.

·         Reinstate all the sacked workers of Mardan Takhtby Sugar mills.

·        Effective, meaningful, radical and doable national level
agriculture reforms be introduced to end feudal system in the country.
All the state owned lands be distributed among landless, local
tenants, small peasants and Haris.  Women be given priority in this

·        Agriculture lands and their occupation be restored to the
tenants of Alipur Chattaha, all illegal cases registered against them
be abolished.

·        Tenants tilling state agriculture lands of military farms and
military welfare trust farms, since decades be given land ownership

·        Seventh wage Board award for journalists be implemented forthwith.

·        Big city allowance for Faisalabad be announced and High Court
Bench in City should be established.

·        Free and quality Education from primary to University level
for all, be announced and at least 10 percent of GDP be fixed for
education sector.

·        Class-based education system be abolished, uniform syllabus
be introduced across the country for all Educational institutes.
Technical and scientific education be declared compulsory.

·        Maximum budget for health, free heath facilities for poor and
housing for the low income groups be announced.

·        A debt audit commission be formed to investigate into all
loan contracts, made with IFIs, sine 1947. Refuse to repay all
illegitimate external debts.

·        Military budget be cut and the amount saved thus be spent on
social sector.

·        Government should announce at least Rs. 10,000 as
unemployment allowance for the unemployed youth.

·        All relevant rules be also introduced for teachers in workers
welfare schools and all employees of workers welfare schools be
considered as employees of welfare board.  Social security scheme and
Old Age Benefits be declared for teachers of these schools

·        Second shift for students be introduced in all the workers
welfare schools, upgrading these schools to the status of higher
secondary schools.

·        US Drone attacks be halt forthwith, massacres of local
innocent population, women and children in the name of war on
terrorism be stopped.

·        Provincial autonomy be ensured per 1973 Constitution and
appropriate measures be taken to end sense of deprivation among
smaller provinces.

·        All out priority-based steps be taken to end discriminatory
laws against women and abolish all sorts of violence against women.
Exchange marriages, karo-kari and other patriarchal traditions be
announced illegal.

·        Rights of Religious minorities, indigenous communities be
strictly protected   and all discriminatory laws, including blasphemy
laws be abolished.

·        Women be given due representation according to their
population in legislative bodies and other institutions at all levels.

·        Local bodies elections be announced forthwith and be held
under the supervision of Election Commission of Pakistan.

·        Emergency measures be taken to arrest price-hike, prices of
petroleum products and daily items be lowered by restoring state
subsidy on the necessary items.

Obituary: Daniel Bensaid

Francois Sabado

Daniel left us today, Tuesday the 12th of January 2010. Born in 1946 he gave his life to the cause of defending revolutionary Marxist ideas right to the end.


He was one of the founders of the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR - Revolutionary Communist Youth) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR - Revolutionary Communist League, French section of the Fourth International)

A leader of the May 68 movement, he was one of those people with a very sure feeling for political initiative. He had been one of the leaders of the 22nd March Movement. Grasping the dynamic of social movements, in particular the link between the student movement and workers’ general strike, he was also one of those who understood the necessity of building a political organisation, of accumulating the forces for building a revolutionary party.

The quality of Daniel’s intelligence was to combine theory and practice, intuition and political understanding, ideas and organisation. He could, at the same time, lead a stewarding force and write a theoretical text.

He was one of those who inspired a fight which combined principles and political boundaries with openness and a rejection of sectarianism. Daniel, his own political convictions deeply rooted in him, was always the first to want to discuss, to try to convince, to exchange opinions, and to renew his own thinking.

As a member of the daily leadership of the LCR from the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1990s, he played a decisive role in building a project, an orientation which combined daily activity with a revolutionary outlook. A good part of his theoretical and political work was focused on questions of strategy, and the lessons of the main historical revolutionary experiences.

Daniel was profoundly internationalist. He played a key role in the building of the LCR in the Spanish state in the Franco period. In those years he played a major role within the Fourth International, in particular following closely developments in Latin America and Brazil. He contributed largely to renewing our vision of the world and to preparing us for the upheavals of the end of the 1980s.

From the 1990s until the end, while continuing his political fight he concentrated on theoretical work: the history of political ideas; Marx’s Capital; the balance sheet of the twentieth century and its revolutions, first of all the Russian revolution; ecology; feminism; identities and the Jewish question; developing new policies for the revolutionary left faced with capitalist globalisation. He regularly attended and followed the Social Forum and the global justice movement.

Daniel ensured the historical continuity of open, non-dogmatic, revolutionary Marxism and adaptation to the changes of the new era, with the perspective of revolutionary transformation of society always in his sights.

Although seriously ill he overcame it for years, thinking, writing, working on his ideas, never refusing to travel, to speak at rallies or attend simple meetings. Daniel set himself the task of checking the solidity of our foundations and passing them on to the young generation. He put his heart and all his strength into it. His contributions, at the International Institute in Amsterdam, in the summer universities of the LCR and then of the NPA, at the Fourth International youth camp, made an impact on thousands of comrades. Transmitting the experience of the LCR to the NPA, Daniel decided to accompany the foundation of our new organisation with a relaunch of the reviewContretemps and forming the “Louise Michel” society as a place for discussion and reflection of radical thought.

Daniel was all that. And in addition he was warm and convivial. He loved life.

Although many “68ers” turned their coats and abandoned the ideals of their youth, Daniel abandoned none of them; he didn’t change. He is still with us.

Translated by Penelope Duggan


France A page has been turned (the formation of the NPA)

Daniel Bensaid

We never saw the reference to Trotskyism as a way to shut ourselves off from others. For us, it was more like a polemical challenge. We accepted the Trotskyist tag in our conflict with the Stalinists — but without building a neurotic identity out of it or, conversely, downplaying the importance of this heritage.


We always rejected the simplification that generally accompanies labelling of this sort. We were opposed to reductionist orthodoxies; while we always held Trotsky’s contributions in the highest regard, our political education always sought to nurture the pluralist memory and culture of the working-class movement – by including Luxemburg, Gramsci, Mariategui and Blanqui, but also Labriola, Sorel and the entirety of what Ernst Bloch called the “warm stream of Marxism”. Of course, Trotskyism holds a special place within this heritage that lacks both heirs and an instruction manual. Thanks to the struggle of the Left Opposition and then of the Fourth International against the Stalinist reaction – which cost Trotsky, Nin, Pietro Tresso and many others their lives – the communist project could not be entirely usurped by its bureaucratic impostor.

There are those who seek to put the history of the working-class movement behind us. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, has Trotskyism been deprived of its negative pole and therefore lost its very raison d’être? It is certainly true that present-day divisions within emancipatory movements cannot be conjugated in the past tense.

Controversies that raged until quite recently – such as the one surrounding the precise character of the Soviet Union – are no longer of any practical consequence. In this sense, a page has indeed been turned. It would be reckless, however, to argue that Stalinism has been definitively relegated to the past. Stalinism was a particular historical form of the danger of state bureaucratization that threatens emancipatory movements. Contrary to the hasty claims of some, this danger is not the natural product of “the party form” but rather of the social division of labour in modern societies – and this is something infinitely more serious. This threat will loom large for all forms of organization – whether trade-union, social-movement or party-political – as long as this social division of labour endures.

The specific historical form of Stalinism has died, but the lessons to be drawn from this experience are actually more relevant than ever. It is a matter of ensuring the development of socialist democracy at all levels. These lessons are no longer the exclusive property of organizations from the Trotskyist or council-communist libertarian tradition. They have a much wider base, and this is not something to complain about. When what I have called the “baggage of exodus” becomes a collective asset of the new anti-capitalist Left, it is a kind of posthumous victory for those so badly defeated by the Stalinist counter-revolution. The “short twentieth century” has ended and a new cycle of class struggles is just beginning. Crucial new questions are being raised, beginning with the ecological challenge. It was essential for the LCR to break from routine and take the risk of reaching beyond itself without renouncing its history. The NPA will not define itself as a Trotskyist organization. It will aim to bring together a range of experiences and currents on the basis of the events and tasks of the new period. To go the distance, though, it will need history and memory.

