Part of a debate
- On Norman Geras’s ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution’, by Alan Johnson
- In defence of Ernest Erber, by Alan Johnson
- Morality, revolution, the Bolsheviks, and us, by Sean Matgamna (and as pdf, with appendices)
- Appendix: the Birmingham pub bombing, 1974
- What we said on the poll tax: Thatcher reaps what she sows
- How not to quote Lenin, by John Ryan
“Impartiality in the face of injustice is the virtue of a slave” — James Connolly, October 1915
“Problems of revolutionary morality are fused with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics... Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means... which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.
Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns... base means” — Leon Trotsky, 1938
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules of the Fourth International” — Leon Trotsky, 1938
“We live in a labour movement grown spiritually cross-eyed from the long pursuit of realpolitik and the operation of double standards, a movement ideologically sick and poisoned. In terms of moral ecology, the left and the labour movement is something of a disaster area because of the long-term use of methods and arguments which have corrupted the consciousness of the working class. The most poisonous root of that corruption was the Stalinist movement” — Socialist Organiser appeal for support against the libel case brought by Vanessa Redgrave and the WRP, 1981.
“Caesar never did wrong but with just cause” — William Shakespeare 
Lacking other than a distant nodding acquaintance here and there with academic philosophy I am reluctant to get involved in a discussion like the one Alan Johnson opens about Norman Geras’s ideas on “The Ethics of Revolution”. I might, I suppose, settle for the short answer: read Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours again, and leave it at that. But some specific issues focused on by Alan Johnson (Solidarity 487 and 488) and Norman Geras (quoted by Johnson) deserve specific answers.
First, we need to get something out of the way.
Norman Geras was a member or supporter of the Mandelite International Marxist Group (IMG) at the time when it uncritically hailed the Stalinist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia as socialist and proletarian revolutions. At the time, also, when it supported the Provisional IRA war, and what the Provisionals did in it, uncritically. 
Then he moved politically, bit by bit, until in 2003 he was a supporter of the US invasion of Iraq. He was the main author of the 2006 Euston Manifesto, which might charitably be called politically fatuous. Who better qualified to draw up a code of morality for revolutionary Marxists than Norman Geras?
Alan Johnson went from the politics of Workers’ Liberty to — god help us! — Tony Blair, over a decade ago. Who better fitted to be the late Geras’s vicar on earth, to preach a sermon on morality to us, and to the shades of the Bolsheviks, than an old Blairite?
That much needed to be said in obedience to the dictates of my own political morality. Beyond that, I will not argue ad hominem.
What is morality?
Morality is a grammar of behaviour whose elements relate to each other in shifting patterns that constantly change form and meaning.
It is always a working, conditional morality. It may be wrong to kill; in some circumstances it may be wrong and immoral not to kill.
Vladimir Lenin was fond of citing the basic — dialectical — rule that “the truth is always concrete”. So is the moral truth. What is good or bad in a given situation depends on a number of exigencies. 
In terms of our basic morality, of course we have a common humanity and empathy, and the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do to you.
But we live in a world divided into hostile states, nations, tribes in some areas, notional “tribes” of like-thinkers in others, and by sometimes murderous class conflict even in the most civilised nations, in Britain, for example.
We have an everyday code of strict morality which nevertheless has to be modified in our unavoidable conflicts with a ruling class with which we do not, and can not, share a comprehensive, common, all-embracing, morality, least of all during conflicts and revolutions. Our common humanity is refracted through conflict, sometimes mortal conflict.
Our morality is not something calculated and codified abstractly. It is first the morality handed down to us through the evolution of human civilisation, and most recently the evolution of the working class within capitalist society. The “golden rule” of course. The principle of standing up for yourself and for others across lines of nation, gender, skin-colour, sexuality, etc., against oppression. The liberal or libertarian principle that people should be able to do what they want to do as long as it does not do harm to others.
Labour movements have been and are the bearers and practitioners of a high moral code. A basic impulse of solidarity with other workers to oppose the exploiters, or impose what the workers see as in their own collective interests, animates the labour movement. Without it there could be no labour movement. In labour movements, solidarity fuses narrow self-interest with a high collective morality.
Labour and socialist movements aspire to make their own moral code the pattern for all social relations. Labour movements cannot spontaneously arrived at Marxist consciousness — which is raised upon ideas about the economy, history, and philosophy which have to be created and acquired by study — but the working class can and does spontaneously arrive at the core moral values in which Marxist socialism culminate.
In war, semi-war, and revolution, day-to-day morality, peace-time morality, modified at certain points, would still guide us. The moral norms would still be basic humanist and socialist morality, but with some things in some situations modified or turned on their head by the conditions of insurrection or civil war. In all-out conflict, the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by, gives place to what is sometimes called “the Eleventh Commandment” — do to others what they would do to you, and do it first. You have a “Golden Rule” duty to yourself, your side (your class or nation), against the other side.
Morality and war
War, die-or-kill relations with other people, and revolutionary war too, brings out atavistic savagery, and leads individuals and groups to extremes and excesses before it burns out.
And in that there is what might be called the Madame Defarge factor (after Dickens’s woman who sat next to the guillotine, knitting as the heads fell, obsessed with revenge on the aristocrats). The deeper the social upheaval, the more likely will be people acting out of primitive revenge against the former dominant power and its collaborators.
But even in war you don’t kill or harm people needlessly and wantonly. You don’t ill-treat or kill civilians. You don’t treat civilians and prisoners of war with needless cruelty.
But consider this true story . Three soldiers are trying to make their way through the lines. One is wounded and being carried on his back by a comrade. The third is a German prisoner of war.
The soldiers, the man being carried and his rescuer, fear being turned on by the prisoner. So they shoot him dead.
How can that be assessed morally? They shot a disarmed and helpless man out of fear that the position would suddenly be reversed and that they themselves might lose their lives. Were they justified? It’s a balancing of the fear of a reversal of fortune against the life of the German soldier. Did they, the unwounded man and the wounded man being carried, have the right to kill their enemy for their own protection? It was immoral if it was unnecessary: but who can reliably judge that, especially from outside? Geras, as we will see, seems to want us to say it was wrong, but nevertheless right in the circumstances, but that doesn’t solve anything.
For socialists, the tragedy of workers shooting other workers in World War 1 is the great tragedy, the all-shaping tragedy here, and of course there is a broader morality in that large story of which this small story is part.
Separate the question from the framework of the overall character of that particular war, and they surely did have the right to protect themselves.
That doesn’t tell you whether the fear was justified or exaggerated, and the action resulting from the fear necessary or unnecessary. Those decisions can be made only by way of judgment, necessarily approximate judgment, in the flux of the situation. They can’t be made by simple basic rules like “thou shalt not kill” or even “don’t kill a disarmed enemy once he has surrendered”. The moral truth is always concrete.
Morality in revolution, and different revolutions
Perhaps the nearest thing that we have to a “golden rule” in socialist revolution is what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in November 1918:
“A world must be turned upside down. But each tear that flows, when it could have been spared, is an accusation, and he commits a crime who with brutal inadvertency crushes a poor earthworm”. We must fight, and try to win, but every drop of blood we shed needlessly will cry out against us.
Norman Geras proposes a different and more absolute “ethics of revolution”. “In order, therefore, to have the necessary force to constrain and limit what is done in a just revolutionary cause, the rights must be treated as all but absolute… They may be overridden if and only if doing so is the sole means of averting imminent and certain disaster. I repeat: the sole means; and disaster which is otherwise imminent and certain. This is a proviso of impending moral catastrophe. What it permits is to do a moral wrong in order to escape some very terrible consequence. But it is, then, precisely a wrong that is done. Justifiable in one perspective, it remains unjustifiable in another. ‘It does not become all right’” (Norman Geras, The Ethics of Revolution, bit.ly/ethics-g).
Rosa Luxemburg’s summary would not meet Geras’s project of stipulating absolutes. She does not set down positive detailed ethical rules for revolutionaries. The qualification, “when it could have been spared” leaves everything to be defined by circumstances.
And the ruling class accepted no common set of rules: that same Luxemburg, soon after writing the words quoted above, was denounced by her ruling-class and right-wing Social Democrat enemies as “Bloody Rosa”, had her head smashed by a rifle butt, and was then thrown in a canal.
Norman Geras was trying to translate things that are in reality always political choices, governed by the needs of political insurrection or army-against-army military conflict, into terms of morality.
Yet Geras advocates his absolute morality only as an ideal prescription. It is a morality most of whose precepts have release clauses triggered by exigency. Wrong remains wrong, but is sometimes right, says Geras. “Caesar never did wrong but with just cause”...
As I read Geras, he extrapolates his morality negatively from revolutions of three different types, and without distinguishing. Geras is talking about the Bolshevik revolution (workers’ revolutions in the past and future), but also, as test cases in the same search for general rules, the Stalinist anti-bourgeois revolutions in Eastern Europe, China, and Vietnam. He is also discussing the morality of the revolutionaries in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. 
These were revolutions made by different classes. Different classes, at points of sharp conflict, have different social aims and different moralities, and different attitudes to certain categories of people.
In the Stalinist anti-bourgeois revolutions the working class, like society itself, was History’s object, not its subject. In Russia, the Bolsheviks led the workers to take direct control of society. In China the working class was repressed, quelled, and regimented, as soon as the revolutionary peasant army occupied a city. The events may all have been “revolutions”, but actions in them cannot be judged — and the participants cannot judge themselves — by a common moral measurement for all.
Geras grounds his attempt at an “absolute” ethics for use in all revolutions on the medieval Catholic Church doctrine about “jus in bello” (ethical rules within war, as distinct from “jus ad bellum”, ethical rules about which wars were justified and which were not).
The medieval theorising which Geras thinks can be co-opted or used as paradigm was concerned with codes for established states or aristocrats in their conflicts with each other. The idea of rules of war fixed in advance implies combatants who recognise each other. It implies treating with equals. It implies a power to enforce the rules by the threat of sure revenge on those who break the rules. In the Middle Ages it implied a belief in God — an all-powerful and all-knowing God who would revenge breaches of the code, if not by defeat for the miscreants in the war in question, then by eternal damnation in the fires of Hell for those who broke the rules.
And it was a set of ideas about the behaviour of rival monarchs and aristocrats, who used war as a normal form of competition for territory and resources, and about how they might agree to regulate that competition.
So the short and, even if it is taken alone, sufficient answer to Norman Geras is that the medieval concords on war were agreements between people who regarded each other as equals — and fellow-Christians. No such equivalence is ordinarily true of revolutionaries and those whom they fight.
In a revolution the rebels are not considered justified by their opponents, nor is the ruling government by the rebels. Rules of conflict such as the medieval doctrines (or the Geneva Conventions of the 20th century) fail between people who consider their opponents evil or illegitimate - between people who feel that theirs is a life-and-death struggle in which each side knows that if it loses it will be, to one degree or another, destroyed.
Social attitudes shape conduct. To recognise rules of conduct and combatant rights is to bestow a degree of legitimacy on the other side, government on rebels or rebels on government. It bestows a strength, a weapon in the conflict.
The two sides have different attitudes to specific sections of the population, but even so there is competition for the support of non-combatants, and competition to demoralise and discourage the civilian supporters of the other side. The claim to be right as against measureless wrong, to be politically and morally legitimate, either as defenders of “law and order” and the status quo, or as righteous rebels against tyranny, is central in civil war and revolution. It confers advantage on the government, or on the rebels against the government.
