In defence of the Russian Revolution, internationalism is not negotiable

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Ninety years on from 1917 we are publishing an extract of correspondence on the degeneration of the Russian revolution. An essential part of our defence of the Russian revolution is to draw a clear class line between the revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution which abandoned the internationalism that the Bolsheviks had based themselves on. This line has already been drawn in blood by the counter-revolution through the massacre of Bolsheviks in the Stalinist camps.

We are publishing here only an extract of the much longer correspondence from our reader, sent to us at the end of last year, which tries to take position on the ICC's basic positions to provide a basis for discussion, taking up the issues that we felt were most important to reply to.

Dear Comrades

Please find below my comments and observations on the Basic Positions defended by the ICC:

The International Communist Current defends the following political positions:

* Since the First World War, capitalism has been a decadent social system. It has twice plunged humanity into a barbaric cycle of crisis, world war, reconstruction and new crisis. In the 1980s, it entered into the final phase of this decadence, the phase of decomposition. There is only one alternative offered by this irreversible historical decline: socialism or barbarism, world communist revolution or the destruction of humanity.

I agree that capitalism has been decadent since the turn of the 20th century and this placed the possibility and need for world socialist revolution on the agenda. I agree that capitalism cannot go on for ever and in the absence of revolution it has started to enter decomposition which starts to erode the materialist basis for proletarian revolution. I agree with the urgent need for world proletarian revolution.

I do not understand nor necessarily agree that decomposition is in some way linked with the collapse of the regimes in eastern Europe and Russia in 1989-91. How? Why? Also, you are opposed to ‘stalinism', but at the same time you see the collapse of ‘stalinism' as representing a major defeat for the working class, from which its combativity is only just re-emerging. How can the collapse of something you regard as anti working class represent a defeat for the working class?

* The Paris Commune of 1971 was the first attempt by the proletariat to carry out this revolution, in a period when the conditions for it were not yet ripe. Once these conditions had been provided by the onset of capitalist decadence, the October revolution in 1917 in Russia was the first step towards an authentic world communist revolution in an international revolutionary wave which put an end to the imperialist war and went on for several years after that. The failure of this revolutionary wave, particularly in Germany in 1919-23, condemned the revolution in Russia to isolation and to a rapid degeneration. Stalinism was not the product of the Russian revolution, but its gravedigger.

I agree the Paris Commune was the first proletarian revolution and that it established a workers' state, the form and content of which was highly valuable and instructive. I agree the 1917 Revolution was the second major attempt at a proletarian revolution. I agree the failure of the revolutionary wave condemned the regime in Russia to isolation.

I disagree with the statement after ‘isolation'. The regime was the product of the 1917 proletarian revolution and the circumstances in which it found itself. There were three broad choices: the ultra left revolutionary catastrophist variant whereby an isolated proletarian bastion would be overwhelmed by internal and external factors; the rightist accommodation whereby capitalism would be encouraged rather than suppressed in Russia, given the conditions for socialism were ‘premature'; a ‘centrist' policy whereby the proletarian party and leadership ‘did what it could' to establish and defend a proletarian state and economy in almost impossible circumstances. What would you have done? What should the regime have done? Give up via choices one and two?

I agree the result was the creation of a ruling and privileged caste which became divorced from the masses and in effect became a ruling class. But I believe this was born from a proletarian core leadership which was determined to try and build what it could of a socialist state and economy in the absence of world revolution, or at least revolution in the ‘advanced' capitalist countries. Socialism in one country is of course not sustainable long term, hence the accommodation of successive leaderships to world capitalism through the adoption of capitalist economic policies and methods, which ultimately undermined whatever socialist bases had been created and ultimately led to their rapid collapse.

It seems to me that if you support the 1917 Revolution as proletarian, you have to have a view as to what the post 1917 regime should have done given the reality of the situation and the fact that it was born of the proletarian revolution. If, at a certain point, you would (with the benefit of hindsight) withdraw support for the regime (when?), you must be able to identify what alternatively the regime should have done to merit continued support.

* The statified regimes which arose in the USSR, eastern Europe, China, Cuba etc and were called ‘socialist' or ‘communist' were just a particularly brutal form of the universal tendency towards state capitalism, itself a major characteristic of the period of decadence.

Not sure I can agree. My interpretation is that they were the product of the 1917 revolution and the attempt to build socialism in Russia in the 1930s via collectivisation and industrialisation. I am not sure I even hold they reverted to capitalism as such. From the mid 1950s, all the regimes increasingly adopted capitalist methods and economic policies which undermined the state ownership of productive resources and led ultimately to the collapse and sweeping away of those regimes 1989-91.

To equate them with the tendency towards state capitalism in the ‘advanced' capitalist countries seems to be comparing apples with pears. They would not have collapsed so easily and completely in 1989-91 if they were simply a different version of what prevails in the West.

* Since the beginning of the 20th century, all wars are imperialist wars... The working class can only respond to them through its international solidarity and by struggling against the bourgeoisie in all countries.