This article originally appeared in the February 5-11, 2009 issue of Politis and can be found on the ESSF website at

Translation from French: Nathan Rao

Bolshevism and revolutionary democracy

Paul LeBlanc

* Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (London/New York: Routledge, 2008), 289 pages. $160.
* Soma Marik, Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2008), 537 pages. $55.
[Note: In India, Marik's book is avaiable at Rs. 425 from Aakar Books -- Administrator, Radical Socialist] 

Given the complexities and crises of our time, we may see increasing numbers of thoughtful people and rising layers of young activists once again asking, “What is socialism and how can it be achieved?” Impacting on the answers to this question are the questions wrestled with in the books under review, which give attention to the fact that, as Simon Pirani puts it, “the Russian revolution of 1917 was a defining event, maybe the defining event, of the twentieth century,” and that “the retreat from, or failure of, the revolution’s aims . . . have, no less than its achievements, been a central problem for all those concerned with progressive social change.” [1]

Back in 1917, when the workers and peasants upsurge in Russia culminated in the triumph of the revolutionary-democratic councils known as soviets, Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party (soon renamed “Communist Party”) at the head of the upsurge, declared: “Comrades, workers, soldiers, peasants and all working people! Take all power into the hands of your soviets. … Gradually, with the consent and approval of the majority of the peasants, in keeping with their practical experience and that of the workers, we shall go forward firmly and unswervingly to the victory of socialism – a victory that will be sealed by the advanced workers of the many civilized countries, bring the peoples lasting peace and liberate them from all oppression and exploitation.” As John Reed reported in his eyewitness account Ten Days That Shook the World(corroborated by much serious scholarship since then), “the only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterward, in smoke of the falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the framework of the new.” [2]

Yet within a decade the bureaucratic and murderous dictatorship under Joseph Stalin was – in the name of Lenin and Bolshevism – consolidating its hold over the Soviet Republic. In fact, as Pirani argues, “within months of the October [1917] uprising, the revolution was in retreat from the aims of social liberation it had proclaimed. It was confounded by circumstances, and pushed back by the state.” [3]

Pirani adds that “the retreat, like the revolution, was not uniform or unidimensional. Workers, communists and others kept trying to push the revolution forward.” Many historians would agree with the assertion of Moshe Lewin, in his 2005 summation The Soviet Century, that “the year 1924 marks the end of ‘Bolshevism’” – with the new bureaucratic layer led by Stalin defeating, one after the other, a succession of Communists still animated by the ideals of 1917. [4] Many had earlier contributed to their own defeat. Soma Marik asserts – in terms that Pirani would certainly endorse – that “all too often, in place of admitting that acute crises were causing departures from workers’ democracy, the Bolsheviks justified those departures as developments superior to bourgeois democracy. This caused a severe retreat in the theoretical field and ultimately affected their political practice seriously.” She goes on to insist (with a perspective similar to Lewin’s – but perhaps not Pirani’s): “Nonetheless, the process of bureaucratization and the rise of Stalinism meant a decisive break with the Bolshevik legacy, rather than an essential continuity.” [5]

In most cases, such questions are not adequately explored by scholars whose primary experience happens to be outside of the labor and socialist movements. More helpful is an immersion not only in the literature and historical material of Marxism, socialism, and communism, but also an intimacy with the practicalities of left-wing organizations and with the interplay of such organizations with the larger working class. It helps especially if a person with such experience has been shaken into a critical-mindedness. Such people are more inclined to know which questions to ask, and where to look for the answers to such questions.

It is fortunate that in our own time there is a flow of important work from such people, two of whom are under review here. British scholar Simon Pirani was once a prominent activist in the Workers Revolutionary Party, now obviously disillusioned with the orthodoxies of that now-imploded super-Trotskyist sect. He has produced an extremely important piece of research – The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24. Soma Marik is an Indian scholar. Her adherence to the Fourth International of Trotskyist origin, perhaps tempered by difficulties in building a revolutionary organization in her native land, has certainly been impacted by a commitment to feminist perspectives. Her book is as awkwardly named as it is rich with information and insight – Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy.

What Marik does – aptly explained in the laudatory foreword by prominent Marx scholar David McLellan – is to explore “the revolutionary and democratic core of Marxism” and to offer “a careful dissection of the ways in which Marx and the Bolsheviks united theory and practice.” What Pirani does – aptly noted in the blurb by Diane Koenker, herself a pioneer in the study of the Russian working class – is to take “a close look at the relationship between the Bolshevik party and the democratic aspirations of rank-and-file workers in Moscow in the crucial early years of the Russian revolution.” [6]

Primarily a work of intellectual history, Marik’s study is thorough – combing through the mass of primary and secondary sources related to her subject, not least of which is a splendid utilization of Hal Draper’s rich body of work (which also informs Pirani’s study). As do Draper and a number of other prominent scholars (David McLellan, Richard N. Hunt, Michael Löwy, August Nimtz, etc.), Marik produces a clear, coherent, fully documented, and stimulating discussion of classical Marxism informed by the notion that, as she puts it, “central to Marx’s concept of workers’ democracy was the principles of working-class self-emancipation.” While this is ground well covered by others, whose contributions she capably summarizes and synthesizes, Marik’s effort contains two additional components: (1) almost every chapter of the book contains material critically examining how questions of gender and issues of feminism relate to, and shed light on, the “larger issues” under discussion; (2) there is an exploration of the interrelationship between Marx and Bolshevism.

Pirani’s book is – in some ways – much narrower in scope. A work of social history, it focuses on realities in Moscow in a five-year period. Its publication coincides with the appearance of two other important volumes wrestling with similar issues – Alexander Rabinowtich’s The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd(2007) and Kevin Murphy’s splendid Revolution and Counter-Revolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (2005), which looks at a single workplace from roughly 1900 to 1932.

These three books are part of a much larger stream of scholarship, which suggests an important limitation (yet also a strength) of Pirani’s work: far from having the finality of a synthesis, it is a contribution to a much larger collective work-in-progress. The weaknesses in Pirani’s book, it seems to me, arise when he strains against the limitations of his study, reaching for generalizations that distort rather than shed light on the valuable new information that he is sharing with us.

At the very beginning of his book is a summary of Pirani’s thesis: “The working class was politically expropriated by the Bolshevik party, as democratic bodies such as soviets and factory committees were deprived of decision-making power [as] the Soviet ruling class began to take shape. … Some worker activists concluded that the principles of 1917 had been betrayed, while others accepted a social contract, under which workers were assured of improvements in living standards in exchange for increased labor discipline and productivity, and a surrender of political power to the party.” [7]

It is difficult to convey in a short review how valuable is the new material that Pirani presents in this compelling study. The essential outlines of what he offers will hardly be news to those who have engaged with, for example, Paul Avrich’s fine old accountKronstadt 1921 or the narratives, memoirs, and novels of Victor Serge, Robert V. Daniels’ substantial 1960 work The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia, or Samuel Farber’s more recent Before Stalinism, The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. But Pirani utilizes new materials (including contemporary reports, speeches, articles, and interventions by dozens of Bolshevik and non-Bolshevik workplace activists, factory managers, dissidents and bureaucrats – culled from minutes of various soviet, trade union, and party meetings, from newspapers of the time, as well as from detailed reports of the Cheka, not to mention a considerable body of Russian-language post-Soviet scholarship). Pirani accepts the conception of the Bolshevik-led 1917 revolution as a profoundly democratic and promising reality, and he seems to accept the need to have postponed that glowing promise in 1918-1920, in the face of foreign invasion and brutal civil war. But once the Bolsheviks won the civil war, he asks, what explains the reason for the promise not simply being deferred but abandoned?

Some scholars have drawn on Lenin’s own partial explanation: “an industrial proletariat … in our country, owing to the war and the desperate poverty and ruin, has become declassed, i.e., dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to be a proletariat. … Since large-scale capitalist industry has been destroyed, since the factories and works are still at a standstill, the proletariat has disappeared.” Lenin’s view was that only the Communist Party, largely composed of those who had been workers, and committed to a revolutionary working-class program, could hold the new Soviet Republic together. Isaac Deutscher made this a central component of his own influential account of Russia’s post-revolutionary realities. More recent historians such as Diane Koenker have effectively challenged this as exaggerated, though Koenker’s own data indicates elements of truth in Lenin’s formulation: dramatic socio-economic disruptions, combined with revolutionary workers being drawn into the Red army and state apparatus, obviously impacted on the vitality and political cohesion of the Russian workers’ movement. Pirani observes, however, that “the working class was far from non-existent, and when in 1921, it began to resuscitate soviet democracy,” responses from powerful elements in the Communist Party worked not for its revival but its limitation and even elimination. [8] Tensions and conflicts sharpened with implantation of the New Economic Policy (NEP), beginning in 1921, reviving the devastated economy with market mechanisms but also fostering inequality and corruption.

Vibrant details emerge from this – connected with specific tensions and conflicts, passions and personalities – which provide patches of color, motion, and flavor that help us understand in new ways what is going on in the five eventful years that Pirani examines. At times, the complex swirl of what he unearths and presents is almost overwhelming – and at times, it seems to me, he tries to pull it all into a more coherent package than is justified by the more jumbled and fluid realities. But essential elements of the Bolshevik and Soviet tragedy do emerge, nonetheless, and with uncommon freshness and poignancy.