Between which historical, contemporary, or likely future rebels, and those whom they rebel against, is an agreed common code of right and wrong possible? When has it happened?
Moreover, jus in bello, if I understand correctly what it was, regulated only the aristocrats’ treatment of each other. All such wars were governed by the practice of despoiling your opponents’ territory and its inhabitants when you could, confiscating food from people who would starve without it, burning villages, robbing farms, and killing your opponent’s peasant tenants or serfs. Common soldiers were routinely butchered.
Rival nobles were, when possible, captured alive and held for ransom. Even then, not always: at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 Henry V of England decided to slaughter his aristocratic French prisoners of war for fear that, with the outcome of the battle not yet decided, they could again become active fighters. That is, in terms of morality, and in the class frame of that medieval war, the same issue as with the World War 1 soldiers, above.
Yet Norman Geras describes himself as investigating “by what normative principles socialists might be guided... when it comes to revolutionary change”. He derives his ethics for revolution from the “wealth... fullness and determinacy of jus in bello”; imagines those rules as extended to a uniform ideal; and proposes them as ethics for all revolutions.
“Normative” means fixed-in-advance restrictions and limits. But in a revolution, should the insurgents risk letting their side, their people, their class, the bigger “them”, be defeated, rather than breach a code devised for non-revolutionary conflicts, and one which their opponents will not be bound by? What revolutionaries would or should do that?
In a situation in which you are cognisant only of one part of a battlefield, and have to assess the practical cost of your moral code in perhaps bringing defeat upon yourself, your cause, and your people, how should you act? How could such prior limits for moral reasons operate in practice?
Our evaluation of moral limits will depend on our class allegiance and our class attitude to the forces making the revolution, not on the abstract fact that it is “a revolution” in general, and not on a set of rules designed to fit both all revolutions (socialist, Stalinist, or other) and derived from non-revolutionary conflicts between medieval aristocrats.
A common morality between, on the one side, rebels considered as illegitimate and traitors, and on the other, those thought of as tyrants, exploiters, etc. is more or less an impossibility. Except, maybe, episodically, in a particular area of conflict, nothing like that regulated competition is possible between insurgent workers — or other insurgents — and a ruling power.
Therefore any notion of established moral rules of war falls down in the case of war between insurgents and ruling-class power — and it is that which concerns us here. It falls down because they simply can not treat each other as equals.
Geras’s idea that the working class should now, and in the past should have, set itself strict rules in advance on how to fight a revolutionary war, adapting those from the medieval codes, falls down both because working-class revolution is radically different from war between medieval powers, and because even in the case where you have combatants who recognise each other as equals in some sense, and there are rules prescribed in advance, in actual war those will at best have only limited and conditional effect.
In general, the growth of international law in the last decades is surely good, even though it is bourgeois law.
It was good that the Nazi leaders were tried and many of them hanged after World War 2, even though some of the prosecutors and judges, and the leaders of the victorious powers, most clearly the Russians but also the others, would themselves have stood trial in any properly functioning system of international law.
After the experience of World War 1, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 outlawed the use of poison gas in war. As far as I know, poison gas was used by neither side against the other in World War 2 as it was used in World War 1. It was reserved for use against certain civilians, Jewish, gypsy, etc. (It was used in the Iran-Iraq war between different Muslim persuasions, Shia and Sunni, against Kurdish insurgents in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and recently against insurgents in Syria).
Overall, however, the Geneva Conventions did not, for either of the war camps, regulate what actually happened in World War 2. There were many atrocities on the Allied side whose perpetrators were not tried like the Nazi leaders, and which were not well known until later. For example, the terror bombing of Dresden in 1944. For another example, the systematic mass rape of hundreds of thousands of German women in Berlin, Vienna, and other places by the conquering Russian soldiers, with the tacit assent of the Russian authorities.
At the end of the war, Churchill, Truman, and Stalin agreed to the expulsion of perhaps 13 million ethnic Germans from Russian-occupied East European territories where German communities had lived for centuries. The leaders, cynically, said that those people would be expelled “humanely”. In fact, perhaps half a million of them were killed by revenge-crazed Czechs and others, or were marched or starved to death. Those who lived through the “humane” expulsion went to a Germany which had been ruined by bombs and was now starving.
There are many cases now known of Allied mistreatment of German prisoners of war. Stalin enslaved millions of German prisoners. They were not set free at the end of the war. As late as 1956, the Polish Stalinist government was still trying to negotiate the return of Poles deported and enslaved by Stalin in 1939-40.
When the USA developed a functioning atom bomb, the prospect in its war with Japan was for a prolonged battle for countless islands, against warriors who would fight to the last rusty bayonet. A lot of American soldiers would die.
The atom bomb offered an alternative. From his own point of view, US president Truman had every right to use the atom bomb to save American lives.
Did Truman therefore have the right to demonstrate the atom bomb by obliterating the population of two Japanese cities? Surely he did not. Truman could have found other ways of demonstrating the power of the bomb to convince the leaders of Japan that it was useless to continue. In any case, what he did expressed a bourgeois, nationalist, and probably to a serious extent racist morality of war.
Here the dividing line between the bourgeoisie’s morality and ours is decisive. Socialists, humanists, in Truman’s situation, faced with a very bloody, ragged, and prolonged war, would not have done what he did. As I’ve said, different classes have their own morality, even in war.
There were some useful restraints and proclamations of morality in agreements like the Geneva Conventions, but those are and will always be limited, or very limited, and cannot provide for future innovations and exigencies. They cannot be relied on in regular wars, and still less can revolutionaries make them a guide on the premiss that our enemies will reciprocate. They won’t. They haven’t and they won’t.
