Dead Russians

Dead Russians? While it may sound like a punk band it is, in fact, an article in the Weekly Worker on how great Lenin and Trotsky were. Needless to say, I felt I had to reply -- a wee bit late, as I was very ill. The article covers a lot of ground, so I had to miss out a few critiques but I covered the usual ground. The letter is, as usual, at the end of this blog -- after some discussion of a few other dead Russians and, again, some economics links.

First dead Russian, the bad (and the ugly) -- Ayn Rand. I've blogged before on how the right in American seems to be going mental just now. And all due to the election of a centrist Democrat! Some of them have raised the possibility of "going Galt" (i.e., the elite of "wealth creators" go on strike and drop out). The wonderful Stephen Colbert has great fun taking the piss out of this nonsense:

What gets me is that this rubbish is being raised now, with the neo-liberal economy going into deep crisis mostly due to the activities of these very same "wealth creators" and their dubious attempts to general "wealth" without actually producing anything. I cannot help thinking we would be much better off if these numpties did sod-off -- that why they would not be able to mess-up the economy any more and we would not have to worry about them getting a real job and messing that up (but then this is hardly a unique position!). As for "wealth creators", well, I think Bob the Angry Flower put it best in his sequel to Atlas Shrugged (via Criticisms of Objectivism (or Ayn Rand), as is this great review of Atlas Shrugged).

Rand used Atlas as a metaphor for the people who produced the most in society, and therefore "hold up the world" in a metaphorical sense. I really should point out that in Greek mythology Atlas held the heavens on his shoulders, not the weight of the world. He also was not very bright, first siding with the Titans in their war against the Olympians and then falling for an obvious trick by Heracles!

But, of course, Rand's "wealth creators" are really wealth monopolisers, real wealth is created by the workers of the world by their (physical and mental) labour. If the workers went on general strike, we would notice it pretty quickly. If the bosses did so, would we notice? Not unless they locked us out! As for the likes of Rand, well, we would be saved from bad novels and ripped-off pseudo-philosophy!

Now the good, the dead Russians people should read -- Bakunin and Kropotkin (I know, a big surprise!). There is this talk by Andrej Grubacic (Wobblies & Zapatistas) at the 2009 Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair:


He starts off by mentioning the recent book by Marxist academic James Green on the Haymarket Martyrs, repeating Green's assertions that the Haymarket Martyrs were Anarchists and Marxists. What utter rubbish (which I've indicated elsewhere). Modern anarchism is not a "synthesis" between Anarchism and Marxism, it is anarchism! Nor were the Chicago anarchists Marxists -- they rejected key aspects of Marxism (notably what Marx broke the First International over, the issue of "political action" or standing in elections).

Significantly, Engels had next to nothing to say about the Haymarket events. I'm not aware of any public statement about it, nothing in support of the Martyrs (and I've looked). A few comments here and there, that is about it. Clearly he did not think they were "marxists" or represented some kind of "synthesis" between Bakunin and Marx. Significantly, his actual recommendations for the American workers were something the Martyrs explicitly rejected, namely "political action". To quote a relevant bit from section H.3.10 of An Anarchist FAQ:


Then there are Engels 1887 comments that in the USA the workers "next step towards their deliverance" was "the formation of a political workingmen's party, with a platform of its own, and the conquest of the Capitol and the White House for its goal." This new party "like all political parties everywhere . . . aspires to the conquest of political power." Engels then discusses the "electoral battle" going on in America. [Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 435 and p. 437] Significantly, 40 years previously in 1847, Engels had argued that the revolution "will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct . . . dominance of the proletariat" where "the proletarians are already a majority of the people." He noted that "a democratic constitution has been introduced" in America. [Op. Cit., vol. 6, p. 350 and p. 356] The continuity is significant, particularly as these identical arguments come before and after the Paris Commune of 1871.


Nor should we forget that for Eleanor Marx-Aveling and Edward Aveling the "only necessity for stating, before we address ourselves to our task, that we are not Anarchists, but are opposed to Anarchism, lies in the fact that our position of antagonism to the teachings of Anarchism, strengthens our position in asking justice for the condemned men." (The Chicago Anarchists).

