British communist left & Lenin

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British communist left & Lenin
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I was just reading through the piece by Sylvia Pankhurst on libcom, excellent read.

What do comrades make of this piece in particular?

The worst part is that I can't discuss this with many people, last time I tried, someone took it upon themselves to argue against me that Sylvia supported WWI. The bourgeoisie has paid particular attention to Sylvia and painted her out as some sort of intellectual that specialised in Ethiopian affairs (and they awarded her son/grandson [forgot] an OBE).

In 1922 her 'open letter to lenin' accuses him of being a reformer, yet she took this road herself later too.

Should we be sure that Sylvia did not criticise Lenin's ideas re: the masses and parliamentary action, hard enough (at the 1920 congress)? She did go on to fully denounce these things in the following years. Was tthe 1920 congres a grave mistake on her part? And should she be held partly responsible for a major decline in the world revolution?

I'll leave a detailed comment

I'll leave a detailed comment on this piece to members of the ICC or to other interested folk. For myself, a sympathiser, despite trawls through the Dutch International Institute of Social History, I was previously unable to locate this particular article by SP. So I'm delighted to find it in Libcom's library and many thanks to you, V, for drawing it to our attention.

 I would be grateful if you could post a link to the Libcom thread where it was argued that SP "supported WW1". For myself, I don't think this is an adequate "judgement" of her political evolution, nor that of the organisations she inspired.

And in answer to you final question: "should she be held partly responsible for a major decline in the world revolution?", for myself the answer is "no". Or rather, that the problem is with the question itself. Can any individual be held responsible for what is an epoch defining event, even "partly responsible"?

You asked what comrades made of the article in the Libcom Library. For myself, its initial approach was one of subjectivism, of description. Yet why not? These were momentous times which can't fully be appreciated soley on the basis of Congress decisions and positions taken, even if these ultimately encapsulate, synthesise, positions taken by elements of the political proletariat. John Read's "10 Days that Shook the World" was no mere record of political decision-making. Neither were Trotsky's histories.

On the political level, I was impressed by the synthesis that Sylvia made of the position of Lenin and others on participation in the Labour Party and in the Trade Unions. I think it revealed well the concerns of the Bolsheviks and of the CI at this moment in history: that their "motivation" was one of furthering the proletarian struggle for revolution. A "tactical" question, at the time, for them. I found this synthesis seductive, and can better understand 'where they were coming from.' There's no doubt that there was a pressing need for the establishment of Communist Parties in GB as elsewhere. The question under debate was: on what basis?

Hindsight - wonderful, questionable, if necessary tool - showed the Bolsheviks, the CI, were wrong. Sylvia's instincts - and the arguably more profound objections of the other 'lefts' at the time, were correct.

As for Sylvia herself: well we know she was persuaded by Lenin to accept the majority view, though she very soon rebelled against it in a rather indivdualistic way, (Have you seen the ICC book by Mark Hayes, 'The British Communist Lerft'? Recommended.)

For me, regarding Sylvia's overall political evolution: well a cynic could argue that she transversed the arc from the daughter of a radical, pro-working class family of petit bourgeous, to hand maiden at the foot of an Emperor (Haille Salassie), without ever leaving the political orbit of the bourgeoisie.

That would be a terrible mistake, IMO. As Shakespeare noted,

"There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.' 

In Sylvia's epoch - essentially, the same as our own - she was lifted, informed, inspired, by the most pressing 'tide in the affairs of men'; by the struggle of the proletaritat for its emancipation. Her confusions at the outbreak of WW1 (helping the working class wives and widows created by the slaughter - terrible crime!)  were resolved by the revolutionary reality of the working class exemplified by the revolution in Russia. Her decline in political activity and clarity mirrored and was determined by the proletariat's own defeat.

Not all political elements of the proletariat abandoned quite so far or so fast the central axes of working class positions: such a trajectory is neither inevitable nor to be lauded. In my opinion (and it is mine, not necessarily that of the ICC), that doesn't detract from what Sylvia did achieve when the proletarian flame lit her fire.

I've not argued that Sylvia

I've not argued that Sylvia waged her struggle "without ever leaving the political orbit of the bourgeoisie". She was undoubtedly influenced by a very middle-class family and upbringing, however her mother's noteworthy radicalism -although bourgeoisie tainted to the core- influenced Sylvia immensely.