* All the nationalist ideologies - ‘national independence', ‘the right of nations to self-determination' etc - whatever their pretext, ethnic, historical or religious, are a real poison for the workers. By calling on them to take the side of one or another faction of the bourgeoisie, they divide workers and lead them to massacre each other in the interests and wars of their exploiters.

Totally agree with both. We are members of a world working class and have no interest whatsoever with the killing of fellow workers anywhere, let alone on behalf of our class enemies in the bourgeoisie....

I hope this letter is useful in setting out ‘where I am coming from' and that it may provide a basis for further discussion and clarity.

All best wishes, A

Our reply

Dear Comrade A,

We were very glad to get the recent two letters you sent responding clearly and honestly to our basic positions in the attempt to develop a political discussion between us. We are very glad that you see the ICC and the tradition of the Communist Left as a reference point for revolutionary politics today. This reply is intended to continue this process even though we won't be able to take up all the points you make. We were struck in both letters by your clear denunciation of nationalism in concert with our own intransigence on this question.  You agree for example in your November letter with our editorial in IR 127: 'imperialism is the natural policy carried out by a national state or organisation that functions as a national state. ...The more the workers are sucked into nationalism, the more they lose their ability to act as a class'. And again in your commentary on our basic positions from December you totally agree with the following point: 'All the nationalist ideologies - 'national independence', ' the right of nations to self determination' etc - whatever their pretext, ethnic, historical or religious, are a real poison for the workers. By calling on them to take the side of one or another faction of the bourgeoisie, they divide workers and lead them to massacre each other in the interests and wars of their exploiters'. As you say on this point: we are members of a world working class and have no interest whatsoever with the killing of fellow workers anywhere let alone on behalf of our class enemies in the bourgeoisie.

We were therefore surprised to see that you disagreed with the formulation in the section in the basic principles on the Russian Revolution to the effect that the isolation of the revolution led to its rapid degeneration and that Stalinism was not the product of the Russian Revolution but its grave digger. You believe instead that the Stalinist regime was in continuity with October, and despite all its weaknesses did what it could to preserve its gains in almost impossible circumstances; there was no other realistic alternative. But 'socialism in one country', the banner of Stalinism, was only one more variety of 'all the nationalist ideologies' that you join us in denouncing in our basic positions. It buried the internationalist promise of the October Revolution and led the workers, on the basis of this variety of nationalism, into the fratricide of World War 2 - 'the great patriotic war' according to Stalin.

We think there is an important contradiction here that needs explanation.  There is surely a deep inconsistency between defending internationalism intransigently on the one hand and on the other hand taking the poison of nationalism when it is served up with a 'socialist' sweetener. The October revolution was conceived by the Bolsheviks and the Marxist left as a product of an international ripeness of the conditions for a proletarian revolution. The Russian bastion of 1917 could only therefore be a stepping stone to the world revolution. This position was entirely consistent with the revolutionary marxist claim since 1847 (Engels: Principles of Communism) that socialism as a new mode of production and society was impossible in a single country and was only possible after the defeat of capitalism on a world scale. In contrast, the increasing sabotage of the world revolution by the Stalinist regime in the twenties (Germany 1923, Britain 1926, China 1928, etc) helped turn the Communist International into the spearhead of Russian national and imperialist interests. In the thirties this counter revolutionary process was completed when Russia joined the League of Nations and entered into the inter-imperialist manoeuvring that led to the massacres in Spain and those of 1939-45.What else could be done in this situation?

You say in your December letter that you very much welcome  the continuity between  the ICC and 'left fractions which detached themselves from the degenerating Third International in the years 1920-30, in particular the German, Dutch and Italian Lefts' as it says in our basic positions. But these lefts were the most intransigents opponents of Stalinism. They were part of the internationalist oppositions to the counter-revolutionary nationalist orientation policy in the International and its constituent parties. These oppositions were eventually expelled and often physically liquidated by the Stalinist regime. Rather than preserving this real proletarian core of the revolution, patriotic Stalinism obliterated it, especially its most dedicated internationalist fighters - and had to - since all trace of internationalism had to be removed in the nationalist march to imperialist war. Certainly at a certain stage after the Russian revolution, the world revolutionary upsurge went into reverse and the internationalists became more and more isolated - an isolation that lasted for decades. But surely we can't therefore identify with the counter-revolution because at the time it was more 'realistic' than revolution. Internationalism is not one of several options but the only one in all circumstances - favourable and unfavourable - for the working class because it alone defines its common interests as a class and its perspective of communism. In a historic sense, internationalism is the only realistic option. In pointing out what we see as the inconsistencies in your commentaries on the ICC basic principles we aren't point-scoring but making the effort with you to arrive at a revolutionary, internationalist coherence. We hoping to continue the discussion at our forthcoming Public Forum... WR, 3/11/07.

Life of the ICC: 

History of the workers' movement: