Harper's conclusions about the Russian revolution and the aspects of the Marxist dialectic which he preferred to ignore...
There are three ways of looking at the Russian Revolution:
A. The first is the way it's looked at by ‘socialists' of all description: left, right and centre; ‘Revolutionary Socialists' (in Russia), ‘independent' socialists elsewhere, and so on.
Before the revolution their perspective had been: the Russian Revolution will be a bourgeois democratic revolution, within which the working class will have to struggle ‘democratically' for its ‘rights and liberties'.
All these gentlemen, as well as being ‘sincere revolutionary democrats', were fervent defenders of the ‘right of nations to self-determination'. They ended up defending the nation by making a detour from internationalism which led them from pacificism to the struggle against aggressors and oppressors. These people were moralists in the pure sense, defenders of Rights with a big R, Liberty with a big L, champions of the poor and the oppressed.
When the first revolution, the one in February, broke out, they gave vent to a torrent of joyful tears: this was at last the confirmation of their sacred perspective.
Unfortunately they failed to realize that the February insurrection was just a flea's bite, merely opening the door to the real battle between the classes at hand. The Tsar had fallen, but already the bourgeois revolution had virtually been carried out in the context of the old autocracy. This whole apparatus was now rotten and had to be replaced. February opened the door to the struggle for power.
Within Russia itself, there were four main forces at hand:
1. The autocracy, the feudal bureaucracy which had been governing a country in which big capital was in the process of installing itself.
2. The bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie; big capital, directors of industry, the intellectual elite, medium-sized landowners, etc.
3. The huge mass of poor peasants, only just out of serfdom.
4. The intellectuals and petty bourgeois proletarianized by the crisis of the regime and of the country; and the industrial proletariat itself.
The ‘reactionary' elements (supporters of the Tsarist regime) had been convinced that the introduction of large-scale industrial capitalism into Russia was inevitable and necessary. Their only aspiration was to be the managers and gendarmes of foreign finance capital, while maintaining a social status quo favorable to them: the maintenance of the imperial bureaucratic system, a ‘liberation' of the serfs (needed to supply labor to industry) which ensured that the bureaucracy and the nobles would keep a high degree of control over the middle peasantry, which was seen as a class of tenant farmers.
This was, obviously, already the ‘bourgeois revolution'. But the social forces that were entering the historical arena didn't take the desiderata of the bureaucracy into account. Once capital had been introduced into Russia, that meant, on the one hand, the proletariat, and on the other hand, the capitalist class, composed not so much of possessors of capital, but of the whole social class which effectively directed industry and administered the circulation of capital.
The import of capital had the consequence of showing the Russian ruling classes, in the broadest sense, the enormous possibilities of capitalist development in Russia.
Within these classes, two ambivalent tendencies emerged: the first out of the need to use foreign finance capital for the development of capitalism in Russia; the second, a tendency towards national independence, and thus, towards breaking free of the grip of foreign capital.
When the revolution first broke out, the countries which had invested capital in Russia, such as France, Britain and others, saw the danger mainly from the perspective of ‘their' capital. Now, the main reaction of a property-holder when his property is threatened is fear, dirty-dealing, and the unleashing of whatever forces he has to hand.
These countries knew very well that a democratic government would safeguard their interests.
But, like any capitalist, they saw a reactionary putsch as a way of dictating their policies and having effective control over an extremely rich territory. The foreign countries thus played every possible card, supporting everyone -- Kerensky, Deniken, the reactionary bands, the provisional government, etc... Some got money, weapons and military advisors; others got ‘disinterested advice' from ambassadors or consuls. And through this squabble for power, imperialist rivalries were also played out: united one day, the imperialist powers would be plotting against their allies and stabbing them in the back the next.
The most adequate term for the political geography of the period between the first revolution (February) and the second (October) is a morass, a chaos which contemporary historical study is only just beginning to find out about, thanks to the Bolshevik government's publication of all the secret official agreements.
B. The imperialist war itself was at an impasse. The cadavers were rotting in the no-man's land between the trenches in a front which ran along the whole of eastern Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the south of these countries as well. There seemed to be no way out of the war.
In this general chaos, a small political group had stood for revolutionary internationalism at the conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal, and had insisted on the necessity for a new revolutionary workers' movement on the ruins of the IInd International. It argued that the proletariat had to above all proclaim its internationalism by entering into struggle, whatever the consequences, against its own bourgeoisie, while having it clearly in mind that such a struggle was part of an international proletarian movement which, if it was to carry out the socialist revolution, would have to extend to the main capitalist powers.