One Communist militant remembered of the revolutionary years: “We all lived in a state of revolutionary romanticism: weary and exhausted but happy, festive; unkempt, unwashed, long-haired and unshaven, but clear and clean of thought and heart.” A Communist returning from the civil war wrote to Lenin that “in the heart of every conscious comrade from the front, who at the front has become used to almost complete equality, who has broken from every kind of servility, debauchery and luxury – with which our very best party comrades now surround themselves – there boils hatred and disbelief.” A disillusioned party member explained in a letter of resignation: “I cannot be that sort of idealist communist who believes in the new God That They Call the State, bows down before the bureaucracy that is so far from the working people, and waits for communism from the hands of pen-pushers and officials as though it was the kingdom of heaven.” In 1920, a leader of the Democratic Centralist faction in the Communist Party snapped: “Why talk about the proletarian dictatorship or workers’ self-activity? There’s no self-activity here!” [9] A 1923 manifesto from the dissident Workers Group asserted:

“What are we being told? ‘You sit quietly, go out and demonstrate when you’re invited, sing the Internationale – when required – and the rest will be done without you, by first-class people who are almost the same sort of workers as you, only cleverer.’ … But what we need is a practice based on the self-activity of the working class, not on the party’s fear of it.” [10]

Among the early working-class oppositional groups in and around the Russian Communist Party, the best known is the Workers Opposition led by Alexander Shlyapnikov and Alexandra Kollontai. While they figure in Pirani’s account, he gives much more attention to other (and in some ways more interesting) formations – the Democratic Centralists led by Timofei Sapronov and Valerian Osinskii, Workers Truth whose activists included such female militants as Polina Lass-Kozlova and Fania Shutskyever, and the Workers Group whose leading personality was the tough, thoughtful worker-Bolshevik militant Gavriil Miasnikov. It is one of the great tragedies of Bolshevism that such oppositional currents were crushed by 1923, and that aspects of their perspectives, rooted deeply in the Bolshevism that culminated in the 1917 triumph and initially enjoying significant working-class support, were not allowed the space to challenge the ominous and ultimately murderous bureaucratization. Beginning with Lenin himself, and then Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and others (all of whom had “pragmatically” yet myopically worked to eliminate these early currents), the bureaucratic-authoritarian onslaught dealt them defeat after defeat after defeat.

Marik sees the decisive moment occurring at the Tenth Party Congress of the Communist Party in March 1921, when a ban on organized opposition was codified both inside and outside of the Communist Party. “Yet, in 1921, it seemed to be only another temporary measure,” she writes. “Lenin pleaded for time, thereby creating the impression that eventually, in one or two years, matters would change. But the effect of the changes of 1921 was devastating. The danger of bureaucratization had been ever present from the early days of the revolution. Once workers’ democracy was throttled, this bureaucratization could proceed unhindered.” [11] It is worth reflecting, however, on Trotsky’s classic essay of 1937, “Stalinism and Bolshevism”:

“As far as the prohibition of te other Soviet parties is concerned, it did not flow from any “theory” of Bolshevism but was a measure of defense of the dictatorship [of the proletariat, i.e., the workers’ state] in a backward and devastated country, surrounded by enemies. For the Bolsheviks it was clear from the beginning that this measure, later completed by the prohibition of factions inside the governing party itself, signaled a tremendous danger. However, the root of the danger lay not in the doctrine or in the tactics but in the material weakness of the dictatorship, in the difficulties of its internal and international situation. If the revolution had triumphed, even if only in Germany, the need to prohibit the other Soviet parties would immediately have fallen away.” [12]

Marik identifies a key problem embedded in Leninist theory, whose negative effects crop up over and over in Pirani’s account. “The lack of discussion about the role of political parties in The State and Revolution remains a significant flaw,” she writes. “Lenin’s account of representative democracy can be criticized for being silent on the question of plurality, rival programs within the workers’ state, and on the distinction between counter-revolution and opposition.” [13] She and Pirani document the fact that Lenin, Trotsky, and other leading Bolsheviks idealized the Communist Party under their leadership as the only legitimate political expression of Russia’s revolutionary working-class.

Marik notes that this was related to the fact that initially “most non-Bolshevik parties, who were chosen by the workers, peasants and soldiers to represent them in the Soviets, decided to turn their backs on the Soviets and even to join hands with a bourgeois-aristocratic counter-revolution.” But she also insists (drawing on the work of another Indian scholar, Kunal Chattopadhyay’s The Marxism of Leon Trotsky [2006]) that the multi-party socialism Trotsky had insisted on as early as 1904 – which he had abandoned when the other socialist parties turned against the Russian Revolution, but returned to by the 1930s – was the key to avoiding the disaster that befell Soviet Russia. [14]

There were others, however, who were insisting on the same point at the very moment when Lenin and Trotsky were inadvertently helping to engineer the revolution’s defeat. Pirani draws our attention to a 1922 declaration of the Workers’ Group, calling for “the resurrection of workers’ democracy in the form of workplace-based soviets,” that seems to hit the nail on the head:

“It argued that, whereas during the civil war the emphasis had been on suppressing the exploiters, NEP required rebuilding such soviets as the ‘basic cells’ of soviet power. There could be no free speech for those who oppose revolution, ‘from monarchists to SRs,’ and curtailing democracy during the civil war had been an unavoidable necessity. But under NEP ‘a new approach’ was needed, including free speech for all workers: ‘there is no such thing in Russia as a communist working class, there is just the working class, with Bolsheviks, anarchists, SRs and Mensheviks in its ranks,’ among whom ‘not compulsion, but persuasion’ had to be used. … The manifesto lambasted the use of ‘bureaucratic appointments that brush aside the direct participation of the working class’ to run industry. …” [15]

One of the most serious problems with Pirani’s account is a tendency to accuse the Bolsheviks (or Communists) as a whole, and Lenin in particular, of authoritarian ideological inclinations and goals which, at best, serious oversimplify the realities. According to his own account many Bolsheviks opposed and fought against manifestations of what he presents as “the Bolshevik position.” The label “anti-worker” is applied very freely, sometimes to corrupted and tyrannical officials, to be sure, but also to some Bolsheviks who had been workers for most of their lives and who saw themselves as attempting to defend the medium-term and long-term interests of the working class in the face of understandable but problematical short-term discontents.

Certain conceptions are pushed further than the facts will bear. Here are two examples.

1. Pirani writes that Marx “asserted that the abolition of bureaucratic hierarchy and the introduction of officials paid a skilled workman’s wages . . . would be integral to ‘the political form of . . . social emancipation,” and then announces: “In Bolshevism, this aspect of Marx’s thought was almost completely obliterated.” There are a number of first-hand accounts that contradict this. For example, in the remarkable memoir of a Communist survivor of the gulag, Joseph Berger’s Nothing But the Truth (also published under the title Shipwreck of a Generation): “In the early years of the regime the ascetic tradition of the revolutionaries was maintained. One of its outward manifestations was the ‘party maximum’ – the ceiling imposed on the earnings of Party members. At first this was very low – an official was paid scarcely more than a manual worker, though certain advantages went with a responsible job. Lenin set the tone by refusing an extra kopeck or slice of bread. . . .” There were certainly exceptions to this — Trotsky records with distaste the case of his own brother-in-law, Lev Kamenev, who threw little parties during the stark civil war period, supplied with “bottles and dainties” supplied by the somewhat corrupt but affable Abel Yenukidze. [16] With the New Economic Policy, as many (including Pirani) have been able to show, immense inequalities became far more common. But our understanding is not enhanced by denying the realities that Berger and others attest to.

2. Pirani tells us: “The most influential socialist analysis of the USSR, Trotsky’s, . . . relied heavily on the Bolsheviks’ old discourse about ‘alien class elements,’ and excluded from examination the party’s political expropriation of the working class,” Pirani writes. This is not true. From exile, Trotsky wrote: “On the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in a backward country, surrounded by capitalists – for the first time a powerful bureaucratic apparatus has been created from among the upper layers of the workers, that is raised above the masses, that lays down the law to them, that has at its disposal colossal resources, that is bound together by an inner mutual responsibility, and that intrudes into the policies of a workers’ government its own interests, methods, and regulations.” Trotsky was merciless in describing the ex-working-class functionary: “He eats and guzzles and procreates and grows himself a respectable potbelly. He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticizing himself, and sees in all of this the gist of the general line.” [17]

Pirani (perhaps understandably) turns on Lenin. The wonderful quality of Lenin’s Marxism for most of his life, and especially in 1915-1917, was the unity of the revolutionary strategy and the revolutionary goal, each permeated by a vibrant, uncompromising working-class militancy, insurgent spirit, and radical democracy. The culmination of this in the 1917 revolution was Lenin’s triumph. His tragedy was that it broke down in 1918 – not simply because of the immense violence for foreign invasion and civil war, not to mention the earlier devastation of World War I, but because the simple solution of “workers’ democracy” became problematical when the abstract visions were brought down to the level of concrete realities. Workers’ committees and councils in the factories and neighborhoods did not have enough information and knowledge to form practical decisions nor enough skill and practical experience to carry out decisions for the purpose of running a national economy, developing adequate social services throughout the country, formulating a coherent foreign policy, or even running a factory that would be interconnected with a larger economic system. [18]

This was especially so in the horrendous context in which revolutionary Russia found itself by 1921. The unexpected reality that the Bolshevik Revolution did not succeed in sparking international revolution, in the wake of global radicalization fostered by the imperialist slaughter of World War I, was a key factor in the tragic equation – the Soviet Republic’s isolation in a hostile capitalist world. There were thus no socialist regimes in more advanced industrial economies of Germany and other European countries to help in the development of revolutionary Russia, as had been expected in 1917.

