Well, another week, another letter to the Weekly Worker! or so it seems...
I have to say that Chris Strafford’s letter sums up everything I dislike about Leninism. The arrogance is staggering. Then there is the quoting of Engels like he was a reliable source! My research on this proves otherwise.
Then there is the assumption that the Russian Revolution and Leninism worked. It is not like the Bolshevik revolution was actually successful. In terms of achieving socialism, it was an utter failure -- one which ensured that "socialist" became associated with horrific party dictatorships and state capitalism. If I were a Leninist, I would try to be at least a wee bit humble given its track record. Particularly as the first few months of the Russian Revolution saw the Bolsheviks trying to keep up with the masses!
Partly because of this association of socialism with authoritarianism that anarchists started not to call themselves socialists. Which allowed both the Marxists and right-wing "libertarians" to paint anarchism as being only against the state. As if! If it weren't for the latter group, I'm tempted to think we would not use the term "socialist" as anarchist would, be definition, also imply anti-capitalist (or, more positively, socialist).
Still, maybe my letter will provoke some of the Weekly Worker's readership to rethink their ideas and investigate the genuine socialist tradition. Who knows? Does anyone out there have any views on the usefulness of these sort of letters? Any funny or interesting experiences of discussing with Leninists? I know it can be quite surreal! Which was why I penned this: Dead Dogma Sketch (apologies to Monty Python).
Dear Weekly Worker
Chris Strafford’s letter (no. 724) illustrates well the baseless arrogance that afflicts Leninism. He suggests that “Robbie Folkard’s letter is a good illustration of why Marxists should not be scared of putting forward Marxism” and so fails to understand the basic point being made. Sure, Leninists could turn “Education not for Sale” into a new little ideologically pure sect but it would hardly be a united front working to change society. He reminds me of the Bolsheviks who, faced with the soviets in 1905 proclaimed that they had to accept the Social Democratic platform and then disband – and were, rightly, ignored.
Somewhat contradictorily, Strafford claims that “anarchists came with no vision for the student movement, no proposals and, quite frankly, no politics. The project of building a movement for radical social change needs more than a loose anti-capitalist network. Lots of anarchists recognise that.” However, we also recognise that movements develop their own proposals and politics based on free debate which do not exactly match even the most ideologically correct platform expounded by a few well-read Leninists – the even mistakes of any serious movement are better than the most perfect decrees of the most enlightened central committee.
Strafford asserts that the “history of the anarchist movement is one of tailism, be it to the bourgeoisie or to sections of the workers’ movement.” That would explain why anarchists were the first to raise the ideas of mandated and recallable delegates, workers’ councils, direct action, the modern general strike, workers’ control and a whole host of positions Marxists belatedly came too only after they were applied in struggle by libertarian influenced workers. He falsely proclaims that anarchism has “an inability to arm the working class with the necessary organisation and ideas to achieve workers’ power.” In fact, our vision of a federation of workers’ councils is one Marxists came to pay lip-service to in 1917 – although, in reality, it was just a cover for party power.
He claims that Marxism has won “workers from anarchism and other immature trends within the workers’ movement time and time again.” Yet before 1917 it was anarchism which won workers away from the first Marxist movement – social democracy had become as reformist as Bakunin predicted. The apparent success of the Bolshevik revolution reversed that position, certainly, but only because the reality of Lenin’s regime was not well known. When libertarian workers did become aware of this, they overwhelmingly rejected the Bolshevik Myth. Sadly for Stafford, few working class people nowadays will dismiss the facts as bourgeois propaganda as many, unfortunately, did then.
Stafford quotes Engels to show how the “anarchist followers of Bakunin discredited themselves.” Suffice to say Engels is hardly a reliable source on anarchism, attributing ideas to Bakunin he never held. He fails to note Engels recommendation to the Spanish workers, namely “to attack the State” by sending representatives to parliament. History was not kind to that strategy, nor (to quote Engels) the notion that “our Party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Does the CPGB not mock the SPGB for holding this quintessential Marxist position?
He states that when “in practice the anarchists set about revolutionary change, the inevitable failure of their enterprises usually leads to workers abandoning anarchism and moving towards something else.” Somewhat ironically, this “inevitable failure” has hardly been “inevitable,” given how the Communist Party imposed its counter-revolutionary role by state violence in both Russia and Spain. Until then, the revolutions had been remarkably successful. As for the “early period of the Russian Revolution” does Stafford mean when the Bolsheviks opposed the protests which led to the February Revolution? Or would it be their “tailism” in the support for the factory committees, and their subsequent support of one-man management once in power? I would suggest that the Russian Revolution is a prime example of why we should not allow a Communist Party to take power, given how quickly the soviets became a fig leaf for party power (overnight, in fact, before becoming one for party dictatorship within a year)
I do find it ironic to read how “the task of communists to ensure that the working class acts independently to achieve the necessary hegemony for revolution” when, in practice, this obviously means following the party line (or, to use his words, “win the working class to a Marxist programme”). And party dictatorship was praised by leading Bolsheviks precisely because it overcame any non-party approved “independence” by the workers. I also found it amusing to read Strafford berate an anarchist for not understanding what direct action is. We do not need to be told it is “not sporadic stunts taken by a few activists; that is elitist.” The arrogance is staggering, given that anarchists have been advocating direct action (strikes, occupations, boycotts and so on) since at least Bakunin. But why let the facts get in the way of a nice like rant?
Ending, I would like to reiterate that it seems Strafford is making the same errors of 1905. Yes, like the Bolsheviks then, the communists “came openly and honestly. We did not hide or water down our politics for sectarian gain.” The soviets, rightly, rejected the notion that they “should unashamedly fight for Marxism.” Maybe in 12 years time, he may have an opportunity to reconsider his position. Unfortunately for him, what happened subsequently in Russia is too well known (at least outside Leninist circles) to suggest that we will be stupid enough to repeat history as Stafford does.