The Russian civil war
Revolutionary morality is governed by situations where reality and possible reality, desirable or horrifying to one side or the other, are being defined and redefined in rapid, blow-for-blow, flux.
There is a normal, tranquil-times morality. How can it, how should it, change in a kill-or-be-killed situation? In the Russian civil war it was frequently a question of all-out effort to avoid a defeat in which those on the revolutionary side, or deemed to be on the revolutionary side (and unworthy of life: Jews in Ukraine) would be massacred or degraded, as they were when the Whites triumphed in one area or another.
The Russian civil war of 1918-21 was also partly shaped by the war morality not only of the sides in the civil war, but also of the world around the Bolsheviks. A world where two multinational juggernauts had warred, for years in stalemate, and with tens of millions wounded or killed. The Bolsheviks had to fight the civil war in a death-infected world — a world where fourteen million died in wars in Russia between 1914 and 1921. They had no choice but to operate in and on that world or to give up. They fought with the knowledge that their opponents would, if they won, massacre the workers whom the Bolsheviks led.
There is the much-cited argument that “he who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself”. But suppose you have to fight dragons. Suppose you have no alternative in a world ruled by dragons?
The supposed great dilemma — you become what you fight — is far too abstract. It measures history by abstract norms that fail to grasp the reality. Alan, there have been revolutions in history in which progress was made! The great bourgeois revolutions engendered progress, even if Cromwell eventually took the title of Lord Protector and Napoleon that of Emperor.
In revolutionary war, if the insurgent side goes into battle with the idea that the war can be fought according to a pre-arranged code, then the practical consequence may be to inhibit, mystify, and confuse the revolutionaries. To go into battle with some expectation that the ruling class will treat the rebels chivalrously is self-disarming and might be self-defeating.
Take the 1916 Rising in Dublin. At his court martial James Connolly said that England had no right in Ireland, never had, and never would have. He maintained that England had no right to try him. He scorned to explain his part in the Rising and to answer charges which he said the British had no right to bring against him.
He made one exception. He would answer, he said, only to one charge — that the insurgents had deliberately ill-treated their prisoners. He explained that what they had done and not done was determined by the conditions of war. They did not deliberately ill-treat their prisoners of war.
And the British and their prisoners of war? They shot or hanged 16 of the leaders. The court-martial to which Connolly spoke about the charge of mistreating prisoners sentenced their prisoner to be shot. With a wound in his leg not healed, they took him out to the prison yard on a stretcher and propped him up in a chair before a firing squad.
Or take another example. In 1798 a small French army landed in the west of Ireland to help Irish insurgents, the United Irishmen, to win - in the words of Wolf Tone - "the rights of man in Ireland". They roused the countryside and detonated a rebellion by the local people, a peasant rising.
They had some success, defeating an English redcoat army, which, in an event that became known as "the races of Castlebar", fled through the streets of a town. But reinforcements did not arrive.
The French army had to surrender. They were soldiers of revolutionary (or post-revolutionary) France. Even so, they were soldiers, and were treated as prisoners of war, as the British wanted their soldiers captured by the French to be treated.
Their Irish co-belligerents the British hanged or bayoneted, every one of them that they could lay hands on, including those captured when the French invading army had surrendered. They were rebels and traitors against those who claimed to be their rightful and irremovable rulers - against their natural masters and superiors, who did not recognise the right of those whom they saw as Irish yahoos to be free - or to live.
The Irish were excluded from the quasi-civilised rules of mutual respect and acceptance that the French and British had for each other.
Morals of exploited and exploiters
So a comprehensive code of revolutionary war morality cannot make sense unless we assume, which we can’t, that both revolution and counter-revolution recognise each other’s right to fight the war.
Geras concedes that exigencies may override general considerations of right and wrong. He thereby concedes the whole case against his project of an “all but absolute” set of rules. He saves the project only by insisting on calling things that he concedes have to be done in revolutionary exigencies nevertheless “wrong”, not “right”. Caesar never does wrong except with just cause and in morally specific exigencies...
Geras insists that Trotsky made a great moral mistake by identifying the morality of revolution with the morality of war and eliminating all overriding “ethics of revolution”.
“To apply different criteria to the actions of the exploiters and the exploited signifies, according to these pitiful mannequins, standing on the level of the ‘morals of the Kaffirs’ [East Africans and black South Africans]. First of all such a contemptuous reference to the Kaffirs is hardly proper from the pen of ‘socialists’.
“Are the morals of the Kaffirs really so bad? Here is what the Encyclopedia Britannica says upon the subject:
“‘In their social and political relations they display great tact and intelligence; they are remarkably brave, warlike, and hospitable, and were honest and truthful until through contact with the whites they became suspicious, revengeful and thievish, besides acquiring most European vices’.
“It is impossible not to arrive at the conclusion that white missionaries, preachers of eternal morals, participated in the corruption of the Kaffirs.
“If we should tell the toiler-Kaffir how the workers arose in a part of our planet and caught their exploiters unawares, he would be very pleased. On the other hand, he would be chagrined to discover that the oppressors had succeeded in deceiving the oppressed.
“A Kaffir who has not been demoralized by missionaries to the marrow of his bones will never apply one and the same abstract moral norms to the oppressors and the oppressed. Yet he will easily comprehend an explanation that it is the function of these abstract norms to prevent the oppressed from arising against their oppressors”.
There is a war morality. The crux of revolution is a military clash.
The ethical rules for revolutionaries which Geras wants can’t be defined in advance for all situations, let alone as rules covering all revolutions (working-class, nationalist, Stalinist, etc.). Who can define in advance when suffering “could have been spared”? The decisions have to be made on the hoof, and with a serious risk of mistakes, or of overdoing an action involving violence for fear that less would be not enough. If you want a picket line strong enough that the police will not be able to break it, you cannot calculate the exact minimum amount of force that will be necessary to a nicety beforehand. You are guided by the rule: prepare for the worst eventuality.