Pirani makes much of a fragment of Lenin’s 1922 speech which he interprets as defining the Russian working class out of existence. The speech actually contains various good, bad, and contradictory formulations as Lenin grapples with the kinds of problems alluded to above, which tend to be avoided in Pirani’s narrative. He could just as well have drawn our attention to the words of Leon Trotsky. “Under the form of the ‘struggle against despotic centralism’ and against ‘stifling’ discipline, a fight takes place for the self-preservation of various groups and subgroupings of the working class, with their petty ward leaders and their local oracles,” Trotsky wrote in 1921. “The entire working class, while preserving its cultural originality and its political nuances, can act methodically and firmly without remaining in the tow of events and directing each time its mortal blows against the weak sectors of its enemies, on the condition that at its head, above the wards, the districts, the groups, there is an apparatus which is centralized and bound together by an iron discipline.” [19]

Although Pirani does not put this quotation in his book, this could also be seen as a rationale for “the new ruling class.” While there may be truth to Pirani’s analysis, however, there may also be elements of truth in Trotsky’s comments – reflecting the tragic dilemma facing Bolshevism in the early 1920s. And the fact remains that a number of apparent representatives of this “new ruling class” had spent most of their lives fighting for workers’ democracy and socialism and would soon end their lives in continuing to wage that struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy. The realities seem far more contradictory and fluid than Pirani will allow.

Nonetheless, Bolshevism failed to sustain its own revolutionary democracy, and what Bolsheviks did and failed to do are part of the equation. While this defeat resulted from factors beyond their control, fateful choices by Lenin and his comrades were also among the negative factors. Those who seek to do what they tried to do, but to do it better, should reflect over these works by Pirani and Marik.

By Paul Le Blanc


The Period and the Party

Duncan Chapel

War declared on the John Rees-Lindsey German faction: impending split in the British SWP?

December 28th, 2009

The faction fight in the SWP, which pits the majority led by Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith against the Left Platform led by John Rees and Lindsey German, is utterly depressing, for several reasons. First it is a reflection of the generally depressed and demoralised state of the whole of the British left, although of course with its own specific characteristics.

Second, whatever the ultra-factional vultures on the fringes of the far left may think, it is also depressing that the main organisation of the revolutionary left finds itself in such factional disarray. That is bad news for everyone; the very poor turn out for the recent Stop the War Coalition demonstration testifies to that.

Third, this whole sorry mess, which has included the sidelining of the Socialist Alliance in the early part of the decade, and the split in Respect and its fallout inside the SWP, was utterly avoidable.

If the SWP leadership in particular, but also the Socialist Party leadership, had been less rigid in their political conceptions, if they had shown more openness to political pluralism as demonstrated by international developments like the NPA in France and the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark and the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) in Turkey, it could have turned out very different. Indeed, the SWP also had the opportunity to learn from the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in France, which the SWP’s organisation in France (SPEB) was part of. Not only did the League allow the right of minority tendencies but also the right of women and LGBT members to self-organise, in addition to an autonomous youth organisation. It is also very important to consider the respectful commitment to political debate that LCR showed to smaller organisations like SPEB not by “recruiting” them but merging with them. Several years ago there was a rather different discussion when the International Socialist Group in Britain was invited to join the SWP. It didn’t join because tendencies in the SWP wouldn’t have the same rights as SPEB enjoyed in the LCR.

Below we explain why, but first to some of the all-too-familiar the specifics of what’s currently going on inside the SWP.

Bureaucratic repression

From the contributions in the internal discussion bulletin number 2, it’s clear that the majority are doing everything possible to organisationally harass the minority. First, the accusations of factionalism based on intercepted emails.

The SWP does not allow factions outside of the 3-month discussion period; anyone having discussions about the possibility of forming a faction inside the 3-month period it open to accusations of breeching the constitution. So the Rees-German minority is accused of disloyal factionalism by sending emails to one another!

At this point though we have to say something that the Left Platform have to think about : John Rees and Lindsay German are the victims of an internal regime and an external policy that they were the upholders of when they were indeed in the majority, in fact the two central leaders, themselves. For example, the exclusion of John Rees from the Central Committee at the time of the 2009 conference was indeed an utter scandal. But it stems from the policy of excluding minorities from the CC that Rees and German of course defended in 2007 when it was a question of whether John Molyneux could be on the CC.

Members of the minority have been told to close down their websites. Most of all the majority leadership is doing everything possible to minimise the representation of the Left Platform, by for example branches and districts refusing to allocate any delegates to the minority, CC member standing as ordinary delegates to exclude minority representation etc etc. This is all documented in the article by Lindsey German in preconference discussion bulletin no 2.

The aim of minimising the representation of the minority at the national conference is very familiar to anyone who knows anything about the recent history of the sectarian left internationally. In a normally functioning democratic centralist organisation it would be elementary to allow the Left Platform adequate representation to express themselves fully, to represent their strength (or lack of it) inside the party, and to go into the debates in adequate detail. This is not what the Callinicos-Smith leadership have in mind. They intend to try to crush and humiliate the minority, to try to demoralise its supporters, and probably to expel the leadership of the Left Platform. This is absolutely typical of the way in which sectarian ‘Trotskyist’ groups have behaved through Gerry Healy, Jack Barnes, Pierre Lambert and all their ilk. Alex Callinicos finds himself in bad company.

Something else that the Left Platform leadership should think about is this: an organisation that has an informal policy of suggesting to members who have differences that they might like to take a six-month leave of absence, in the hope they will leave, is not really preparing a democratic internal life and a healthy attitude to discussion and differences.

The political debate

All the merit in the political debate is entirely with the Left Platform. The main documents of the platform accuse the leadership of retreating from the more open that the SWP tried to develop at the star of the decade, when it made its turn to the STWC, the Socialist Alliance and Globalise Resistance. The platform says that the majority leadership want to downgrade united front work like the STWC and instead replace it with a narrowly conceived ‘Right to Work’ campaign, of the type which those active in the 1970s will remember. Most of all the Platform’s documents make very apposite points on the question of the united front, pointing out that Trotsky never limited the united front to being a mere ‘tactic’, but explained it was a ‘policy’ with strategic significance. These explanations by the Platform are all correct.

But in the formal terms of the debate do not in themselves explain very much, for two reasons. Neither side deals with the fact that for many SWP rank-and-file members, as well as a section of the leadership around Chris Harman, the ‘open’ turn to the Socialist Alliance was very unpopular. And the Platform stops short of dealing with the real strategic question that is staring them in the face, and which the experience of the NPA in France and the Left Bloc in Portugal demonstrates: the importance of trying to create a broad socialist/left alternative at a national political level, using the ‘united fronts’ like the STWC as bases of support for a global political alternative. The Socialist Alliance and Respect both failed because the SWP refused to take the step of fighting for a real pluralistic national political alternative, and instead, when the chips were down, tried to channel everything through the SWP – especially during the height of the anti-war movement in 2003-4.

In effect the SWP adopted a half-way policy of building the Socialist Alliance and Respect as ‘united fronts of a special type’. But they were not. They were political blocs, with global socialist policies. They could not work if the attempt was made control them by the SWP, or at least to subject them to SWP veto.

The proof of the pudding is in the Scottish eating. At first the SWP abstained from the Scottish Socialist Party, but then went into it as a minority faction almost from day 1. By the middle of 2002 the atmosphere between the SWP faction and the SSP majority was icy, with the SWP trying to pick every conceivable little thing to create differences. Then the SWP made the utterly opportunistic and disastrous decision to back Sheridan’s break away Scottish Socialist Solidarity, which of course is now in the process of disappearing.

It is not even clear if the extent of the factionalism by the SWP in the SSP was decided in London, or whether – like the scorpion that stings the frog that is carrying him across the water – it was just in the nature of the rank and file militants who couldn’t help themselves. The decision to back Sheridan’s breakaway was of course decided in London and an act of cynical folly.

In this period it is impossible for Marxist organisations to proceed on the basis of a ‘no risk’, defence of existing acquisitions, policy. Building a broad socialist formation like the New Anticapitalist Party in France, or the Left Bloc in Portugal – or indeed participating in Die Linke in Germany – involves major risks. That arises from the nature of the period. But attempting to avoid the risks inherent in creating broad political alternatives to the left, in defence of the working class and the planet, is full of risks itself.

The period and the party

The left in Britain – even more than elsewhere – seems completely at a loss in the face of the massive economic crisis that has hit Western and especially Anglo-Saxon capitalism. This is obviously combining with a gigantic world environmental crisis, so that the issue is not now stopping climate change, but limiting it and deciding who will pay the cost of adaption. In this situation the right, and even the far right, has the initiative, especially at the electoral level.

Britain faces the biggest attack on working class living standards, the welfare state and democratic rights since the 1970s. To try to respond to that with a few more paper sales and a few more recruits is idiotic.

The tasks facing Marxists is that of building a political force to the left of social democracy that seems like a realistic alternative to millions. This cannot and will not be done by the SWP on its own or by the Socialist Party on its own. These frameworks are too politically narrow.

At the same time it is abstentionist to say that broader political alternatives are impossible without a rise in the level of the class struggle. Such devices are excuses that enable factional leaderships to get on with day-to-day propaganda routine: sell the paper, hold forums, recruit. In the case of the Callinicos-Smith leadership it’s a matter of ‘back to the bunker’, just as it was in 1994 for Peter Taaffe when Arthur Scargill vetoed the attempt by Militant Labour to join the SLP.

On the question of building a broad socialist alternative the SWP leadership now talks out of both sides of its mouth. Fulsome in its praise for ‘our comrades’ in the French NPA or the Portuguese Left Bloc, policies inspired by the same political methods in Britain fall foul of Alex Callinicos’ contemptuous ex-cathedra dismissal. A leadership content in its ability to issue tactical advice to anyone worldwide will have no difficulty erecting sectarian schemas in Britain.

