Was the 1916 Rising a "Putsch"? Lenin, Radek, Trotsky.

Submitted by dalcassian on 14 December, 2009 - 6:43 Author: Sean Matgamnna

[This is part of a polemic about the Stalinist PDP led army coup in Afghanistan, in April 1978, with "J-J" (Jack Conrad/John Bridge/John Chamberlain) of the Weekly Worker Group "CPGB"). J-J was for many years a fervent supporter of the Russian invaders and their Afghan Stalinist tools in Afghanistan. "Engin" is a Turkish Stalinist whose views on the Afghan coup J-J followed.]

Like Engin, J-J "proves" that the Saur [April] coup was not a coup but a revolution by obliterating the distinction between a revolution and a coup.

Being a karaoke Leninist and not a Marxist, he rests on quotations and on an analogy derived from what Lenin wrote about the Dublin Rising of 1916. It is the same quote as Engin cites, except that J-J, unlike Engin, does not have the wit to trim it down before it jackknifes and cuts his political head off!

In a polemic defending, amongst other things, the Russian attempt to annex Afghanistan, Karaoke Jack calls Lenin to the microphone - and, not content to have Lenin speak about a putsch in the words cited by Engin above, has him defend the rights of small nations against the AWL!

Lenin, says J-J, "warned" "the Sean Matgamnas and Martin Thomases of his day, the leftist pedants and doctrinaires" against - against what? Against - he quotes Lenin - "treating the national movements of small nations with disdain". Indeed.

But it was we who defended Afghanistan against Russian annexation! You supported the Russian imperialist invaders and still, in retrospect, think you were right to support them!

The difference between Marxism and J-J's approach is strikingly obvious here. It is worth examining the issues in some detail. It will shed light on what happened in Afghanistan.

In fact, though ultimately Lenin was proved right, there was nothing self-evidently absurd in calling the Easter rising a putsch, immediately after its suppression.

Twelve hundred men and a few women, about one sixth of them members of the trade union militia, the Irish Citizen Army, seized the big buildings in the centre of Dublin, built barricades across streets and defended them, and, remaining in their static positions, held out for six days against the British Army, and the big guns of British gunboats on the river Liffey. Then they surrendered. Fifteen of the leaders were then court-martialed and shot.

During the week, some of the Dublin workers seized the chance to loot shops; the Dublin crowds spat at the insurgents as they were led through the streets by their captors.

Though Connolly was the Acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, there was no specifically working class action to back the insurgents; indeed on the eve of the rising Connolly had been hard put to it to stop the union executive hauling down the tricolour from above the Union's headquarters at Liberty Hall.

Outside of Dublin there were brief skirmishes between police and a few supporters of the Rising in Wexford and Galway, nothing else.

On the eve of the Rising there was sudden chaos because the secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which organised the rising had worked entirely as conspirators behind the scenes. Even the head of the nationalist militia, the Irish Volunteers, the great Gaelic scholar, Eoin MacNeill, only learned, by accident, at the last moment, of what was planned.

He called off the Easter Sunday manoeuvres that were to be a cover for an all-Ireland Rising.

He thus faced the leaders in Dublin with the choice of either ignominious collapse, or doing what they did the following day, when they turned out in Dublin to make what they knew was only going to be a defiant gesture, which would cost many of them their lives.

Now, it so happens that my feelings about the Rising, and about the insurgents, is the same as it was when as a very small boy I listened avidly to my mother's stories about the heroes Pearse and Connolly and Casement and Cathal Brugha. My opinion of the decision to rise in Dublin on Easter Monday is the same as it was when I wrote this assessment in Socialist Worker more than 30 years ago:

"At the eleventh hour the titular head of the Volunteers called off the Easter Sunday manoeuvres, which were planned as a cover for the rising. Faced with this catastrophe, expecting to be rounded up, believing that European peace was imminent and that, through their failure to act, Ireland would miss the chance of an independent voice at the coming peace conference, the leaders in Dublin had to make their choice.

"Connolly had already indicated what his choice would be in such a situation, in 1914. He had written: 'Even an unsuccessful attempt at socialist revolution by force of arms, following the paralysis of the economic life of militarism [by a general strike], would be less disastrous to the socialist cause than the act of socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers.'