British miners’ strike of 1984-5
Some of the same issues come up even in cases of intense class struggle well short of revolution or civil war. Take the example of the British miners’ strike of 1984-5.
Labour movements have helped civilise advanced bourgeois societies. But it has not been in our power to civilise the ruling class in their relations with us at points of high social tension. In Britain we live in a society which was — in your political lifetime, Alan — brutally reshaped by a government which had no morality in common with the working class and whose leader Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that openly, in her own way.
When she entered Downing Street after her first election victory in 1979, her speechwriters had her quote St Francis, the pantheistic and communistic 12th century Italian monk. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope”. In fact she brought bitter and brutal hypocrisy-clad class war.
Years before Thatcher came to office in 1979, the ruling class and their politicians had worked out strategies to defeat the miners in a strike and to destroy trade-union power in general. The Tories used the state mercilessly. “Jacobin-fashion”, as we said then. They used it against a big part of their own people, whom Thatcher called, with appropriate civil-war imagery, the enemy within. If the law, bourgeois law, can be taken to embody some moral code, social agreement, etc., then it broke down. The Tory government ignored the law when it was convenient, and the police illegally stopped movement in and out of mining villages. For us, Thatcher, the Tories, and the police were the enemy within. We had a political, and therefore a moral, right and duty to defeat them.
A devastating world economic slump came soon after the Tories took power in 1979. They used it to undermine the conditions of the working class and drive workers out of the factories.
Workers acting in solidarity with other workers is the core of trade unionism and the main tool of effective trade unionism. As has been said, it is a very high moral value. The Tories outlawed it. That is, they used the state to pinion the workers whose conditions of life they were devastating in legal fetters. The whole labour movement was faced with the choice of fighting our “enemy within”, which was trying to cripple us, or surrendering. At the start of Thatcher’s rule, workers were strong enough to resist, and perhaps could have won, if the labour movement had mobilised and used its strength.
The Labour leaders didn’t resist, partly from fear that the ruling class would break all the established moral, political and social rules and make a military coup — that is, that sections of the state might tear up the existing rules of political life. 
The Tories made social war. At the time we argued — you too, Alan — that the labour movement should fight back using every position of strength it had, including its positions in local government. If the struggle escalated, the labour movement should face its responsibilities. We argued in Socialist Organiser that a system that allowed Thatcher to stay in power and do irreparable damage was not democratic. We argued for annual Parliaments. We argued for expanding and extending democracy. We repeated Trotsky’s arguments in his Action Program for France (1934):
“As long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie...
“A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers’ power”.
We even invoked the USA’s constitutionally-enshrined right to revolt against tyranny! (See our book Democracy, Direct Action, and Socialism).
In 1984 the miners, who had been in the Tories’ sights from the beginning, began an all-out fightback. And they were subjected to every blow the government could devise. The bourgeois press howled against the miners and the left. Violence is not permitted, they shouted, not counting the extreme violence against the miners of police, and police convoys, and police garrisoning of pit villages.
The Battle of Orgreave was perhaps the turning point. Miners confronted baton-wielding and some mounted police in a pitched battle which the miners lost. At least 50 miners were seriously injured, and dozens were arrested on charges bearing heavy sentences.
Seven years later the courts awarded payments in compensation to 35 miners for injuries they received at Orgreave. That made no difference to the outcome back in 1984 and in all the years after. The brute force of the state had crushed the workers’ resistance.
Where was right and wrong in that situation? The tragedy was that the miners and the rest of the working class were not able to muster enough force to defeat the Tories and the police. That we could not deploy enough effective violence. The miners would have been justified in using more or less any means to defend themselves. Wouldn’t they?
In November 1984 a taxi driver, David Wilkie, was killed by two miners dropping a concrete block onto his taxi from a bridge as he drove a scab miner to work. Wilkie did that because he had an ideological commitment to defeating the miners.
A moral question arose there. It exercised me at the time. Aside from whether attacking the taxi was advisable there and then, was it right or wrong in principle? Did the striking miners have the right to resort to lethal violence?
Suppose the desperate miners had resorted to other such lethal tactics, as had not infrequently happened in US labour history, where strikes have often become small civil wars? If that had happened, would we get out a moral calculator and do a sum to prove that such tactics were wrong, were not “British”, and therefore, in our august judgement, were unjustified, and could not be used for moral reasons. We wouldn’t, and, to speak of what I can be certain of, I wouldn’t, even though the November 1984 incident exercised me.
“From behind their massed ranks of heavily-equipped police, the Tories have turned up the volume of their hypocritical denunciations of violence... NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] representatives at all levels have described [Wilkie’s] death as a tragedy...
“But let’s put David Wilkie’s death into context. Five strikers have died on the picket lines. Hundreds are in hospital, many with very severe injuries. The Tories chose open class war… decided to use whatever force was necessary to get even a single scab miner into the pits.
“According to his mother… Wilkie was politically committed to the scabs. He volunteered for the runs through the picket line.
“The Tories opted for full-scale class warfare. They opted for violence. They have no right to use the casualties to boost their cause. As British industry decays, the padding is being stripped off the class struggle. The Tories are shifting Britain towards... violent class battles — and at the same time trying to appeal to the abandoned traditions of relative social peace as a weapon against the miners.
“The miners, and the rest of the working class, have no choice but to fight back on the terms that the Tories have set. Margaret Thatcher has said that the Tory government will introduce ‘any measures necessary’ to strengthen the police... The working class must resist by any means necessary. Our resistance has to be organised, disciplined, and well-considered. But we cannot and should not be intimidated by the Tories’ attempted moral blackmail”. (Socialist Organiser 208, 5 December 1984).