Stalinism and Bolshevism

Leon Trotsky

Reactionary epochs like ours not only disintegrate and weaken the working class and isolate its vanguard but also lower the general ideological level of the movement and throw political thinking back to stages long since passed through. In these conditions the task of the vanguard is, above all, not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavourable relation of forces prevents it from holding political positions it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly paid experience of the past. Fools will consider this policy “sectarian”. Actually it is the only means of preparing for a new tremendous surge forward with the coming historical tide.

The Reaction Against Marxism and Bolshevism

Great political defeats provoke a reconsideration of values, generally occurring in two directions. On the one hand the true vanguard, enriched by the experience of defeat, defends with tooth and nail the heritage of revolutionary thought and on this basis strives to educate new cadres for the mass struggle to come. On the other hand the routinists, centrists and dilettantes, frightened by defeat, do their best to destroy the authority of the revolutionary tradition and go backwards in their search for a “New World”.

One could indicate a great many examples of ideological reaction, most often taking the form of prostration. All the literature if the Second and Third Internationals, as well as of their satellites of the London Bureau, consists essentially of such examples. Not a suggestion of Marxist analysis. Not a single serious attempt to explain the causes of defeat, About the future, not one fresh word. Nothing but cliches, conformity, lies and above all solicitude for their own bureaucratic self-preservation. It is enough to smell 10 words from some Hilferding or Otto Bauer to know this rottenness. The theoreticians of the Comintern are not even worth mentioning. The famous Dimitrov is as ignorant and commonplace as a shopkeeper over a mug of beer. The minds of these people are too lazy to renounce Marxism: they prostitute it. But it is not they that interest us now. Let us turn to the “innovators”.

The former Austrian communist, Willi Schlamm, has devoted a small book to the Moscow trials, under the expressive title, The Dictatorship of the Lie. Schlamm is a gifted journalist, chiefly interested in current affairs. His criticism of the Moscow frame-up, and his exposure of the psychological mechanism of the “voluntary confessions”, are excellent. However, he does not confine himself to this: he wants to create a new theory of socialism that would insure us against defeats and frame-ups in the future. But since Schlamm is by no means a theoretician and is apparently not well acquainted with the history of the development of socialism, he returns entirely to pre-Marxist socialism, and notably to its German, that is to its most backward, sentimental and mawkish variety. Schlamm denounces dialectics and the class struggle, not to mention the dictatorship of the proletariat. The problem of transforming society is reduced for him to the realisation of certain “eternal” moral truths with which he would imbue mankind, even under capitalism. Willi Schlamm’s attempts to save socialism by the insertion of the moral gland is greeted with joy and pride in Kerensky’s review, Novaya Rossia (an old provincial Russian review now published in Paris); as the editors justifiably conclude, Schlamm has arrived at the principles of true Russian socialism, which a long time ago opposed the holy precepts of faith, hope and charity to the austerity and harshness of the class struggle. The “novel” doctrine of the Russian “Social Revolutionaries” represents, in its “theoretical” premises, only a return to the pre-March (1848!) Germany. However, it would be unfair to demand a more intimate knowledge of the history of ideas from Kerensky than from Schlamm. Far more important is the fact that Kerensky, who is in solidarity with Schlamm, was, while head of the government, the instigator of persecutions against the Bolsheviks as agents of the German general staff: organised, that is, the same frame-ups against which Schlamm now mobilises his moth-eaten metaphysical absolutes.

The psychological mechanism of the ideological reaction of Schlamm and his like, is not at all complicated. For a while these people took part in a political movement that swore by the class struggle and appeared, in word if not in thought, to dialectical materialism. In both Austria and Germany the affair ended in a catastrophe. Schlamm draws the wholesale conclusion: this is the result of dialectics and the class struggle! And since the choice of revelations is limited by historical experience and... by personal knowledge, our reformer in his search for the word falls on a bundle of old rags which he valiantly opposes not only to Bolshevism but to Marxism as well.

At first glance Schlamm’s brand of ideological reaction seems too primitive (from Marx ... to Kerensky!) to pause over. But actually it is very instructive: precisely in its primitiveness it represents the common denominator of all other forms of reaction, particularly of those expressed by wholesale denunciation of Bolshevism.

“Back to Marxism”?

Marxism found its highest historical expression in Bolshevism. Under the banner of Bolshevism the first victory of the proletariat was achieved and the first workers’ state established. No force can now erase these facts from history. But since the October Revolution has led to the present stage of the triumph of the bureaucracy, with its system of repression, plunder and falsification – the “dictatorship of the lie”, to use Schlamm’s happy expression – many formalistic and superficial minds jump to a summary conclusion: one cannot struggle against Stalinism without renouncing Bolshevism. Schlamm, as we already know, goes further: Bolshevism, which degenerated into Stalinism, itself grew out of Marxism; consequently one cannot fight Stalinism while remaining on the foundation of Marxism. There are others, less consistent but more numerous, who say on the contrary: “We must return Bolshevism to Marxism.” How? To what Marxism? Before Marxism became “bankrupt” in the form of Bolshevism it has already broken down in the form of social democracy, Does the slogan “Back to Marxism” then mean a leap over the periods of the Second and Third Internationals... to the First International? But it too broke down in its time. Thus in the last analysis it is a question of returning to the collected works of Marx and Engels. One can accomplish this historic leap without leaving one’s study and even without taking off one’s slippers. But how are we going to go from our classics (Marx died in 1883, Engels in 1895) to the tasks of a new epoch, omitting several decades of theoretical and political struggles, among them Bolshevism and the October revolution? None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course. So the question is reduced to the simple advice to study Capital. We can hardly object. But the Bolsheviks, too, studied Capital and not badly either. This did not however prevent the degeneration of the Soviet state and the staging of the Moscow trials. So what is to be done?

Is Bolshevism Responsible for Stalinism?

Is it true that Stalinism represents the legitimate product of Bolshevism, as all reactionaries maintain, as Stalin himself avows, as the Mensheviks, the anarchists, and certain left doctrinaires considering themselves Marxist believe? “We have always predicted this” they say, “Having started with the prohibition of other socialist parties, the repression of the anarchists, and the setting up of the Bolshevik dictatorship in the Soviets, the October Revolution could only end in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. Stalin is the continuation and also the bankruptcy of Leninism.”

The flaw in this reasoning begins in the tacit identification of Bolshevism, October Revolution and Soviet Union. The historical process of the struggle of hostile forces is replaced by the evolution of Bolshevism in a vacuum. Bolshevism, however, is only a political tendency closely fused with the working class but not identical with it. And aside from the working class there exist in the Soviet Union a hundred million peasants, diverse nationalities, and a heritage of oppression, misery and ignorance. The state built up by the Bolsheviks reflects not only the thought and will of Bolshevism but also the cultural level of the country, the social composition of the population, the pressure of a barbaric past and no less barbaric world imperialism. To represent the process of degeneration of the Soviet state as the evolution of pure Bolshevism is to ignore social reality in the name of only one of its elements, isolated by pure logic. One has only to call this elementary mistake by its true name to do away with every trace of it.

Bolshevism, in any case, never identified itself either with the October Revolution or with the Soviet state that issued from it. Bolshevism considered itself as one of the factors of history, its “Conscious” factor – a very important but not decisive one. We never sinned on historical subjectivism. We saw the decisive factor – on the existing basis of productive forces – in the class struggle, not only on a national scale but on an international scale.

When the Bolsheviks made concessions to the peasant tendency, to private ownership, set up strict rules for membership of the party, purged the party of alien elements, prohibited other parties, introduced the NEP, granted enterprises as concessions, or concluded diplomatic agreements with imperialist governments, they were drawing partial conclusions from the basic fact that had been theoretically clear to them from the beginning; that the conquest of power, however important it may be in itself, by no means transforms the party into a sovereign ruler of the historical process. Having taken over the state, the party is able, certainly, to influence the development of society with a power inaccessible to it before; but in return it submits itself to a 10 times greater influence from all other elements in society. It can, by the direct attack by hostile forces, be thrown out of power. Given a more drawn out tempo of development, it can degenerate internally while holding on to power. It is precisely this dialectic of the historical process that is not understood by those sectarian logicians who try to find in the decay of the Stalinist bureaucracy a crushing argument against Bolshevism.

In essence these gentlemen say: the revolutionary party that contains in itself no guarantee against its own degeneration is bad. By such a criterion Bolshevism is naturally condemned: it has no talisman. But the criterion itself is wrong. Scientific thinking demands a concrete analysis: how and why did the party degenerate? No one but the Bolsheviks themselves have, up to the present time, given such an analysis,. To do this they had no need to break with Bolshevism. On the contrary, they found in its arsenal all they needed for the explanation of its fate. They drew this conclusion: certainly Stalinism “grew out ” of Bolshevism, not logically, however, but dialectically; not as a revolutionary affirmation but as a Thermidorian negation. It is by no means the same.