The real divergence between the social democrats and the nucleus of the future Communist International was on this point: the social democrats thought you could arrive at socialism through a gradual expansion of democracy within each country. What's more, they saw the war as an ‘accident' in the movement of history, and argued that the class struggle should be set aside during the course of the war, while waiting for victory over the wicked enemy who was preventing this ‘struggle' from being carried on in a ‘peaceful' manner. (If we had more space we would include the manifestos from the different ‘socialist' parties in the period from 1914 to 1917, and extracts from the newspapers these parties put out towards Russian troops in France, in which ‘socialism' was defended with a truly heroic ardor.)
The left which began to regroup after the two conferences in Switzerland had its most solid political foundations built around the personality of Lenin, who at the time was almost totally isolated, not only from ex-partisans of the Bolshevik Party, but also from many in the left itself. Lenin's essential message was as follows:
"Preaching class collaboration, renouncing the social revolution and revolutionary methods, adapting to bourgeois nationalism, forgetting the changing character of national frontiers and countries, making a fetish of bourgeois legality, reneging on the idea of class and class struggle for fear of scaring the ‘mass of the population' (ie the petty bourgeoisie) -- this, without doubt, is the theoretical basis of opportunism."
"... The bourgeoisie abuses the people by draping the imperialist brigandry with the old ideology of the ‘national war'. The proletariat unmasks this lie by proclaiming the transformation of this imperialist war into a civil war. This is the slogan indicated by the resolutions of Stuttgart and Basle, which anticipated not war in general, but this present war, and which didn't talk about the ‘defense of the fatherland' but about ‘hastening the downfall of capitalism', about exploiting the crisis produced by the war, by giving the example of the Commune. The Commune was the transformation of national war into civil war.
Such a transformation isn't easy and can't be ordered by this or that party. But this is precisely what corresponds to the objective state of capitalism in general, and of its final stage in particular. It's in this direction, and only this direction, that socialists must work. Not by voting for war credits, not by approving the chauvinism of your own country and its allies but, on the contrary, by combating above all else the chauvinism of your own bourgeoisie, and by refusing to be restricted to legal methods when the crisis is open and the bourgeoisie itself has annulled the legality it has created; this is the line of march which leads towards civil war, towards a conflagration which will spread throughout Europe ..."
".., . The war isn't an accident, a ‘sin' as the priests might say (they preach patriotism, humanity and peace at least as well as the opportunists). It's an inevitable phase of capitalism, a form of capitalist life just as legitimate as peace. The present war is a war of the peoples. But this doesn't mean that we must follow the ‘popular' tide of chauvinism. During the war, in all aspects of the war, the social antagonisms which divide the peoples still exist and will continue to exist..."
"... Down with all the sentimental drivel, the imbecilic sighs for ‘peace at any price'! Imperialism is playing with the fate of European civilization. If this war isn't followed by a series of victorious revolutions, it will soon be followed by other wars. The fable about the ‘war to end all wars' is a crude, empty fairytale, a petty bourgeois myth (to use a very apt expression of Golos.)
Today or tomorrow, during the war or after it, now or during the next war, the proletarian banner of civil war will rally behind it not only hundreds of millions of conscious workers, but also millions of the semi-proletarians and petty bourgeois who are presently being brutalized by chauvinism, and who may be horrified and depressed by the horrors of war, but who are above all being instructed, enlightened, awakened, organized, tested and prepared for the war against the bourgeoisie -- the bourgeoisie of ‘their' country and of the ‘ foreign' countries ..."
"... The IInd International is dead, vanquished by opportunism. Down with opportunism and long live the International, purged not only of the ‘turncoats' (as Golos wants) but also of opportunism. Long live the IIIrd International!
The IInd International has completed its useful functions ... It's now up to the IIIrd International to organize the proletarian forces for a revolutionary offensive against all the capitalist governments, for a civil war against the bourgeoisie in all countries, for the conquest of power, for the victory of socialism..."
If we compare this to Marx, we can see that, contrary to what Harper wants us to believe, Lenin did understand marxism and knew how to apply it at the right moment:
"It is altogether self-evident that, to be able to fight at all, the working class must organize itself at home as a class and that its own country is the immediate arena of its struggle. In so far its class struggle is national, not tin substance, but as the Communist Manifesto says, ‘in form'. But the ‘framework of the present-day national state', for instance, the German Empire, is itself in its turn economically ‘within the framework' of the world market, politically ‘within the framework' of the system of states. Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade, and the greatness of Herr Bismarck consists, to be sure, precisely in his kind of international policy.
And to what does the German workers' party reduce its internationalism? To the consciousness that the result of its efforts will be ‘the international brotherhood of peoples' -- a phrase borrowed from the bourgeois League of Peace and Freedom, which is intended to pass as equivalent to the international brotherhood of the working classes in the joint struggle against the ruling classes and their governments." (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program)
What distinguished this left within social democracy from the rest of the workers' movement were its political positions.
1. On the question of the seizure of power (the quarrel between bourgeois democracy and workers' democracy as realized in the dictatorship of the proletariat).