Clearly, the Chicago Anarchists and Engels were at odds on what was to be done (to use an appropriate phrase!), agreeing with Bakunin on the need for revolutionary unionism. At best, I suppose the nonsense that the Martyrs were "Marxists" lies in the (Marxist) myth that anarchists like Bakunin rejected "class struggle" or "class analysis", or rejected the working class as a revolutionary agent of change. Or, in a related myth, that there is something fundamentally different between the revolutionary anarchism of Bakunin and anarcho-syndicalism. Both of which are radically false. Bakunin repeatedly argued that the working class would make the revolution and that workers needed to form unions to fight for change (and he rejected electioneering). Bakunin had differences with Marx on many issues, but on this particular one it boiled down to Bakunin not dismissing the peasantry as a revolutionary force (particularly in Eastern Europe) and did not think that the proletariat should rule the peasantry, particularly as the proletariat was, at the time and for some decades after, in the minority in all countries bar Britain.

Grubacic then goes onto state that the Chicago Martyrs "invented that particular brand of socialism called anarchism". WTF?!?!?! The Haymarket Martyrs did not "invent" anarchism in its modern form -- they were pretty much following in Bakunin's and Kropotkin's footsteps -- as is clear in Albert Parson's own book on anarchism! The major difference with, say, Bakunin was that the Chicago anarchists (thanks to John Most) had a fetish for dynamite thankfully missing from the Russian (although, as I've discussed, the social context for the Chicago anarchists position must be remembered). One thing he said on this issue is true, namely that the IWW continued in the tradition laid-down by the Chicago Anarchists (and Bakunin and Kropotkin before them).

Now, I can understand a clueless Marxist academic saying this kind of nonsense, but someone who states that they have been an anarchist from age 12 repeating it? Now that is annoying! You really think they would know better... But the actual speech is worth listening too, once you get over the amazing historical stupidities right at the start.

Similar nonsense is also inflicted on Kropotkin. As part of my revision of my essay on Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, I had to add something to the footnote on (the usually reliable) Maurice Brinton's nonsense about Kropotkin. Paul Avrich, in The Russian Anarchists, states that "the partisans of syndicalism went beyond Kropotkin by reconciling the principle of mutual assistance with the Marxian doctrine of class struggle. For the syndicalists, mutual aid did not embrace humanity as a whole, but existed only with the ranks of a single class, the proletariat, enhancing its solidarity in the battle with the manufacturers." (p. 80) As if Kropotkin would have disagreed! The "Marxian doctrine of class struggle" is no such thing. Marx, as he himself pointed out, did not invent class struggle. Kropotkin was well aware that there was a class struggle going on and sided with the working class! Mutual Aid itself pointed to strikes and unions as explains of mutual aid in current society, for example, while his explicitly anarchist works were obviously based on class analysis and class struggle. As implicitly acknowledge by Avrich who, somewhat strangely, then quoted Kropotkin on how the unions were "natural organs for the direct struggle with capitalism and for the composition of the future order" and that the general strike was "a powerful weapon of struggle"! (pp. 81-2)

It is always disappointing to see people who should know better come out with basic mistakes like this. And, sadly, because they are often reliable historians these mistakes get repeated and accepted as factual! For example, Paul Avrich's assertion that Voltarine de Cleyre did not become a communist-anarchist seems to be considered correct, in spite of Rudolf Rocker and Emma Goldman both stating she did. As I pointed out in my (lengthy) review article on her, in 1908 she stated that she thought workers in a free society would be best off not using money -- in other words, she came to conclude that communism was the best option. Yes, Avrich is right in that she never explicitly called herself a communist-anarchist but she clearly came to that position by 1908. Obviously this is an awkward fact to those "anarcho"-capitalists who, for some reason, seem keen on her (after all, how could someone they describe as a "genius" come to such a conclusion?) but it is still a fact, a fact which Avrich overlooked.

Finally, and just before the letter to Weekly Worker, I mentioned in my introduction to Kropotkin's Mutual Aid that it was Proudhon, not Marx, who first proclaimed himself a "scientific socialist." As part of my general getting the essay ready for publication, I tracked it down. It was in 1840, and Proudhon proclaimed the need for a "scientific socialism" shortly after stating "I am an anarchist" and just before discussing anarchy and what it meant (What is Property?, Chapter 5, Second Part, section 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 209, p. 205).