Bolshevism’s Basic Prognosis

The Bolsheviks, however, did not have to wait for the Moscow trials to explain the reasons for the disintegration of the governing party of the USSR. Long ago they foresaw and spoke of the theoretical possibility of this development. Let us remember the prognosis of the Bolsheviks, not only on the eve of the October Revolution but years before. The specific alignment of forces in the national and international field can enable the proletariat to seize power first in a backward country such as Russia. But the same alignment of forces proves beforehand that without a more or less rapid victory of the proletariat in the advanced countries the worker’s government in Russia will not survive. Left to itself the Soviet regime must either fall or degenerate. More exactly; it will first degenerate and then fall. I myself have written about this more than once, beginning in 1905. In my History of the Russian Revolution (cf. Appendix to the last volume: Socialism in One Country) are collected all the statements on the question made by the Bolshevik leaders from 1917 until 1923. They all amount to the following: without a revolution in the West, Bolshevism will be liquidated either by internal counter-revolution or by external intervention, or by a combination of both. Lenin stressed again and again that the bureaucratisation of the Soviet regime was not a technical question, but the potential beginning of the degeneration of the worker’s state.

At the eleventh party congress in March, 1922, Lenin spoke of the support offered to Soviet Russia at the time of the NEP by certain bourgeois politicians, particularly the liberal professor Ustrialov. “I am for the support of the Soviet power in Russia” said Ustrialov, although he was a Cadet, a bourgeois, a supporter of intervention – “because it has taken the road that will lead it back to an ordinary bourgeois state”. Lenin prefers the cynical voice of the enemy to “sugary communistic nonsense”. Soberly and harshly he warns the party of danger: “We must say frankly that the things Ustrialov speaks about are possible. History knows all sorts of metamorphoses. Relying on firmness of convictions, loyalty and other splendid moral qualities is anything but a serious attitude in politics. A few people may be endowed with splendid moral qualities, but historical issues are decided by vast masses, which, if the few don’t suit them, may at times, treat them none too politely.” In a word, the party is not the only factor of development and on a larger historical scale is not the decisive one.

“One nation conquers another” continued Lenin at the same congress, the last in which he participated ... “this is simple and intelligible to all. But what happens to the culture of these nations? Here things are not so simple. If the conquering nation is more cultured than the vanquished nation, the former imposes its culture on the latter, but if the opposite is the case, the vanquished nation imposes its culture on the conqueror. Has not something like this happened in the capital of the RSFSR? Have the 4700 Communists (nearly a whole army division, and all of them the very best) come under the influence of an alien culture?”. This was said in 1922, and not for the first time. History is not made by a few people, even “the best”; and not only that: these “best” can degenerate in the spirit of an alien, that is, a bourgeois culture. Not only can the Soviet state abandon the way of socialism, but the Bolshevik party can, under unfavourable historic conditions, lose its Bolshevism.

From the clear understanding of this danger issued the Left Opposition, definitely formed in 1923. Recording day by day the symptoms of degeneration, it tried to oppose to the growing Thermidor the conscious will of the proletarian vanguard. However, this subjective factor proved to be insufficient. The “gigantic masses” which, according to Lenin, decide the outcome of the struggle, become tired of internal privations and of waiting too long for the world revolution. The mood of the masses declined. The bureaucracy won the upper hand. It cowed the revolutionary vanguard, trampled upon Marxism, prostituted the Bolshevik party. Stalinism conquered. In the form of the Left Opposition, Bolshevism broke with the Soviet bureaucracy and its Comintern. This was the real course of development.

To be sure, in a formal sense Stalinism did issue from Bolshevism. Even today the Moscow bureaucracy continues to call itself the Bolshevik party. It is simply using the old label of Bolshevism the better to fool the masses. So much the more pitiful are those theoreticians who take the shell for the kernel and appearance for reality. In the identification of Bolshevism and Stalinism they render the best possible service to the Thermidorians and precisely thereby play a clearly reactionary role.

In view of the elimination of all other parties from the political field the antagonistic interests and tendencies of the various strata of the population, to a greater of less degree, had to find their expression in the governing party, To the extent that the political centre of gravity has shifted form the proletarian vanguard to the bureaucracy, the party has changed its social structure as well as its ideology. Owing to the tempestuous course of development, it has suffered in the last 15 years a far more radical degeneration than did the social democracy in half a century. The present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood. The annihilation of all the older generation of Bolsheviks, an important part of the middle generation which participated in the civil war, and that part of the youth that took up most seriously the Bolshevik traditions, shows not only a political but a thoroughly physical incompatibility between Bolshevism and Stalinism. How can this not be seen?

Stalinism and “State Socialism”

The anarchists, for their part, try to see in Stalinism the organic product, not only of Bolshevism and Marxism but of “state socialism” in general. They are willing to replace Bakunin’s patriarchal “federation of free communes” by the modern federation of free Soviets. But, as formerly, they are against centralised state power. Indeed, one branch of “state” Marxism, social democracy, after coming to power became an open agent of capitalism. The other gave birth to a new privileged caste. It is obvious that the source of evil lies in the state. From a wide historical viewpoint, there is a grain of truth in this reasoning. The state as an apparatus of coercion is an undoubted source of political and moral infection. This also applies, as experience has shown, to the workers’ state. Consequently it can be said that Stalinism is a product of a condition of society in which society was still unable to tear itself out of the strait-jacket of the state. But this position, contributing nothing to the elevation of Bolshevism and Marxism, characterises only the general level of mankind, and above all – the relation of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Having agreed with the anarchists that the state, even the workers’ state, is the offspring of class barbarism and that real human history will begin with the abolition of the state, we have still before us in full force the question: what ways and methods will lead, ultimately, to the abolition of the state? Recent experience bears witness that they are anyway not the methods of anarchism.

The leaders of the Spanish Federation of Labour (CNT), the only important anarchist organisation in the world, became, in the critical hour, bourgeois ministers. They explained their open betrayal of the theory of anarchism by the pressure of “exceptional circumstances”. But did not the leaders of German social democracy produce, in their time, the same excuse? Naturally, civil war is not peaceful and ordinary but an “exceptional circumstance”. Every serious revolutionary organisation, however, prepares precisely for “exceptional circumstances”. The experience of Spain has shown once again that the state can be “denied” in booklets published in “normal circumstances” by permission of the bourgeois state, but the conditions of revolution leave no room for the denial of the state: they demand, on the contrary, the conquest of the state. We have not the slightest intention of blaming the anarchists for not having liquidated the state with the mere stroke of a pen. A revolutionary party , even having seized power (of which the anarchist leaders were incapable in spite of the heroism of the anarchist workers), is still by no means the sovereign ruler of society. But all the more severely do we blame the anarchist theory, which seemed to be wholly suitable for times of peace, but which had to be dropped rapidly as soon as the “exceptional circumstances” of the ... revolution had begun. In the old days there were certain generals – and probably are now – who considered that the most harmful thing for an army was war. Little better are those revolutionaries who complain that revolution destroys their doctrine.

Marxists are wholly in agreement with the anarchists in regard to the final goal: the liquidation of the state. Marxists are “state-ist” only to the extent that one cannot achieve the liquidation of the state simply by ignoring it. The experience of Stalinism does not refute the teaching of Marxism but confirms it by inversion. The revolutionary doctrine which teaches the proletariat to orient itself correctly in situations and to profit actively by them, contains of course no automatic guarantee of victory. But victory is possible only through the application of this doctrine. Moreover, the victory must not be though of as a single event. It must be considered in the perspective of an historical epoch. The workers’ state – on a lower economic basis and surrounded by imperialism – was transformed into the gendarmerie of Stalinism. But genuine Bolshevism launched a life and death struggle against the gendarmerie. To maintain itself Stalinism is now forced to conduct a direct civil war against Bolshevism under the name of “Trotskyism”, not only in the USSR but also in Spain. The old Bolshevik party is dead but Bolshevism is raising its head everywhere.

To deduce Stalinism form Bolshevism or from Marxism is the same as to deduce, in a larger sense, counter-revolution from revolution. Liberal-conservative and later reformist thinking has always been characterised by this cliche. Due to the class structure of society, revolutions have always produced counter-revolutions. Does not this indicate, asks the logician, that there is some inner flaw in the revolutionary method? However, neither the liberals nor reformists have succeeded, as yet, in inventing a more “economical” method. But if it is not easy to rationalise the living historic process, it is not at all difficult to give a rational interpretation of the alternation of its waves, and thus by pure logic to deduce Stalinism from “state socialism”, fascism from Marxism, reaction from revolution, in a word, the antithesis from the thesis. In this domain as in many others anarchist thought is the prisoner of liberal rationalism. Real revolutionary thinking is not possible without dialectics.

The Political “Sins” of Bolshevism as the Source of Stalinism

The arguments of the rationalists assume at times, at least in their outer form, a more concrete character. They do not deduce Stalinism from Bolshevism as a whole but from its political sins. the Bolsheviks – according to Gorter, Pannekoek, certain German “Spartacists” and others – replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the party; Stalin replaced the dictatorship of the party with the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, the Bolsheviks destroyed all parties except their own; Stalin strangled the Bolshevik party in the interests of a Bonapartist clique. The Bolsheviks compromised with the bourgeoisie; Stalin became its ally and support. The Bolsheviks recognised the necessity of participation in the old trade unions and in the bourgeois parliament; Stalin made friends with the trade union bureaucracy and bourgeois democracy. One can make such comparisons at will. For all their apparent effectiveness they are entirely empty.

