Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Life throws up surprises--none more so than periods of revolution
In 1908 GK Chesterton wrote a humorous novel. It is an account of the adventures of a group of anarchists. In the utmost secrecy these seven desperados plot to blow up Brighton Pier. To keep their identities from becoming known, each assumes the name of a day of the week. The story acquired its title from one of them--The Man who was Thursday. Alas, he turns out to be an agent provocateur. And as ridiculous incident follows ridiculous incident, it gradually emerges that all his six colleagues also belong to the police force.
Two years later life imitated art. In 1910 the Bolshevik organisation in Moscow had only eight members. To make matters worse, seven of them were Tsarist spies. Quickly they arranged for the odd man out to receive a prolonged 'holiday' somewhere in the remote vastness of Siberia. This episode illustrates Bolshevik weakness in those times. Trotsky said, 'In 1910 in the whole of the country there were a few dozen people. Some were in Siberia, but they were not organised. The people whom Lenin could reach by correspondence or by an agent numbered about 30 or 40 at the most.'
Quite understandably, Lenin and his handful of followers did not merit a mention when Robert Michels wrote his classic text Political Parties, published in 1911. A former revolutionary socialist himself, Michels had experienced the degeneration of the German Social Democratic Party, the gradual fading of its vision of building a new society, and its incorporation into existing society's political procedures. It led him to develop his theory about the iron law of oligarchy. Yet he still harboured a grudge against the German SPD--a denunciation by Michels of its transformation appeared in the Socialist, organ of the British SLP, in 1905. Behind this drift to the right lay practical politics, the desire to do something in the here and now. Also, life's slow dull strain affected the working class movement, the almost inevitability of getting enmeshed in grubby compromises.
For those who refuse to walk along this path to conventional politics and continue to adhere to a Marxist analysis, another vital truth needs recognition. Revolutions are like earthquakes--it is easy to predict that they will occur, but the where and when remains a much more difficult procedure. Time and again the red mole of history comes up with unexpected surprises.
Throughout the 19th century, radicals regarded Russia as the bastion of reaction, an immovable roadblock on the road to progress. Even Marx never envisaged revolution there. He thought industrially developed countries would be in the vanguard. Yet in 1905 a demonstration in the capital, St Petersburg, sought to present a humble petition couched in the most servile language to the Tsar. Father Gapon, who later was discovered to be a police agent, led the procession. Things went terribly awry for the authorities when Cossacks, brandishing their sabres, charged into the demonstrators. Workers, enraged by this outrageous repression, swung into action. Class conflict escalated. A new weapon of struggle, workers' councils--they were called soviets--were created. The 1905 Russian Revolution had begun.
However, search through all the documents relating to 1905 and it is impossible to find any evidence to show the Bolsheviks were responsible for creating the first soviets or starting the revolution. Subterranean class tensions, building up unseen in the lower depths of society, suddenly found violent expression. Those who marched to the St Petersburg Winter Palace must have possessed contradictory beliefs within their craniums--the dominant attitude of docility was rudely knocked out of their heads by the Cossacks' sabres and immediately replaced by revolutionary wrath.
The events of 1905 clearly show how the unexpected is likely to occur. In most instances one can confidently predict one thing about predictions--that the predictions will invariably be wrong! Lenin's experiences before the February Revolution of 1917 testify to this fact. From his refuge from the Tsarist secret police in Zurich he told a meeting of young Swiss workers that he would not see the revolution come in his lifetime but he was certain that they would in theirs. Yet within a few weeks Lenin had packed his bags and mounted the famous sealed train to Petrograd so he could lead the struggle for all power to the soviets.
Life throws up surprises--none more so than in periods of revolution. The personal reminiscences of NN Sukhanov provide a good example of this. This intensely political man received a lesson in politics from menial clerks he regarded as having little or no political acumen. In his memoirs he described this event in the following manner: 'Tuesday, 21 February 1917. I was sitting in my office in the Turkistan section. Behind the partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse. "D'you know," suddenly declared one of these young ladies, "if you ask me, it's the beginning of the revolution!"'