"On Easter Sunday 1916 their choice lay between one kind of defeat or another. Either a defeat in battle, that might help rouse the forces for a new struggle. Or defeat without a fight, which would bring discouragement and demoralisation in its wake as so often before in Irish history. Connolly and Pearse decided to fight. They went out to try and start the fire Connolly had written of at the outbreak of the war. For a week they defended in arms the 32 County Irish Republic, one and indivisible, which they had proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916. Before they surrendered, Dublin was in ruins.

"They died before British Army firing squads, together with other leaders of the Rising, after summary Court Martial. Connolly, grievously wounded, was court-martialed in bed and shot propped up in a chair.

"They did indeed light the fire of revolt which Connolly had spoken of, but it was not to be controlled by men of their persuasion nor to lead to their goal." [Socialist Worker, London, Dec 1969]

Even so, I think, there was a great deal of the putsch about it. Lenin doesn't deny that.

He insists on seeing the Rising in the context of the long history of Irish nationalism and in the perspective of his own conviction that "social revolution is inconceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petit-bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious, proletarian and semi-proletarian masses, against landlord, church, monarchical, national and other oppression - to imagine that means repudiating social revolution" [Lenin: The Irish Rebellion of 1916, July, 1916].

Lenin's concern was to cite the 1916 rising as objective data in support of his belief that imperialism and the imperialist war would call forth movements for national liberation. Vindication of that view is what concerns Lenin in his polemics on the Easter Rising.

Karl Radek, together with such Bolsheviks as Nikolai Bukharin, Yuri Pyatakov and Evgenia Bosch opposed Lenin on this issue. Trotsky's policies on self-determination were identical with Lenin's.

The "left" Bolsheviks, whom Lenin called "Imperialist Economists", argued that democratic questions such as national self determination could have no meaning in the era of imperialism and world war. They were an important current. (Their views momentarily became Bolshevik policy just after the February Revolution. Had Lenin not defeated them then, the consequences for the proletarian revolution of the Bolsheviks having such a policy for the nations oppressed within the Tsar's "prison house of nations", would have been catastrophic.)

Lenin expects national revolts as a consequence of the inter-imperialist war and seizes on the 1916 rising with both hands as objective evidence. He was right, that the rising was and would be part of a developing chain of events. Thus it proved to be.

But in fact things might have turned out differently. When the British started to shoot the leaders of the rising there was a shift of sympathy towards them. Yet it was not alone the Rising that made for the decisive shift in Irish politics in the 32 months between April 1916 and the general election at the end of 1918, in which the old Home Rule party was all but annihilated. The second, republican, Sinn Fein (the first Sinn Fein had been monarchist), gained 73% of Irish seats in the Westminster Parliament (for 48% of the votes cast).

The decisive shift came from the attempt of the British government to impose conscription.

Without that the shift would probably have been much smaller. The Home Rule Party would probably have survived (it survived in the six counties until 1970, when its forces merged into the SDLP), Sinn Fein would have been much weaker.

It is one of the myths of the Stalinists that Lenin supported the 1916 rising. No he did not. It is clear from what he writes that his ardent sympathy is with them, but how he saw them is expressed in the passage above. There is no question that he endorsed their tactics. He never, then or later, commented on James Connolly's role in the rising.

The Comintern's 1920 theses on working class alliances with "revolutionary nationalists" in countries where such people existed, is both an endorsement and a severe implicit criticism of Connolly, who dissolved the Citizen Army into the National Army on the eve of the rising.

Lenin got it right about 1916 because it did, as he expected, prove to be part of a burgeoning movement.

And what has this got to do with Afghanistan and the Stalinists' Saur coup? Lenin was writing about 1,200 republicans and socialists, amateur soldiers, who pitted themselves in arms against the mightiest empire the world had ever known, in the second city of the imperial centre. As Lenin insists on pointing out, they were connected through common aspiration and common identity with a long tradition of mass Irish nationalism.

Their deed helped prepare the forces that seized the chance when the British tried to force conscription through.

And Afghanistan? It was a take-over of power by a section of the professional military forces. There was no mass support for what the PDPA, the political leadership of the officers who commanded the coup-making forces, wanted to do.

The coup-makers pitted themselves against the overwhelming majority of the Afghan peoples, attempting to conquer and subjugate them, using the methods of bloodiest class rule, and, soon, allied themselves with foreign invaders who conducted a war like the Nazis conducted against, say, the Yugoslavs or the Russians, and the French conducted in Algeria an - a war of colonial conquest by way of the mass murder of vast numbers of people.

The PDPA that did that had nothing in common with the Dublin insurgents! Nothing at all.