The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard. In itself the necessity for state power arises from the insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity. In the revolutionary vanguard, organised in a party, is crystallised the aspiration of the masses to obtain their freedom. Without the confidence of the class in the vanguard, without support of the vanguard by the class, there can be no talk of the conquest of power. In this sense the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard. The Soviets are the only organised form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given this form only by the party. This is proved by the positive experience of the October Revolution and by the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria, finally, Spain). No one has either shown in practice or tried to explain articulately on paper how the proletariat can seize power without the political leadership of a party that knows what it wants. the fact that this party subordinates the Soviets politically to its leaders has, in itself, abolished the Soviet system no more than the domination of the conservative majority has abolished the British parliamentary system.

As far as the prohibition of other Soviet parties is concerned, it did not flow from any “theory” of Bolshevism but was a measure of defence of the dictatorship on a backward and devastated country, surrounded by enemies on all sides. For the Bolsheviks it was clear from the beginning that this measure, later completed by the prohibition of factions inside the governing party itself, signalised a tremendous danger. However, the root of the danger lay not in the doctrine or the tactics but in the material weakness of the dictatorship, ion the difficulties of its internal and international situation. If the revolution had triumphed, even if only in Germany, the need of prohibiting the other Soviet parties would have immediately fallen away. It is absolutely indisputable that the domination of a single party served as the juridical point of departure for the Stalinist totalitarian regime. The reason for this development lies neither in Bolshevism nor in the prohibition of other parties as a temporary war measure, but in the number of defeats of the proletariat in Europe and Asia.

The same applies to the struggle with anarchism. In the heroic epoch of the revolution the Bolsheviks went hand in hand with genuinely revolutionary anarchists. Many of them were drawn into the ranks of the party. The author of these lines discussed with Lenin more then once the possibility of allotting the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. But civil war, blockade and hunger left no room for such plans. The Kronstadt insurrection? But the revolutionary government could naturally not “present” to the insurrectionary sailors the fortress which protected the capital only because the reactionary peasant-soldier rebellion was joined by a few doubtful anarchists. The concrete historical analysis of the events leaves not the slightest room for legends, built up on ignorance and sentimentality, concerning Kronstadt, Makhno and other episodes of the revolution.

There remains only the fact that the Bolsheviks from the beginning applied not only conviction but also compulsion, often to a most severe degree. It is also indisputable that later the bureaucracy which grew out of the revolution monopolised the system of compulsions in its own hands. Every stage of development, even such catastrophic stages as revolution and counter-revolution, flows from the preceding stage, is rooted in it and carries over some of its features. Liberals, including the Webbs, have always maintained that the Bolshevik dictatorship represented only a new edition of Tsarism. they close their eyes to such “details” as the abolition of the monarchy and the nobility, the handing over of the land to the peasants, the expropriation of capital, the introduction of the planned economy, atheist education, and so on. In exactly the same way liberal- anarchist thought closes its eyes to the fact that the Bolshevik revolution, with all its repressions, meant an upheaval of social relations in the interests of the masses, whereas Stalin’s Thermidorian upheaval accompanies the reconstruction of Soviet society in the interest of a privileged minority. It is clear that in the identification of Stalinism with Bolshevism there is not a trace of socialist criteria.

Questions of Theory

One of the most outstanding features of Bolshevism has been its severe, exacting, even quarrelsome attitude towards the question of doctrine. The 26 volumes of Lenin’s works will remain forever a model of the highest theoretical conscientiousness. Without this fundamental quality Bolshevism would never have fulfilled its historic role. In this regard Stalinism, coarse, ignorant and thoroughly empirical, is its complete opposite.

The Opposition declared more than 10 years ago in its programme: “Since Lenin’s death a whole set of new theories has been created, whose only purpose is to justify the Stalin group’s sliding off the path of the international proletarian revolution.” Only a few days ago an American writer, Liston M. Oak, who has participated in the Spanish revolution, wrote: “The Stalinists are in fact today the foremost revisionists of Marx and Lenin – Bernstein did not dare go half as far as Stalin in revising Marx.” This is absolutely true. One must add only that Bernstein actually felt certain theoretical needs: he tried conscientiously to establish a correspondence between the reformist practices of social democracy and its programme. The Stalinist bureaucracy, however, not only had nothing in common with Marxism but is in general foreign to any doctrine or system whatsoever. Its “ideology” is thoroughly permeated with police subjectivism, its practice is the empiricism of crude violence. In keeping with its essential interests the caste of usurpers is hostile to any theory: it can give an account of its social role neither to itself nor to anyone else. Stalin revises Marx and Lenin not with the theoreticians pen but with the heel of the GPU.

Questions of Morals

Complaints of the “immorality” of Bolshevism come particularly from those boastful nonentities whose cheap masks were torn away by Bolshevism. In petit-bourgeois, intellectual, democratic, “socialist”, literary, parliamentary and other circles, conventional values prevail, or a conventional language to cover their lack of values. This large and motley society for mutual protection – “live and let live” – cannot bear the touch of the Marxist lancet on its sensitive skin. The theoreticians, writers and moralists, hesitating between different camps, thought and continue to think that the Bolsheviks maliciously exaggerate differences, are incapable of “loyal” collaboration and by their “intrigues” disrupt the unity of the workers’ movement. Moreover, the sensitive and touchy centrist has always thought that the Bolsheviks were “calumniating” him – simply because they carried through to the end for him his half-developed thoughts: he himself was never able to. But the fact remains that only that precious quality, an uncompromising attitude towards all quibbling and evasion, can educate a revolutionary party which will not be taken unawares by “exceptional circumstances”.

The moral qualities of every party flow, in the last analysis, from the historical interests that it represents. the moral qualities of Bolshevism self-renunciation, disinterestedness, audacity and contempt for every kind of tinsel and falsehood – the highest qualities of human nature! – flow from revolutionary intransigence in the service of the oppressed. The Stalinist bureaucracy imitates also in this domain the words and gestures of Bolshevism. But when “intransigence” and “flexibility” are applied by a police apparatus in the service of a privileged minority they become a force of demoralisation and gangsterism. One can feel only contempt for these gentlemen who identify the revolutionary heroism of the Bolsheviks with the bureaucratic cynicism of the Thermidorians.

Even now, in spite of the dramatic events in the recent period, the average philistine prefers to believe that the struggle between Bolshevism (“Trotskyism”) and Stalinism concerns a clash of personal ambitions, or, at best, a conflict between two “shades ” of Bolshevism. The crudest expression of this opinion is given by Norman Thomas, leader of the American Socialist Party: “There is little reason to believe”. he writes (Socialist Review, September 1937, p.6), “that if Trotsky had won (!) instead of Stalin, there would be an end of intrigue, plots, and a reign of fear in Russia”. And this man considers himself ... a Marxist. One would have the same right to say: “There is little reason to believe that if instead of Pius XI, the Holy See were occupied by Norman I, the Catholic Church would have been transformed into a bulwark of socialism”. Thomas fails to understand that it is not a question of antagonism between Stalin and Trotsky, but of an antagonism between the bureaucracy and the proletariat. To be sure, the governing stratum of the USSR is forced even now to adapt itself to the still not wholly liquidated heritage of revolution, while preparing at the same time through direct civil war (bloody “purge” – mass annihilation of the discontented) a change of the social regime. But in Spain the Stalinist clique is already acting openly as a bulwark of the bourgeois order against socialism. The struggle against the Bonapartist bureaucracy is turning before our eyes into class struggle: two worlds, two programmes, two moralities. If Thomas thinks that the victory of the socialist proletariat over the infamous caste of oppressors would not politically and morally regenerate the Soviet regime, he proves only that for all his reservations, shufflings and pious sighs he is far nearer to the Stalinist bureaucracy than to the workers. Like other exposers of Bolshevik “immorality”, Thomas has simply not grown to the level of revolutionary morality.

The Traditions of Bolshevism and the Fourth International

The “lefts” who tried to skip Bolshevism in their return to Marxism generally confined themselves to isolated panaceas: boycott of parliament, creation of “genuine” Soviets. All this could still seem extremely profound in the heat of the first days after the war. But now, in the light of most recent experience, such “infantile diseases” have no longer even the interest of a curiosity. The Dutchmen Gorter and Pannekoek, the German “Spartakists”, the Italian Bordigists, showed their independence from Bolshevism only by artificially inflating one of its features and opposing it to the rest. But nothing has remained either in practice or in theory of these “left” tendencies: an indirect but important proof that Bolshevism is the only possible form of Marxism for this epoch.

The Bolshevik party has shown in action a combination of the highest revolutionary audacity and political realism. It established for the first time the correspondence between the vanguard and the class which alone is capable of securing victory. It has p roved by experience that the alliance between the proletariat and the oppressed masses of the rural and urban petit bourgeoisie is possible only through the political overthrow of the traditional petit-bourgeois parties. The Bolshevik party has shown the entire world how to carry out armed insurrection and the seizure of power. Those who propose the abstraction of the Soviets from the party dictatorship should understand that only thanks to the party dictatorship were the Soviets able to lift themselves out of the mud of reformism and attain the state form of the proletariat. The Bolshevik party achieved in the civil war the correct combination of military art and Marxist politics. Even if the Stalinist bureaucracy should succeed in destroying the economic foundations of the new society, the experience of planned economy under the leadership of the Bolshevik party will have entered history for all time as one of the greatest teachings of mankind. This can be ignored only by sectarians who, offended by the bruises they have received, turn their backs on the process of history.