Initially Sukhanov did not agree with this absurd suggestion. But on reflection he revised his opinion: 'I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed.' Thus dawned the revolution of February 1917. Methodologically much more sound than Sukhanov, Lenin recalled sharing a railway compartment with a Russian peasant woman. It was after the 1917 July Days when a transitory wave of anti-Bolshevik feeling forced him to flee to Finland to secure temporary refuge. Lenin said the old woman, sitting in the same carriage, had an understanding of the situation. Speaking about the loaf of bread she cradled, she said the authorities would no longer dare to supply the same poor quality bread as they had done previously. Lenin appreciated that this meant she had a keen understanding of the present situation. The growing power of the masses, the existence of dual power in the Russian state and the enfeeblement of the traditional rulers meant the transition had been seen by a humble woman in terms of crumbs of bread.
The same point applies generally. It is the experience of the workers themselves, not the diatribes of this or that individual, which points them in an anti-capitalist direction. They have learnt their lessons untutored, save by collective experience.
Poor NN Sukhanov remained waiting for another dastardly experience. A Menshevik supporter of the February Revolution because it led to the downfall of Tsarism, nevertheless he opposed the October Revolution--the idea of all power going to the working class and peasantry. In his opinion, for an economically backward country like Russia where the proletariat was immature and small, this step would be premature. As an opponent of the October Revolution, Sukhanov was to discover his home had been used by his wife, a Bolshevik supporter, for political purposes. His book records the remarkable happenings that occurred there on 10 October 1917: 'The Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party assembled in full strength... This supreme and decisive meeting took place in my own house, still at Karpovka, but without my knowledge. As before, I would very often spend the night somewhere near the office or Smolny, that is eight versts from the Karpovka. This time special steps were taken to have me spend the night away from home... Lenin appeared in a wig but without his beard. Zinoviev appeared with a beard but without his shock of hair. The meeting went on for about ten hours, until about five o'clock in the morning.'
After 1917 revolutions still continued to burst out unexpectedly. For example, in 1968 I recall hearing Colin Barker, now a doyen of the SWP, address a meeting in Manchester. He had just returned from Paris and told us that the plight of the revolutionary left in Britain was bad--but in France it was much worse. Weakness and demoralisation prevailed there. This opinion was echoed by Andre Gorz, who himself belonged to the Parisian left. In the 1968 Socialist Register he began his article, 'The working class will neither unite politically nor man the barricades for a 10 percent rise in wages or 50,000 more council flats. In the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strike or armed insurrection in defence of their vital interests.'
By the time this article appeared in English, France had become engulfed in a turmoil much greater than Andre Gorz could ever have envisaged. In Paris and other major cities barricades had been flung up. Students and workers fought the riot police. The greatest general strike that France had ever known had broken out. And why? At Nanterre, a modern university built only a few years previously, a government minister, there to open a new swimming pool, was confronted by a large group of angry anarchists. They bitterly complained about the restrictions placed on contact between the sexes. The minister, Françoise Missoffe, jokingly replied that perhaps they should dampen their sexual ardour by jumping in the swimming pool. This provoked an irate ginger-haired student, the then unknown Daniel Cohn-Bendit--later known as 'Dany the Red'--to denounce him for making such a Nazi-like utterance. The confrontation provided the spark, a fuse that ignited the biggest explosion France had in the 20th century.
It remains easy to show that behind the seemingly invincible veneer of the existing system lurked the forces of destruction. Eight years after the French Revolution of 1848 Marx referred disparagingly to 'the so called revolution of 1848'. He added, 'Beneath the solid surface they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments hard rock.' But the system's fragility was not merely discerned on the left--government ministers, police chiefs and many writers acknowledged the perils which may emerge from the lower depths.
For instance, here is what Charles Dickens, a man who did not shrink from examining less than polite society, had to say. His description of the situation in Victorian Britain may have some resonance with the current situation: 'There is nothing in the present age at once so galling or so alarming to me as the alienation of the people from their own public affairs... They have so little to do with the game through all these years of parliamentary reform that they have sullenly laid down their cards and taken to looking on. The players who are left at the table do not see beyond it, conceive that the gain or loss and all the interest in the play are in their hands, and never will be wiser until they and the table and the lights and the money are all overturned together. And I believe...that it is extremely like the general mind of France before the breaking out of the first revolution.'