Also there was nothing on libcom about Sylvia supporting WWI, I meant in-person, I've found a lot of ignorance surrounding Sylvia exists, and average workers in this country mix her politics up with those of her mother or sister very easily.

I feel as though single people can have an effect by way of their influence. Lenin was obviously a perfect example of that. It must have been devastating to Sylvia to feel she had to write her open letter to Lenin.

To feel as though Lenin had no responsibility and was instead, forced to act by the masses for the masses.... and to also feel the same way about Sylvia and others seems a little odd. I said partly responsible not meaning to place the largest part of the blame at their feet, it was an epoch-defining event, Lenin never expected it to happen in his lifetime. I understand all of that. But I don't see how responsibility can just be taken out of the picture completely.


I'm just coming to the end

I'm just coming to the end of the British Communist Left by Hayes. A couple of questions:

1) If the CPGB was so mesmerised by Lenin (an anarchist criticism) why did they not allow the 'lefts' to argue their position within the party (and International) as he himself had recommended! (ignore the degeneration of the revolution for a sec!). Ok, it says the 'lefts' missed some opportunities to do this through organisational mistakes and weakness but it seems odd the opportunists would ignore 'the great Lenin' or is it this which highlight the fullness of their opportunism (and their narrow-mindedness)!?

2) The tactics of the 'lefts' during WW2 included strikes and fraternization where they were stronger (and possible) etc but in Britain, pamphlets? I would like to know how this differs from the criticism of anarchists carrying out "education"? 

3) Is the approach of the 'lefts' to war the same as it was during WW2? And what was the practice regarding the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? I will search the site later on this topic also. The question of war has been bugging me recently. I am interested in the reflections of ex-Stop the War Coalition & ex-SWP Rees on the subject. Hopefully there are some comments in his book which is online at for anyone else interested. I would have thought it would be very difficult to do much to stop wars under capitalism (apart from proletarian revolution) but clearly marching from A to B is totally redundant. Given the lack of class or revolutionary consciousness and lack of revolutionary forces is direct action and political strikes too much to ask in the furture (military bases, armaments factories, distribution, transportation etc)? Or would this be as futile a task? I'm aware there was limited direct action of this nature initially before the StWC consumed everything and everyone.

Edit: Just a note to say the modern day CPGB are at it again. I just read their latest headline: The tragedy of Sylvia Pankhurst.

Also, I was quite shocked by this recent podcast on voting:

It appears you can vote for any old scoundrel, what's the difference? How exactly is this going to garner any kind of internationalism if you vote for 'comrades' in the pay of God knows who or are even complicit in murders against your comrades!? I was thinking of writing a letter about this to them. But perhaps it would be better coming from someone more knowledgable or the ICC themselves? I think it is really reprehensible stuff. I don't think he speaks for everyone connected to the party though. As has been previously noted there have been some disputes within the CPGB and some left sounding remarks. I think it is correct also that the articles in part against the historical left elements over the last months has not been a coincidence. I know the ICC doesn't interact with the left of capital as it sees it but perhaps it is worthwhile in a case like this, after all there must be 'searching elements' in or sympathetic to the CPGB.

History repeating itself

radicalchains wrote:
Edit: Just a note to say the modern day CPGB are at it again. I just read their latest headline: The tragedy of Sylvia Pankhurst.

Ah, some things never change do they. Once a Stalinist organisation...

Mark Shipway wrote:
As research brought more and more information to light about the history of anti-parliamentary communism in Britain, the need for an accurate, comprehensive and sympathetic study of the subject became increasingly obvious. Biographies of Sylvia Pankhurst dwell at length on her pre-1917 suffragist ideas and activities; references to her years as an anti-parliamentary communist are conspicuous only by their absence. Nor are the histories of the early years of the CPGB much more enlightening. The Dreadnought group participated in the communist unity negotiations which preceded the formation of the CPGB, but its ideas were at odds with the tactics which the CPGB eventually adopted. This enables historians of the CPGB to portray the Dreadnought group as an 'infantile' tributary flowing into the Leninist mainstream, later to emerge as an effluent which disappears into the void. None of them assess anti-parliamentary communist ideas in their own right, and even their most banal 'factual' comments about the anti-parliamentarians are frequently mistaken.


Marx wrote:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.