Having dealt with what J-J says about the 1916 Dublin Rising there are additional points to make and some points to expand. Remember J-J:

"Lenin's discussion of the 1916 Irish rebellion - under the military command of James Connolly but politically dominated by petty bourgeois romantic nationalists - is instructive here.

"The Sean Matgamnas and Martin Thomases of his day, the leftist pedants and doctrinaires, dismissed the rising as the swan song of Irish nationalism and nothing more than a 'putsch' - i.e., the German word for a coup [in fact, Emine Engin's word for a coup she wants to present as a revolution] which 'had not much social backing'."

But if he wants to use this analogy, shouldn't he try to establish in what way 1916 is comparable to Saur? He implies some sort of national liberation parallel. Does he want to do that? Is he so unwise? He is equating national liberation and such as Pearse and Connolly not with the real analogue in Afghanistan, the people fighting imperialist invaders, but with the Afghan Stalinists and later Quislings! Why? In order to equate those Lenin attacked as "left" doctrinaires and pedants opposed to national liberation struggles, for their own reasons, with those who opposed the Stalinist coup in Afghanistan both because it was Stalinist and because it was a coup, and who opposed the Russian invasion!

Vis-à-vis Afghanistan he can only talk of leftists, etc., from his old point of view, that a workers' revolution was not only possible but had happened. Without that he inescapably winds up conflating a rising for national liberation in Ireland with what he used to see as an attempt to make a "working class" revolution in one of the most backward places on earth, by coup-makers who had very little real support.

In fact, as we have seen, the 1916 Rising had very little social backing, even in Dublin - not even from the workers Connolly had led in his capacity of trade unionist. At the end of April 1916, as the British restored their 'order' in Dublin, the Rising looked very like a hopeless 'putsch'. What ultimately vindicated Lenin's assessment of 1916, was what happened afterwards. And that is what most clearly shows the difference between Ireland and Afghanistan. J-J is comparing incomparable things.

Lenin elsewhere said of 1916 that the "tragedy of the Irish" was "that they rose too soon", before conditions had ripened in the rest of Europe, and in isolation from similar things in other countries, and from the working class revolt against the war.

By the 1916 test, what happened afterwards, the analogy falls down entirely. The Afghan Stalinists were not the too-precipitate vanguard of a long-existing mass movement like pre-1916 Irish nationalism and which would subsequently erupt. As I argued in "Afghanistan", they were the disoriented heirs of the long tradition of elite would-be social engineering in Afghanistan.

J-J again: "Enraged, Lenin warned them against 'treating the national movements of small nations with disdain' (V I Lenin Collected Works Vol 22, Moscow 1977, p355).

"It was not only Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky who looked down their noses at the Dublin uprising, but representatives of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Lenin urged these comrades to open their eyes to the shocking 'accidental coincidence of opinion'."

Lenin's instinct was vindicated, as was the theoretical framework in which he saw the rising - that in the age of imperialism, there would be many nationalist risings against the colonial powers.

However, in terms of the facts of the rising and its immediate aftermath, there was good reason for Radek to take the view he did. As we have already seen, on the surface, the rising had much of the putsch and the fiasco about it.

What did those Lenin criticised have in common with the Imperialists? A certain judgment and a common dismissal. What do we have in common with them? Hostility to Stalinism; an assessment of facts about what actually happened in Afghanistan in April 1978 and after.

The idea that because the bourgeoisie, for whom the Stalinists were a rival empire and an aspirant to take their place as ruling class, have such an opinion automatically makes it wrong, or lines you up with them, is one you would expect J-J to have grown out of. But no: Lenin made such a point; ergo, a bit of magic-Lenin mantra can be culled and brandished by Karaoke Jack!.

In the case of those Lenin criticises, he was pointing out that their politics on questions of national liberation aligned them with the imperialists in relation to people and movements whom both Lenin and those he criticises agreed they should, in broad terms, support against their oppressors. Nothing like that exists for the AWL vis-à-vis Stalinism in Afghanistan, or in Russia (though plainly it does still, emotionally for J-J).

Everything in relation to 1916 depends on the fact that Lenin was right because he had both a better political instinct, "feel" for things, and also had the right theoretical framework, while the disciples of Rosa Luxemburg on the national question such as Karl Radek, and the newer, World War 1-linked, variant of her old politics held to by those Bolsheviks like Bukharin and Pyatakov and Bosch whom Lenin called "Imperialist Economists", had a wrong theoretical framework through which to view the Rising. Moreover, they lacked Lenin's "feel" and instinct.