The anger and alienation existing within society, any modern society, results in strife. This manifests itself in a variety of ways--multitudinous murmuring, protest meetings, demonstrations, strikes and, even, occasionally, revolutions. The problem is that socialists, involved in anti-capitalist activities, often expect a successful revolutionary culmination, an ending that rarely occurs. It reminds me of Shakespeare's Henry IV, where Owen Glendower brags, 'I can call the sprits from the vasty deep.' To which Hotspur retorts, 'Why, so can I, or so can any man, but will they come when you call them?'
But revolutionary socialists should not be disheartened. In circumstances of capitalist normality they can have a negligible impact on the course of events. The political temperature depends upon two things that remain virtually outside their control. First, there is the objective situation, the actual conditions under which people live. And second, there are the conditions under which they consider they are entitled to expect to live. If these two remain roughly the same there will be no mass protest movements. But once people make the links between the gap that exists between what life is and what it could be, then they move into action, show themselves able and willing to fight for a better world, and socialist ideas swing into their own. Not only are the organisation and ideas the distillation of centuries of working class struggle--they also acquire still greater power through the passage of time.
Let me illustrate this by taking as an example The Communist Manifesto. To the overwhelming majority of humanity living in 1848 it would seem quite meaningless. When Marx and Engels wrote, large parts of the world remained unknown, unexplored and economically undeveloped. Where in their writings was, for instance, any talk of Korea or Latin America? Their collected works never mention them. Even if they had, a modern, free enterprise economy did not then exist there. There was no industrial society, no division between capitalist and worker, hence no class struggle as we know it today. Workers of the world could not have united.
Yet nevertheless Marx and Engels were still correct. They were thinking dialectically, not formally, in terms of not merely being but becoming. Korea and Latin America may well have been, in 1848 terms, located in the dream clouds, but today they are enmeshed in the world capitalist system and the domination of giant multinational corporations. As a consequence we find our struggle intertwined with theirs in a way that could never have been envisaged in 1848. We are both equally victims of international capitalism. Workers of the world must unite.
This argument can be taken a stage further. In The Communist Manifesto the historical choice is starkly presented--either a new society is created or there is what was termed 'the general ruin of the contending classes'--in other words, either socialism or barbarism. At a meeting organised to celebrate the anniversary of the Chartist journal the People's Paper, Marx elaborated on the significance of the choice before them: 'There is one great fact characteristic of our 19th century, a fact which no party dares deny. On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of former human history had ever suspected. In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into the sources of want.'
When Marx uttered these words he could have no conception of how much more true they would become. He could not have imagined missiles orbiting the planet, undetectable Stealth bombers, nuclear weapons of hitherto undreamt of ferocity all creating the means for humanity's destruction, let alone the advances in food technology, medicine, production techniques and the numerous other scientific applications creating the possibility, beyond Marx's wildest dreams, of human happiness and fulfilment for all. But today's reality leaves us with rich and poor, the well fed and the starving, those who can live happily while others remain mired in misery.
It is not merely the politically active who increasingly turn to Marx for the weapons to use in the struggle. The mass of working people unwittingly do the same. This is because the world is being transformed in ways which confirm his prophecies. Without being aware of it, the ruling class becomes the architect of its own destruction.
In our endeavour to speed up this process, besides advancing in the strongest fashion possible the lessons of past working class struggles, we must also possess the organisation that gives them the greatest impact. To outsiders, at times, this may make them doubt our sanity. But this must not deter us--it has always been one of the minor hazards facing revolutionaries. When Lenin arrived at the Finland station in the spring of 1917 and declared the soviets should seize power, many thought his mind had become unhinged. Likewise when Karl Liebknecht a few months earlier had told German workers 'the enemy was at home'--the German ruling class--doubts were expressed about his sanity. And when our own John Maclean used the court to denounce the crimes of British capitalism, respectable opinion questioned his mental health.
We should take heart from the fact that Lenin frequently used to refer to a man in a doorway. At first glance he appeared to be making wild gestures, a mad man possessed by private devils, but on closer inspection he was shown to be performing a perfectly sensible human task--sharpening a knife on a stone. And that is the function of revolutionaries today. By developing socialist theory and building socialist organisation, they are sharpening the knife with which to destroy the capitalist system.