Children: 1913 and 1918
Are there then no absolute moral rules?Take the matter of children.
In the morality of civilised grown-ups, any violence, bullying, guilting, lying to, punitive exactions on, or sarcastic, mocking, diminishing treatment of children and adolescents, the weakest in the family or in any collective in society, is reprehensible. It is wrong. This is, I think, one of the nearest things to an absolute moral rule. On the level of personal behaviour, I would say that it is absolute.
Socialists, where they have some control over conditions, try to help children (their own and others) grow up as reasoning, sharing, empathising, altruistic, non-vindictive, unselfish human beings. One of the glories of labour movement history in my opinion is that the newspaper of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, when the union was rousing workers ground down by terrible conditions of housing and work or not-work, and the bosses were fighting a war on labour and “Larkinism”, carried an article urging the proper treatment of children: “Are You Making Slaves?”
Yet the ITGWU, the Larkinites, the Connollyites, played a part in inflicting very great suffering on the often shoeless and generally deprived working-class children of Dublin when it took on the employers who wanted to smash the union, and fought to win the “Labour War” of 1913-14.
The ability to starve working-class children was always at that time a weapon in the hands of the employers. The union members had to watch their children hunger and starve.
Donagh MacDonagh’s great Ballad of James Larkin puts it well:
“Eight months we fought and eight months we starved; we stood by Larkin through thick and thin
“But foodless homes and the crying of children, they broke our hearts, we could not win”.
To fight, the workers had to inflict that, and see that inflicted, on their children.
When an attempt was made to do what had been done in some American strikes and move the children to live with sympathisers outside the war zone, a great sectarian agitation was raised by the priests, in full cry against the union, backed by the Catholic Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, then very powerful. The workers had no choice but to fight, but the children’s suffering probably did break the spirit of some of them, and no doubt sapped the spirit of all of them to some degree.
If you want to translate it into morality, it is that what they fought for was, if they could win, going to be of great benefit to the children, both as children and later as workers. Knowing that did not make the hunger and the “crying of children” easier to bear.
The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, was a bloody tyrant, and as a human being seemingly had some dimensions missing. But he loved his children. He loved his little haemophiliac son and heir.
The Bolsheviks in July 1918 took a decision — Trotsky says Vladimir Lenin and Yakov Sverdlov decided — to kill that entire family, including the blameless children. A terrible, terrible thing.
They fell victim to the laws of dynastic succession. The Tsar is dead? Long live the little Tsar or Tsarina!
The Bolsheviks thought there was a substantial risk of the children falling into the hands of counter-revolutionaries and becoming a great strengthening for them. That would have cost the lives of unknowable numbers of workers and workers’ children. 
Was it moral or immoral to deprive the counter-revolution of a rallying centre by killing the Tsar’s children?
An answer can be made only according to calculations about the actual or likely victims of counter-revolution in the civil war. People living more or less calmly, as we do, Alan Johnson and I, would find it very difficult to make such a decision. I’m not sure I would ever have sufficient strength and sense of responsibility to make it. I think, however, that the Bolsheviks had the right to make that decision and to carry it out.
The decision the Bolsheviks took was horrible and terrible, but I would not second-guess them, because in the last reckoning I am on their side. Of course historians have a right and duty to portray accurately, analyse honestly, and arrive at a sober retrospective judgement; but I believe they were right to fight the civil war, and in their situation the Bolsheviks probably knew better than Alan Johnson or I can today.
Were such things a matter of the Bolsheviks having a morality which said that anything could go if it served? Here I think translating politics into morality produces a large area of confusion.
Anything goes? Were the Bolsheviks, fighting a war in desperate conditions, bound by moral rules which would protect the Tsar’s guiltless children?
Given their assessment of the situation and the alternatives, should the Bolsheviks have let a general moral rule not to mistreat (let alone deliberately kill) guiltless young people and children outweigh the likely consequences if the Tsar’s children were to fall into the hands of the counter-revolution? It was a horrible choice. But the moral choice just to let it happen — if the counter-revolution gets to use the Tsar’s children as a rallying-point, then so be it — that choice, apart from being uncharacteristic of the Bolsheviks’ general cast of mind, would be not moral but immoral.
I repeat: the moral truth is always concrete.
Part 2: The Bolsheviks and Lenin
I do not have space to reply to all the points which Alan Johnson claims justify Ernest Erber and tell against the Bolsheviks and Max Shachtman’s defence of them.
I deal here only with the way in which, I believe, Alan Johnson misrepresents Lenin. For the rest, I would refer back to Shachtman’s book, which I do not believe Alan answers adequately, and to my own introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1.
The Bolsheviks had the democratic majority, as testified by the votes in the Soviet Congress which opened on 25 October 1917 and even more by the votes at the next Congress in January 1918. The Bolsheviks were soon joined in a coalition government by the Left SRs, by then the main peasant party.
On the facts, there is no question but that democratic right lay with them. They acted in accord with the will of the people, for example by legalising land seizures.
Alan Johnson quotes a snippet from Lenin’s Can The Bolsheviks Retain State Power? (written in September 1917) to suggest that the Bolsheviks intended to replace the rule-by-force of 130,000 landowners by similar rule-by-force of 240,000 Bolsheviks, only with the assurance that the Bolsheviks’ despotism would be in the interests of the poor.
“Russia was ruled by 130,000 landowners. They ruled by means of constant force over 150 million people … And yet we are told that Russia will not be able to be governed by 240,000 members of the Bolshevik Party – governing in the interests of the poor and against the rich”.
The slanted quote misrepresents Lenin’s argument. The sentences cited are a response to the objection: “The proletariat, we are told, will not be able to set the state apparatus in motion”. In other words, to the objection that, whatever the defects of the old ruling class, it knew how to administer public affairs, and no working-class alternative had that competence.