But his is not all. The Bolshevik party was able to carry on its magnificent “practical” work only because it illuminated all its steps with theory. Bolshevism did not create this theory: it was furnished by Marxism. But Marxism is a theory of movement, not of stagnation. Only events on such a tremendous historical scale could enrich the theory itself. Bolshevism brought an invaluable contribution to Marxism in its analysis of the imperialist epoch as an epoch of wars and revolutions; of bourgeois democracy in the era of decaying capitalism; of the correlation between the general strike and the insurrection; of the role of the party, Soviets and trade unions in the period of proletarian revolution; in its theory of the Soviet state, of the economy of transition, of fascism and Bonapartism in the epoch of capitalist decline; finally in its analysis of the degeneration of the Bolshevik party itself and of the Soviet state. Let any other tendency be named that has added anything essential to the conclusions and generalisations of Bolshevism. Theoretically and politically Vandervilde, De Brouckere, Hilferding, Otto Bauer, Leon Blum, Zyromski, not to mention Major Attlee and Norman Thomas, live on the tattered leftovers of the past. The degeneration of the Comintern is most crudely expressed by the fact that it has dropped to the theoretical level of the Second International. All the varieties of intermediary groups (Independent Labour Party of Great Britain, POUM and their like) adapt every week new haphazard fragments of Marx and Lenin to their current needs. Workers can learn nothing from these people.

Only the founders of the Fourth International, who have made their own the whole tradition of Marx and Lenin, take a serious attitude towards theory. Philistines may jeer that 20 years after the October victory the revolutionaries are again thrown back to modest propagandist preparation. The big capitalists are, in this question as in many others, far more penetrating than the petit bourgeois who imagine themselves “socialists” or “communists”. It is no accident that the subject of the Fourth International does not leave the columns of the world press. The burning historical need for revolutionary leadership promises to the Fourth International an exceptionally rapid tempo of growth. The greatest guarantee of its further success lies in the fact that it has not arisen away from the great historical road, but has organically grown out of Bolshevism.

28 August 1937

Online version: Reprinted in the magazine Living Marxism (No. 18, April 1990.)
Transcribed for the Internet by Mike Griffin for the Trotsky Internet Archive, now a subset of the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Reproduced with thanks from the Marxists' Internet Archive

Notes on recent developments in the European radical Left

Daniel Bensaïd


The recent elections in Germany and Portugal have confirmed the emergence of a new radical Left in a number of countries across Europe. In Germany, Die Linke won 11.9 percent of the vote and 76 seats in the Bundestag. In Portugal, the Left Bloc received 9.86 percent of the vote and doubled its number of seats to 16.

This new Left emerged toward the end of the 1990s with the renewal of social movements and the rise of the anti-globalization movement. What we are now seeing for the first time is an electoral breakthrough that is not limited to one or two countries and which has now become a Europe-wide trend – illustrated by, among others, the examples of the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, Syriza in Greece and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France. The trend is still fragile and uneven, and is conditioned to a great degree by the different electoral systems that exist from one country to the next.

In France, for example, the NPA and the Left Front (FG) have a joint potential of about 12 percent. But neither has a single parliamentary seat due to a single-member runoff system that has no proportional representation and encourages “strategic voting” as a lesser evil. This new Left has arisen for a number of reasons. First comes the retreat or collapse of the Social Democratic and Communist parties that have shaped the traditional Left for the past 50 years. The Communist parties that had identified with the “socialist camp” and the Soviet Union have disappeared or have seen their social base melt away, with the partial exceptions of Greece and Portugal. As for Social Democracy, by supporting or actively implementing neoliberal policies within the framework of European Union treaties, it has actively contributed to the dismantling of the welfare state from which it drew its legitimacy. As a result, under the moniker of “renewal”, the “third way” or the “new centre”, it has metamorphosed into a formation of the centre-Left along the lines of the Democratic Party in Italy. As its ties to working-class voters have weakened, so its fusion with business circles has accelerated. Schroder’s appointment to Gazprom’s board of directors and the promotion of two French “socialists” (Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Pascal Lamy) to the head of the IMF and WTO symbolize this transformation of leading Socialist Party figures into right-hand men of big capital. Stalwart of the “social market economy” and of social compromise, German Social Democracy are now paying the price: in the 27 September elections it lost 10 million voters compared to its results 10 years earlier.

While this centre-Left has become increasingly indistinguishable from the centre-Right, a new generation has grown up after the fall of the Berlin Wall and has known only imperialist hot wars, environmental and social crisis, unemployment and insecurity.

An active minority from this generation of young people has taken an interest in struggle and politics, but it is wary of electoral games and dishonest compromise at the institutional level. Hostile to the squalid state of the world, but unable to determine what the necessary “other world” would look like, this new radicalism can go in diametrically opposite directions – that of a clearly anti-capitalist alternative; that of a nationalist and xenophobic populism (such as the Front National in France or the BNP in Britain); or even that of a new brand of nihilism. It is nonetheless encouraging to note that young and precariously employed workers made up a proportionally larger share of the electorate for Die Linke, and for Olivier Besancenot in the 2007 presidential elections, than they did for any of the other parties.

For all that, the new Left is not a homogeneous current united by a common strategic project. Rather, it is part of a range of forces polarized between resistance and the social movements, on the one hand, and the temptation of institutional respectability, on the other. This has made the question of parliamentary and governmental alliances a real acid test. Until quite recently, Rifondazione Comunista was the crown jewel of this new European Left; but it committed suicide by participating in the Prodi government, a move which in any case didn’t even prevent Berlusconi from returning to power. Beyond the debate on electoral tactics, such an approach reveals an orientation accurately summarized by Die Linke leader Oskar Lafontaine: “Apply pressure to restore the welfare state”. It is therefore not a matter of patiently building an anti-capitalist alternative, but of “applying pressure” on Social Democracy in order to save it from its centrist demons and take it back to classic reformist politics within the framework of the established order. As for “restoring the welfare state,” one would first have to make a break with the Stability Pact and Lisbon Treaty, rebuild European public services, and submit the European Central Bank to democratically elected bodies – in other words, one would have to do exactly the opposite of what Left governments have done for the past 20 years and continue to do when they are in power. Social Democracy’s moderate stance in the face of the economic crisis and its common manifesto for the recent European elections indicate that its submission to market demands is now irreversible.

In contrast, in the wake of the Portuguese elections Left Bloc leader Francisco Louça rejected calls to support the Social Democratic government of José Socrates. He declared that the Left Bloc would be “in the opposition” against planned privatizations, against the dismantling of public services, against the new labour code, and therefore in opposition to the government. This is also the bone of contention between Olivier Besancenot’s NPA — which rejects any kind of governmental alliance with the Socialist Party — and the Communist Party, which is clearly working towards a new “plural Left” alliance with the Socialists and Greens. This is in spite of the disastrous record of the previous “plural Left” government, which led to a second-round runoff in the 2002 presidential elections between the far-Right Le Pen and right-wing Chirac. This debate is no doubt present in all the parties of the new Left — and especially in Die Linke given that its alliance with the social-democratic SPD in Berlin is already very controversial and may become the party’s general policy, as its recent alliance in the state of Brandenburg appears to indicate.

This gives us a clear idea of the strategic choices with which the new Left is going to be confronted. Either it makes a priority of the institutional sphere and resigns itself to playing the role of counterweight to the traditional Left; or it prioritizes struggles and social movements as the cornerstone for the patient building of a new political force of the exploited and oppressed. This in no way excludes looking for the broadest unity of action with the traditional Left against privatization and outsourcing, in defence of public services and social programs, for democratic freedoms and in solidarity with immigrant and undocumented workers.

But it requires strict independence from a Left that loyally manages capital’s affairs — to ensure that the new emerging forces are not totally put off politics.

The social and environmental crisis is just beginning. Whatever possible recoveries and upturns there may be, unemployment and insecurity will continue at very high levels; and the effects of climate change will continue to worsen. We are not dealing with the type of crisis that capitalism periodically goes through, but rather a crisis of the outrageousness of a system that seeks to quantify the unquantifiable and provide a common measure for the incommensurable.

It is therefore probable that we are only at the beginning of a huge upheaval from which the political landscape – through a process of recomposition and redefinition – will emerge drastically overhauled a few years from now. This is what we have to prepare for. We cannot sacrifice the emergence of a medium-term alternative for the sake of petty parliamentary jockeying and hypothetical immediate gains that lead to bitter disillusionment.

1 December 2009

From issue 4 of Contretemps (new series), December 2009, pp. 7-9.

Translation from French: Nathan Rao

Daniel Bensaïd is one of France’s most prominent Marxist philosophers and has written extensively on that and other subjects. He was for many years a leading member of the LCR (French section of the Fourth International) and is today a member of the NPA