Nothing analogous to post-Rising Ireland can be found in post-coup Afghanistan. It is a case of Karaoke Jack using his magic Lenin kit to substitute inappropriate bits of old texts for factual analysis of Afghanistan.

The reference to Trotsky is the same - a mix of culpable ignorance and repetition of an old Stalinist lie. On the theoretical issues in dispute between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg (and, later, Bukharin, Bosch and Pyatakov), Trotsky, before and after the 1903 Conference of the Russian Social Democratic party, when the Bolshevik-Menshevik split first emerged and where the national question was an issue, and in 1916, had the same position as Lenin. Far from turning up his nose, he passionately defended the insurgents in the Paris Russian paper, Nashe Slovo. He did that far more directly than Lenin did. His difference with Lenin was a difference of specific assessment.


There are additional points to make on the Afghan coup and the 1916 Dublin insurrection.

J-J was in the grip of Stalinist fantasies and duff substitutionist theories that led him to see the workers in power where co-thinkers and would-be understudies of the Russian ruling class had seized power, and the armies and airforce of that bureaucratic ruling class were trying to establish a savage and unbridled tyranny over the peoples of Afghanistan.

Now he has no coherent overview, not even the fantasy-addled Stalinist outlook he used to have.

J-J: "What of the term 'putsch' - or 'coup' to use French-English? For Lenin the term 'may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses'.

"The Irish national liberation movement did not come out of thin air. It had manifested itself in street fighting conducted by the petty bourgeoisie and a section of the working class after 'a long period' of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc.

"Hence for Lenin anyone who calls the Dublin uprising a 'putsch' is either a 'hardened reactionary' or a 'doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon'(ibid)."

In fact, as we have seen, the Rising had much of the putsch and of the comic opera revolution about it. Though it looked a great failure, Lenin saw it in the right perspective, and he was in that superior to those he criticised. But in 1916 it was still a matter of a view of the future. We see Lenin now as correct because of the verdict of subsequent events, whereas, the same test, the judgment of events, tells an opposite conclusion about Khalq.

Those who said what the AWL said on Afghanistan have been proved right! Jack Conrad is in retrospect in the opposite position to Lenin and others after 1916! But never mind: a little bit of Lenin text about something else entirely will work wonders!

"Lenin famously rounded upon his leftist doctrinaires as follows: 'To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outburst by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletariat and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by landowners, the church and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. - to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. …
Whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is' (ibid pp355-56)."

If he used "Lenin" like a Marxist and not like a Stalinist, he would examine the situation Lenin was dealing with, ask himself why and in what way Lenin had been proved right. He would then have asked himself what light all this shed on the facts of Afghanistan - having first established them, stripped of ideologising glosses - and what there was really in common, what there was that was different, and so on.

A Marxist would feel obliged to tell the reader concretely and exactly what light he thinks this sheds on the situation he is supposed to be dealing with, Afghanistan's Saur 'revolution' and its aftermath. J-J does not even try. The analogy, the bit of magic Lenin text is substituted for a concrete analysis of Afghanistan - and of Ireland. This is the pure stuff of Stalinist pseudo-Leninist dogmatics!

J-J is too busy caroling karaoke "Leninism" to notice that what Lenin is saying, applied to the real situation in Afghanistan, indicts his own support for Russian Imperial conquest of Afghanistan! That it justifies us and indicts himself !

"There will be localised general strikes and risings, army mutinies, premature and isolated revolutionary movements etc."

Pointedly here, what J-J thinks Lenin had in mind, and what Lenin assuredly did have in mind, are things that are radically different from anything that happened in Afghanistan.

Not "strikes" or popular uprisings or rank and file mutinies in the armed forces, but a military coup by segments of an army and airforce divided not horizontally but vertically, segments of hierarchically organised conventional military force against similar segments on the other side.

"Premature and isolated revolutionary movements"? A premature and rather isolated attempt by a tiny Stalinist party to make a Stalinist revolution by way of an army coup, yes. Entirely "premature" in terms of the level of Afghan society, yes. But he is attempting to suggest that people of our politics should have the same attitude to the PDPA coup as to a working class or plebeian movement for goals we endorse or in response to provocations concerning which we are entirely on the side of those acting "prematurely".

It has no parallel in the April 1978 coup by people who thereafter confronted most of the people of Afghanistan with state-organised, airborne terror that aimed to impose on them the rule of an aspirant new bureaucratic ruling class, modelled on that of Russia.