Straight after the sentences cited, Lenin argued that with the Bolsheviks’ wider support “we... already have a ‘state apparatus’ of one million people devoted to the socialist state for the sake of high ideals and not for the sake of a fat sum received on the 20th of every month”.
“In addition to that”, Lenin continued, “we have a ‘magic way’ to enlarge our state apparatus tenfold at once, at one stroke, a way which no capitalist state ever possessed or could possess. This magic way is to draw the working people, to draw the poor, into the daily work of state administration”.
“We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled labourer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration”. But millions could, and millions more could learn quickly. “Is there any way other than practice by which the people can learn to govern themselves and to avoid mistakes? Is there any way other than by proceeding immediately to genuine self-government by the people?”
Lenin’s argument was that the 240,000 Bolsheviks could lead and inspire the creation of “genuine self-government by the people”.
They made great strides towards that. Then civil war pushed them back. The Bolsheviks had to improvise an unwieldy state machine to feed and supply the Red Army and the cities during the civil war. Many of the best worker activists went to fight with the Red Army. Many died. For administration, the Bolsheviks had to call on those of the old officials who were willing to serve.
Four and half years later, in one of his last speeches before a series of strokes disabled him, Lenin ruefully but mercilessly assessed the retreats forced by the civil war in terms reminiscent of what Alan Johnson quotes:
“Obviously, what is lacking is culture among the stratum of the Communists who perform administrative functions. If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom?
“I doubt very much whether it can truthfully be said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed.
“Some thing analogous happened here to what we were told in our history lessons when we were children: sometimes...the vanquished version imposes its culture upon the conqueror”.
Falsifying the picture
Alan Johnson falsifies the picture of the Bolsheviks, what they thought, what they intended, what they did.
His way of quoting radically misrepresent what Lenin wrote. He seems to have had recourse to the Golden Treasury of Patented All-Purpose Quotes and “Quotes” Against Lenin for the Busy Anti-Bolshevik Polemicist.
Alan seems to cull the quotation from Can The Bolsheviks Retain State Power? as if it proves that Lenin conceived of the active revolutionary force as the 240,000 Bolsheviks alone. He suggests that Lenin was counterposing the Bolsheviks to the Soviets, to the workers, to the unions, as the only living force. As an account of what Lenin did in the revolution, this is grossly misleading, even if the first person misled is Alan himself.
Lenin was not advocating the rule of the Bolsheviks as a party constituting itself as the state power, ruling in the same way that Russia’s landowner caste had monopolised positions of command and decision. He was advocating, and he would continue to advocate, Soviet democracy, Soviet rule. Within the democracy the Bolsheviks would play a central role, educating, clarifying, leading, taking the initiative — that is, they would act as a political party.
To present the curtailed quotation as Lenin’s program for Bolshevik-only rule, one that was then carried out by unrestricted terror, is not honest or serious.
Full-scale Russian civil war erupted in mid-1918. It would last for two and a half years. The civil war grew out of a variety of ruling-class and especially militarist opposition to the workers’ revolution. Those who launched civil war against the Bolsheviks opportunistically seized on the Constituent Assembly, dissolved with little stir in January 1918; yet they never won the majority of the peasants, let alone the workers.
The Reds successfully contested with the “Whites” for the allegiance of the peasants in the countryside. They built their apparatus of state in competition with a wide variety of political and military enemies, amidst economic collapse and crushing poverty, and within a culture shot through with violence and death after the years of World War. They could not have prevailed unless they had, in part by demonstrating their indomitable will to win, gained and kept the allegiance of a very large part of the peasants as well as of the workers.
In early 1919, for example, when the civil war was going badly for the Reds, Trotsky succeeded in winning over a crowd of 15,000 Red Army deserters gathered in Riazan (south-west of Moscow), tired of war, sick of conflict, wanting to go home. “I climbed on a table there in the yard, and spoke to them for about an hour and a half. It was a most responsive audience. I tried to raise them in their own eyes; concluding, I asked them to lift their hands in token of their loyalty to the revolution”. And they did.
Looking back at the revolution through an opaque lens smeared with the blood and filth of the Stalinist regime, later commentators have imagined a tyrannical and bureaucratic “Stalinist” state machine inexorably working its tank-like power against the people in a drive to create a totalitarian state. Later in the century, Stalinist armies and parties calling themselves “communist” would do that, taking power as already-mighty military-bureaucratic machines, in Yugoslavia and China for example.
That is not what happened in Russia! To see the civil war that way is to read backwards into past history things that did not and could not exist then; it is to mix up the pages of two different calendars, that of the workers’ revolution and that of the Stalinist counter-revolution.
The party that led the revolution was working-class, unruly, argumentative, and democratic. As late as 1918 its central administration had a staff of no more than a dozen, for a party with hundreds of thousands of members. Bolshevik party centralism did not produce the authoritarian state; it was the exigencies of civil war and invasion that made the Bolsheviks develop a strong centralised party machine in the same process that produced the authoritarian state.
In the first weeks after the decision of the Congress of Soviets in October 1917, the working-class soviets had scarcely any administrative or military machine at their disposal, and firmly controlled only the cities and the major towns. In July 1918 the Bolsheviks’ erstwhile partners in government, the Left SRs, killed the German ambassador in Moscow and attempted an armed uprising. They wanted to provoke renewed war with Germany in order to avoid peace on terms dictated from strength by the Kaiser.
In September 1918 the Right SRs staged an uprising. They shot and wounded Lenin, and killed other Bolshevik leaders.