Enough about dead people. A few links about the economic crisis. First off, some more Jon Stewart and his bruising interview with Jim Cramer. It says a lot about the state of the US media that it is left to a comedian to do such a great interview. Sure, it is flawed (what do you expect, he is not an anarchist!) but it is worth watching. Cramer comes across as a very needy person, wanting to be liked. Stewart's comment that we should recognise that work is the basis of the economy is spot-on -- it needs to be stressed after so many years of neo-liberal/Randian nonsense on "wealth creators":



And I need to link to Tom Tomorrow.

On to more "serious" analysis. Steve Keen has a good piece on his blog: Neoclassical Economics: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know. Marxist economist John Bellamy Foster is interviewed on Keynes, Capitalism, and the Crisis, although he does not discuss Keynes ideas on uncertainty and the negative impact of cutting wages in a crisis (two of his most important contributions, I would suggest). Foster mentions both Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman, and talking of the latter here is Naomi Klein Ripping Apart Milton Friedman's Utopian Fantasies:

An other interesting piece on Friedman is Milton Friedman - Economist/Intellectual Prostitute, which notes that it was "amazing that in all the articles on Milton Friedman we have not once seen an article that points out that the main reason Friedman was so popular was what he said dovetailed perfectly with what concentrated power wanted to hear." Obviously, this is referring to the mainstream articles -- the radical press was well aware of that!

Here, at last, is the letter about dead Russians. I had to miss out quite a bit (the letter is long enough as it is). For example, I did not discuss Trotsky's turn around on what made the Soviet Union a "workers' state." In the 1920s, it was because a socialist party was in power. In the 1930s, it was because of nationalised property. The about-turn is easy to explain -- Trotsky had been expelled from the party. If the party was no longer "revolutionary" then, clearly, the Soviet State was no longer "socialist" -- a conclusion which had to be avoided at all costs. Issues of working class democracy, freedom and self-management did not come into it -- how could they, for if they did that Lenin's regime was not socialist either! And that particularly obvious conclusion is one Leninists have always sought to avoid drawing.

Until I blog again, be seeing you!

Dear Weekly Worker

Jack Conrad’s “Dead Russians” (Weekly Worker, no. 760) raised the usual host of contradictions. He dismisses the idea “that the October Revolution and the theory and practice of Lenin and Trotsky led directly to Stalin”, urging Leninists to “show them that this is untrue.” Yet he does not do so. Instead we get the platitude that “while Lenin and Trotsky made mistakes, they were committed body and soul to the overthrow of capitalism and did their utmost to achieve human liberation.” Given that he subsequently admits that both Lenin and Trotsky advocated party dictatorship, it is hard to see what they did to achieve that goal.

“Repression”, he argues, “enabled the Stalinist state to disorganise workers to the point of atomisation.” He fails to mention the repression of strikes under Lenin which aimed for the same goal. Without irony, he states that “[p]aradoxically the atomisation of workers was facilitated by the anti-capitalist nationalisations inherited from the October Revolution. The state was the employer, the trade union as well as the gendarme, and state power reached down to each and every shop floor. The workforce was spied upon and lived in constant fear. The KGB was ubiquitous.” Change KGB to Cheka and we have an accurate account of workers’ life under Lenin.

Yes, Lenin did want to “first to curb Stalin’s power and then to crush him politically” yet he had no problem with the party’s monopoly of power. Yes, “Trotsky devoted himself to exposing Stalin’s system” but, again, he helped build that system and advocated party dictatorship right to the end. Neither supported workers self-management of production – and the Bolshevik nationalisations were not remotely “anti-capitalist”, they were state capitalist and to suggest otherwise shows how far a theory is from genuine socialism.

Flying in the face of reality it is proclaimed that “[e]very party was . . . tested to its limits. Alone Bolshevism passed … and it did so with flying colours.” As evidence Conrad points to “the first day of revolution” in 1917 when proletarian women “took to the streets against the advice of the left.” Strangely he fails to note that “the left” in question were… the Bolsheviks. He then suggests these workers were “clearly influenced by Marxism” – wonderful!