One may as a human being, if not as a politician, sympathise with the people of the Afghan PDPA caught up in terrible contradictions, and with some of their aspirations. One may see many of the rank and file Stalinists as not villains who clearly understood what they were doing, but people caught up in a tragedy. People who in different circumstances would have found their way to our banner.

But that is not at all the same thing as our attitude to a "premature" working class uprising, or a peasant uprising, even in Afghanistan. We are not here discussing some Kabul Commune, or some Afghan equivalent of the 16th-century German communist Anabaptists, who rose in Münster led by Thomas Münzer, or even an equivalent of the Canton Commune of December 1927.

In Canton, the CPC staged a rising that was seriously misconceived. They acted at the command of Stalinist bureaucrats trying to save face on the bloody fiasco to which they had led the Chinese working class earlier that year. They had the rising staged so that they could pretend that the tide had not turned against the workers, that Chang Kai Shek's counter-revolution had not occurred. Even so, we were unequivocally on their side.

Trotsky, who did not ignore the bureaucratic commandism that had triggered the rising, pointed out that what actually happened was a real proletarian uprising, which, in its own tragic way, showed what could have been done by the CCP with better policies.

Saur was a military coup. It differed from other coups in the political leadership exercised in it by the PDPA, but, in its modus operandi, its relationship with the working class, with the peasants, and in its relationship to society as a whole, it differed not at all from other military coups in which officers are the decisive protagonists.


Jack Conrad, before he lost the thread, and started talking about the rights of small nations, went to Lenin - following Emine Engin - to cull a definition of a coup.

After Engin, Jack Conrad cites Lenin, discussing the 1916 Irish Rising, insisting that the term "putsch" "may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses".

But, like Emine Engin, J-J too needs to twist Lenin a little out of shape here. J-J:

"What of the term 'putsch' - or coup, to use French-English?"

Lenin responded to Karl Radek's description of the Rising as a "putsch"; he did not call it a "coup". Neither in English nor in political usage, especially Marxist political usage, are putsch and coup the same thing.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a coup (d'état) as "violent or illegal change in government", and a putsch as an "attempt at a political revolution". The one is an unsuccessful attempt, the other a successful blow that changes the government.

And that is exactly how Lenin uses "putsch" - not an unsuccessful attempt, defeat and failure, per se, but such an event shown by the revelation of experience to have concerned only "a circle" of "conspirators or stupid maniacs".

Master singer Lenin refuses to perform as Karaoke Jack expects him to!

Indeed, as in a good court room drama, J-J's attempt to twist his words, substituting "coup" for "putsch" serves only to bring the truth more sharply into focus. What J-J is trying to do is use Lenin to define the idea of a coup d'état out of existence. Why? In order to avoid facing the fact that "Great Saur", despite having aspects that were unique, was precisely, a coup d'état.

Only if it is a circle of conspirators is it a putsch: if it succeeds, this is by definition not the case. Ergo, it wasn't a putsch

Like Emine Engin, in whose tracks he follows uncritically, by conflating the two, J-J eliminates the concept of coup, conflating it with putsch.

The April '78 coup had some popular support, and therefore it was not a coup!

But which military coup has ever entirely lacked outside civilian support and sympathy?

The armed forces officers do not exist in a social vacuum. They reflect sections of the ruling class, and even of lower social layers (And only the commissioned officer sergeants made the revolution in Cuba in the 1930s and in Ghana in the 1980s, for example).

The politicised officers are concerned with social problems, and with the social crises, maybe a succession of them, over a long time, that creates the conditions, including their own thinking, for their assumption of power.

It was a characteristic of many "third world" coups - and even of the "Octobrist" movement in Russia as far back as the mid 1820s - that the officers wanted to modernise the country - and of Afghanistan too, but with the difference that the officers who made the 1978 coup - yes, under the political leadership of the PDPA - took Stalinist Russia as their model of development and the Afghan Stalinists, the local agents of the Kremlin, as their mentors.

What makes military seizures of power, with varying degrees of civilian support, coups, is precisely that the agency of the "revolution" is the armed forces, and in terms of deciding, a very small number of them, at the top of command-regulated military hierarchies.

Was Chile, 11 September 1973, a coup? It had mass middle class support. Yet it was a coup: the agency was the officer corps, using their military machine; and it was they who held power afterwards.

That is the defining thing. The many variations in civilian support, in the social and political aetiology of the coup, in its possibly revolutionising impact on society - these are all, for what we are talking about, secondary. Not unimportant or without consequence - secondary.

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