In order to create the state that existed by 1921, at the end of the civil war, the soviets and their Bolshevik leaders had to win the leadership and support of the mass of the people, the peasantry, in a fierce, free competition of ideas, leadership and arms with their bourgeois-landlord opponents. These were led by Tsarist generals like Kolchak, Denikin, and Wrangel and supported by liberals and some of the anti-Bolshevik socialists. No fewer than 14 states intervened to subvert the workers’ republic. The workers and peasants chose soviet power, and fought to consolidate it against the bourgeoisie and the landlords.
If the urban soviets and the Bolshevik workers’ party had not first won the competition for the minds and assent of the rural people, they would never have won the armed contest with the White armies and their foreign allies. The Bolshevik-led Soviets would have been crushed and the workers massacred, as the workers of Paris were massacred in May 1871.
Lying “Condescension of Posterity”
There is here, for us, another question of morality: the morality of second-guessing the socialists who led the Russian Revolution.
They had a strict code of revolutionary morality, central to which was not giving in, not letting down the workers whom they led, and they acted in the situation they were in as they thought they had to deal with it. Is it moral to assume a moral superiority to them, as if from on high, and certainly from outside, or on the basis of a code derived from medieval Christian doctrine? In my opinion that is not moral.
With Alan Johnson’s quotation from Lenin about the dictatorship of the proletariat — “the scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more nor less than authority untrammelled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force” — there are the same sort of problems as with his quotation from Can The Bolsheviks Retain State Power?
The quotation is given as it if it were Lenin’s prospectus for 1917. In fact it is from a 1906 pamphlet, The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party, discussing the extent to which the Soviets in 1905 had been able to establish themselves as a revolutionary democratic power breaking through all the old laws and rules of the Tsarist order. Lenin quoted his own words from 1906 again in 1920, but in an article about convincing West European Communists about the slogan of “dictatorship of the proletariat”, not about the civil-war regime in Russia.
Moreover, the quotation is from when Lenin’s perspective for the Russian revolution was of a radical Jacobin bourgeois overturn, in which a revolutionary coalition government would — before eventually falling as the Jacobins had fallen in France — clear away all the old feudal rubbish and lay the basis for a wide bourgeois democracy.
In an 1905 article Lenin had cited Franz Mehring discussing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, edited by Marx in the revolution of 1848: “one of the reproaches levelled at this newspaper by bourgeois publications was that it had allegedly demanded ‘the immediate introduction of a dictatorship as the sole means of achieving democracy’.”
Marx in 1848, too, was advocating “dictatorial” measures by a Jacobin-type government to push through the broadest bourgeois democracy. Lenin further explained in the 1906 pamphlet:
“People are accustomed to see only a police authority and only a police dictatorship. The idea that there can be government without any police, or that dictatorship need not be a police dictatorship, seems strange to them.
“You say that millions need not resort to force against thousands? You are mistaken; and your mistake arises from the fact that you do not regard a phenomenon in its process of development. You forget that the new authority does not drop from the skies, but grows up, arises parallel with, and in opposition to the old authority, in struggle against it.
“Unless force is used against tyrants armed with the weapons and instruments of power, the people cannot be liberated from tyrants”.
Alan operates with a “bad Lenin” version of history. Malign ideas in Lenin’s head, his morality, shaped events. But does Alan mean to say that revolution in general is impossible?
Or that by misfortune the Russian revolution fell victim to this Lenin with his plans, set out in advance, to impose the rule of a small minority by unrestricted terror?
Part 3: Conclusion
The labour movement and socialism are at their best profoundly moral movements — the bearers of the highest morality which class society (the whole long pre-history of humankind, as Marx described the epochs of exploitation and oppression before socialism) is capable of generating.
In the nature of things, we do not and can not in periods of revolutionary war have an agreed common morality or rules of engagement with the ruling classes.
The medieval thinkers looked to God and to his one true, holy, and Apostolic church to be legislators and enforcers between rival aristocrats and rulers. But there is no God, and his one true, holy, and Apostolic church is now know to be and have been a fraternity of child rapists, sadists, and moral hypocrites.
We can only have a humanity-based morality. Even in class war (except perhaps in untypical limitation arrangements) and class civil war, we maintain our morality, even when it is expressed as out-and-out war against an enemy who must be overpowered.
In revolutions, especially, people have to act without knowing the full consequences of what they do, or sometimes even the general situation in which they are acting. What is right and wrong is defined by the exigencies of conflict, and by the revolutionaries’ necessarily political, provisional, and approximate judgement of “what can be spared” and what can’t.
For Marxists, socialism is not mainly a code for living within this system, either in peace or in war, but a militant, warlike code for fighting the class struggle at all its levels.
We must strive to win, and sometimes use “dragon” weapons against the dragons of the ruling class. To repeat, every drop of blood we shed avoidably will cry out against us.
And so will every defeat our side suffers because the socialists lack the moral backbone to fight seriously.
 That’s not the text which has come down to us, but a story told by Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson afterwards.
 For the attitude of the AWL’s predecessor Socialist Organiser, see appendix.
 It so happens that AWL and our predecessors have always concerned ourselves with morality, and more than once discussed it. See appendix.
 One of my uncles may have been involved.
 Geras was writing in 1988-9, before the collapse of the USSR and the East European Stalinist states. In Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity at the time), we were critical of some of the things done in South Africa by insurgents, necklacing for example.
 In 1980, Michael Carver, former Chief of Staff, revealed that in early 1974 “fairly senior officers” had talked about a coup. Labour Party leader Michael Foot was more or less explicit at the beginning of 1982 about what he feared: “Those self-styled revolutionaries who speak today too readily of the resort to illegal methods or to street battles... should at least train to become soldiers or policemen — to face the storm troopers”.
 And also of unknowable numbers of Jews (the worst anti-Jewish pogroms before Hitler were done by the Whites in Ukraine during the civil war).