2. On the nature of the war and the position of revolutionaries in this war.
On all the other points, notably the ‘economic' organization of socialism, they still adhered to the old formulae -- the nationalization of land and industry, etc, just as many still clung to the notion of the ‘insurrectionary general strike'. But it's worth pointing out that, even within the left, very few socialist militants understood Lenin's positions during the war; they rallied to them afterwards, when the Russian Revolution turned the theory into a fact.
So much was this the case, that in the quarrel between Kautsky and Lenin, Kautsky didn't say a word about it -- and yet, as Lenin pointed out, at the Basle Congress Kautsky had opted for analogous and extremely advanced positions on workers' power and on internationalism. However, it's not enough to sign resolutions: you also have to know how to apply them in practice. It's when theory has to be transposed into practice that you see who the real marxists are. All the worth of a Plekhanov or a Kautsky, considerable figures in the socialist workers' movement at the end of the nineteenth century, collapsed like a sandcastle in the face of this small group of Bolsheviks who had to translate their theories into practice, first on the seizure of power, then on the question of the war, in opposition to the Left Social Revolutionaries and the Bolshevik fraction which was for ‘revolutionary war' over the Brest-Litovsk issue, (This question of war was posed to the Bolsheviks both over the German offensive, and the internal civil war).
While waiting for the revolution to extend onto the international arena, in Russia itself the economy could only be organized in a bourgeois manner, even though on the model of the most advanced forms of capitalism; state capitalism. Only the unfolding of the international revolution (which took as its point of departure the examples of the Bolsheviks) would have permitted a transformation towards socialism. Only when this is made clear does it make sense to cite all the erroneous positions Lenin had, before and after the revolution.
In 1905, Trotsky gave Lenin a severe lesson in ‘Our Differences', and it was the synthesis of Trotsky's position in ‘Our Differences' and Lenin's position in What is to be Done which guided the seizure of power during the war. After the seizure of power, a formidable number of errors were made by Lenin, Trotsky and many others in the party... It's not a question of hiding from these errors. We will return to them in future, especially when it comes to dealing with the ‘pure Leninists'. But it's one thing to draw lessons thirty years later, when the economic conditions have changed, when the characteristics of the period have become clearer, and quite another thing to face up to immediate events that are unfolding in an anarchic and unforeseen manner. Today, it's much easier to say what the errors of the Bolsheviks were, since you can study the Russian Revolution as an historic event, you can see what political groups were involved, analyze and study their documents, their activities etc.
But, at that time, and despite all their backward positions, were the Bolsheviks, with Lenin and Trotsky at their head, engaged in a movement whose immediate aim was to be a movement towards socialism? Where did the paths the Bolsheviks took lead to? Or the ones taken by Kautsky, or by X, Y, or Z?
Our reply is that there was only one basis for leading the movement towards the socialist revolution, and the Bolsheviks (and even then, by no means all the Bolsheviks) were the only ones who defended it and applied it. The Bolsheviks were engaged in a class struggle whose aim was the overthrow of capitalism on an international scale, and their general political positions were a real contribution towards this aim.
There is so much to be said about the broad lines of the positions which animated the October Bolshevik movement. The discussion about them has hardly begun. But such a discussion must have as its minimum basis the revolutionary program of October -- a program whose essential aspects have remained valid for the whole workers' movement over the last thirty years.
The revolutionary movement which began in 1917 in Russia proved that it was an international movement, through the repercussions it had in Germany a year later.
But a few days later, the armistice was signed and a few months later, Noske had done his job of repression. By 1917, when the 1st Congress of the CI was held -- and although the great movement launched by the Russian-German revolution was to shake the proletariat for years afterwards -- the highpoint of the revolution had already been passed, The bourgeoisie had recovered its composure, the peace settlement gradually softened the class struggle, the proletariat retreated ideologically as the German revolution was broken bit by bit. The failure of the German revolution left Russia isolated, forcing it to carry on with its economic organization and to wait for a new revolutionary wave.
But history shows that a workers' movement can't be victorious in stages. The Russian revolution was only a partial victory: since the final result of the movement it unleashed was defeat on an international level, the so-called building of ‘socialism' in Russia could only be an image of this defeat of the international workers' movement.
The fact that the CI had to hold its congresses in Moscow already showed that the revolution was blocked. As the defeat became more definite, each new congress registered a further retreat for the international workers' movement: theoretically in Moscow, physically in Berlin.
Once again, the revolutionaries found themselves in a minority, then excluded. The IIIrd International went the way of the IInd International. Like so many ‘socialist' and ‘workers' parties before them, the ideology of the Communist Parties became more and more bourgeois.
But two notable phenomena accompanied this retreat of the workers' movement: a degenerated workers' party held onto state power, and capitalism, having entered a new period in 1914, plunged into even more serious than ever before. The analysis of these two phenomena, which only the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left (which published Bilan between 1933 and 1938 -- the name alone being a whole program) was able to develop in a clear way, is the basis for the birth of a new revolutionary workers' movement.