Equally surreally, Conrad proclaims Trotsky’s destruction of military democracy a “winning formula.” For whom? At least Trotsky admitted that the “demobilisation of the Red Army . . . played no small role in the formation of the bureaucracy. The victorious commanders assumed leading posts in the local Soviets, in economy, in education, and they persistently introduced everywhere that regime which had ensured success in the civil war.” So, yes, it was a “winning formula” (one of many!) for the bureaucracy!

Then there is the distinctly vanguardist postulation that only thanks to Lenin were “the Bolshevik part of the working class” successfully able to “negotiate the many and varied hurdles that appeared on the long road to the overthrow of the provisional government.” At least Trotsky paid lip-service to working class creativity when he admitted that the “masses at the moment were more revolutionary than the Party, and the Party more revolutionary than its machine.”

The placing of party dictatorship at the centre of Bolshevik ideology once in power is far too well known these days to be ignored, and so Conrad states that both Lenin and Trotsky “exhibited inconsistencies . . . when it came to the centrality of democracy for Marxism.” Yet both consistently advocated party dictatorship and consistently denied the “centrality” of democracy until their deaths. This cannot be considered passing the test of a revolution with “flying colours”, quite the reverse.

Ah, but the “[s]ubstitution of the Communist Party’s full-time apparatus for the disintegrating working class collectivity” was “unavoidable under conditions of civil war, isolation and poverty. To argue otherwise is to abandon Marxism for utopian socialism, anarchism, etc.” There are two slight problems with this.

Firstly, does this mean that the CPGB now thinks that there will be a peaceful overnight global social revolution? If not, then “conditions of civil war, isolation and poverty” are likely to exist (as anarchists had argued since the 1860s!). Secondly, party power existed from the start, with the Bolsheviks usurping power from the soviets from day one. Bolshevik packing and disbanding of soviets started before the revolt of the Czech Legion and the packing of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets to ensure Bolshevik power occurred soon after it.

As well as being factually and logically flawed, it also fails to mention how the Bolshevik’s own policies and repression contributed to the very “disintegrating [of] working class collectivity” that is used to justify that very usurpation of power and its consequences! The working class was more than capable of taking strike action post-October. The notion of “decay” in collectivity is hard to square with a Bolshevik regime which regularly imposed martial law to smash (general) strikes!

Conrad states that “Trotsky was quite clear in his own mind that the Stalinite bureaucracy was not ruling on behalf of the working class, but against the working class.” Trotsky was also quite clear that “the proletariat remains the ruling class” under Stalinism. But, then, Leninists to this day think that the working class was the “ruling class” under the Leninite bureaucracy.

Sadly, Conrad does not ponder the relationship of Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” to his comment on the Bolsheviks “dismissing the importance of majority rule in the name of socialism.” Perhaps if he did he would see the ideological roots of how, once in power, the Lenin-Trotsky-Zinoviev Comintern justified minority rule, a one-party state.” Ultimately, it is the notion that there is something in “the writings of Lenin and Trotsky” which “remain a Marxist treasure trove” is what ensures that “any contemporary working class programme is hugely impoverished.”

Real socialism will come from elsewhere – such as the ideas of those dead Russians Bakunin and Kropotkin. Conrad proclaims that “the anarchists proved entirely marginal”, failing to note the impact of Bolshevik repression post-October in ensuring that position. In reality, the “best of the anarchist milieu” did not break “with anarchism” – rather they ended up in prison, shot by the Cheka or in exile. As for having “few if any other worthwhile ideas”, I must surmise concluding (a mere 12 years before Lenin) that the soviets should be the framework of a socialist society is not “worthwhile”. Finally, the anarchist Makhnovists managed to support soviet democracy and allow freedom of speech and organisation for working class people during the civil war, showing alternative policies were possible and could be implemented successfully.

Perhaps if Leninists learn from such comrades then they may contribute to human liberation – but that would involve rejecting Leninism. Until then, I fear their ignorance of the realities of Bolshevism will ensure they will, at worse, repeat history or, at best (and more likely), be ignored by it.


Iain McKay


Good post -- thanks for

Good post -- thanks for writing it.


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