C. Faced with the degeneration of the workers' movement, with the evolution of modern capitalism, with the Russian Stalinist state, with the problems posed to the insurrections of the soviets, there is a third position which doesn't bother to make too profound a research into the historical, political whys and hows of the last thirty years, and instead looks around for a handy scapegoat. Some choose Stalin, and through their anti-Stalinism, end up participating in the war effort of the ‘democratic' American camp; others look for ‘dadas' of various kinds, depending on what's in fashion. In 1938-42, it was the fashion to blame fascism for the war and the degeneration of society, rather than seeing the maintenance of capitalism as a whole as the real problem. Today Stalinism is a more modish scapegoat. There's a marvelous blossoming of theories and theoreticians: Burnham, against the bureaucracy; Bettelheim, for it, etc. There's Sartre, and ‘freedom', and the whole clique of writers paid by the political parties of the bourgeoisie, and the rotten, careerist world of modern journalism. In all this, Harper's accusations against ‘Leninism' leading ‘inevitably' to Stalinism seems like just one more to add to the list.
At a time when ‘marxism' is going through its greatest ever crisis (let's hope it's only a crisis of growth), Harper adds a bit more confusion when there's too much around already. But when Harper writes:
"But nothing of the sort is found in Lenin; that ideas are determined by class is not mentioned; the theoretical differences hang in the air. Of course theoretical ideas must be criticized by theoretical arguments, then, however, the social consequences are emphasized with such vehemence, the social origins of the contested ideas should not have been left out of consideration. The most essential character of marxism does not seem to exist for Lenin." (Lenin As Philosopher, Merlin Ed. p.88)
-- he goes further than mere confusion. This isn't just a polemical question, an excess of language. Harper is one of those numerous marxists who see marxism as a philosophical and scientific method, a theory, and who remain in the astronomical heights of theory without ever applying it to the historical practice of the workers' movement. For these ‘marxists', ‘praxis' is yet another philosophical object, not an active subject.
Is there no philosophy to be drawn from the revolutionary period?
Yes of course. I would even say that, for a marxist, philosophy can only be drawn out of a historical movement -- by drawing lessons in the wake of such a movement. But what does Harper do? He philosophizes on the philosophy of Lenin by taking it out of its historical context. If that was all, he would simply have ended up by uttering a few half-truths. But he tries to apply his conclusions, his half-truths, to a historical period he hasn't taken the trouble to examine. Here he shows that he has done no better, and perhaps worse, than Lenin in Materialism and Empiriocriticism. He has spoken about marxism, and showed that he knows what it is in his writings about knowledge. A lot could be said about what Harper writes: especially on the main aspect of his approach to the problem of praxis. For a marxist, praxis can't be divorced from the immediate political context, which makes it truly revolutionary -- ie from the development of revolutionary thought and action. Now, Harper repeats over and over again, like a litany, that ‘Lenin wasn't a marxist ... he's understood nothing about the class struggle'. But in the development of his practical, revolutionary political thought. Lenin did follow the teachings of Marx.
The proof that Lenin understood and applied the teachings of marxism to the Russian Revolution is contained in Lenin's preface to Marx's Letters to Kugelmann, where he points out the lessons that Marx drew from the Paris Commune. There is a curious analogy between the texts by Lenin we quoted above and the extract from Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program.
Lenin and Trotsky are part of the tradition of revolutionary marxism. They followed its teachings step by step. Trotsky's theory of the ‘permanent revolution' is quite simply a lesson drawn from the Communist Manifesto and marxism in general; the Russian Revolution was a faithful reproduction of this theory and is fully in line with the non-degenerated heritage of marxism. Harper, like so many other marxists, forgets one thing: is the perspective that was valid for the revolutions of the nineteenth century, during the ascendant period of capitalism, which was just ending when the Russian Revolution took off, still valid in the degenerating phase of this society?
Lenin was able to draw out the new perspective when he talked of the new period of ‘wars and revolutions'. Rosa Luxemburg clearly put forward the idea that capitalism had entered into its epoch of degeneration. This didn't stop the CI, and later on the Trotskyist movement and other left oppositions, from remaining tied to the old perspective, or from going back to it, as Lenin himself did after the failure of the German Revolution. Harper certainly thinks that there is a new perspective, but his analysis of Lenin and the Russian Revolution proves that, like many others, he hasn't been able to develop it, and has fallen into a whole lot of vague or false positions.
It's no accident that it's the heirs of the theoretical acquisitions of Bilan who have responded to him, as they have done elsewhere to the ‘pure Leninists'.
Both the ‘pro'- and the ‘anti'- Lenins forget one thing: although the problems of today can only be understood in the light of the problems of the past, they are nonetheless different.