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
“The October Revolution is an imperishable page in the history of the great movements of the masses to take their destiny into their own hands that began with the French Revolution.
“It was the second stage of the elemental upsurge of the Russian masses that began in February.
“The Kerensky regime had done its utmost to block its further advance by frustrating the efforts of the masses to end the war and divide the land. The regime sought to stretch out its undemocratic authority as long as possible by repeatedly postponing the elections of a Constituent Assembly. If the revolution was to advance, Kerensky had to go. Only the Bolshevik Party was able to show the way to the teeming, creative, democratic Soviets of 1917.
“The revolution broke through the impasse and opened a road toward a solution of the land and peace questions. Far from carrying out a coup d’état, as their opponents charged, the Bolsheviks rode to power on the crest of an upsurge that sought to realize the long-promised objectives of land and peace” — Ernest Erber, Statement of Resignation, Bulletin of the Workers Party 1949.
With the benefit of having read Ernest Erber’s statement of resignation and then Shachtman’s criticism of it, Alan Johnson’s reply, In defence of Ernest Erber (Solidarity 488), could have taken the opportunity to respond to some of Shachtman’s criticisms and hence move the discussion on rather than just decrying its “repulsive crude sarcasm”.
For instance, at one stage, discussing the meaning of Lenin’s theory of the state and its relation to the ideas of Marx and Engels, Shachtman wonders why Erber, who had called it “the textbook of the Leninist school”, doesn’t quote from Lenin’s State and Revolution (1917) to buttress his case.
“Shachtman’s claim that ‘Lenin’s theory is nothing but a restatement of what Marx and Engels taught’ is spectacularly, staggeringly wrong”, says Alan. But he tries to refute Shachtman’s contention not by rising to his challenge and quoting from the far more relevant and rounded and full treatment of the issue in Shachtman’s book, but by giving us an isolated quote from Lenin in 1906, “given as it if it were Lenin’s prospectus for 1917”.
The previous reference also deals with the epigraph given in Alan’s article. He uses it to show why the revolution ended in tyranny, and Erber uses it to prove that weeks before the October revolution Lenin had “the anti-democratic view of the party ruling on behalf of the masses”. The difficult thing then, of course, is to explain how to square that with this article’s epigraph, which also comes from Erber’s resignation letter.
The Bolshevik party in October both led the “democratic soviets” and ruled “on behalf of” the masses: surely a contradiction? The Russian Revolution did end in counter-revolution and tyranny, but that is not where it began. And the timescale isn’t “within months”, as Alan would have it, but years.
He is also wrong to say that Lenin was opposed to democracy. He uses some neat splicing of quotes and misquotes to make his case: Alan: “He [Erber] pointed out that far from being a mere ‘machine for the suppression of the working class’ as Lenin had it, representative democracy was an arena of struggle…”
Erber: “The bourgeois state was now stripped down to its real function as ‘nothing else but a machine for the suppression of the working class…’” Unless the bourgeois state is the only form of representative democracy, what about the “teeming, creative, democratic Soviets”? Alan’s splice has simply got this wrong.
Alan: “Lenin was completely wrong to claim that ‘The parliament can in no way serve as the arena of a struggle for reforms, for improving the lot of the working people’.”
Erber: “Lenin concluded: ‘The parliament at present can in no way serve as the arena of a struggle for reform, for improving the lot of the working people, as it was at certain periods of the preceding epoch. The centre of gravity of political life at present has been completely and finally transferred beyond the limits of the parliament’.”
Notice how Alan drops the time qualifier “at present”, and finishes the quote before getting to “as it was at certain periods of the preceding epoch”. Thus “proving” that Lenin was always opposed to fighting for reforms in parliament. And it gets worse. Lenin allegedly didn’t like voting at all …
Alan: “Lenin … denounced ‘all kinds of voting, democracy and suchlike bourgeois deceit’.”
Lenin: “There is and can be only one alternative: either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, disguised by constituent assemblies, all kinds of voting systems, democracy and similar bourgeois frauds that are used to blind fools, and that only people who have become utter renegades from Marxism and socialism all along the line can make play of today — or the dictatorship of the proletariat for suppressing with an iron hand the bourgeoisie, who are inciting the most backward elements against the finest leaders of the world proletariat”. (Report at the Second All-Russia Trade Union Congress, January 20, 1919).
Alan: Lenin … oppose[d] … the elective principle per se, the universal franchise, representative assemblies (i.e. elected parliaments and elected local councils), the rule of law, and the separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary.
Lenin: “Once again, we must say: the lessons of Marx, based on the study of the Commune, have been so completely forgotten that the present-day ‘Social-Democrat’ (i.e., present-day traitor to socialism) really cannot understand any criticism of parliamentarism other than anarchist or reactionary criticism. The way out of parliamentarism is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the elective principle, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops into ‘working’ bodies. ‘The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time’.”
("Abolition of Parliamentarism", The State and Revolution)
You really should have taken Shachtman’s advice to Erber, Alan.
There are lots more points to cover in Alan’s article, but in lieu of a proper treatment here are a few quick-fire replies and questions for further discussion Trotsky’s authoritarianism — a useful quality for a military commander? On Luxemburg and Trotsky’s predictions – “baseless nonsense … somewhat tarnished” (Lih, Lenin Rediscovered pp 529, 551). Were the non-Bolsheviks shot by the Bolsheviks the SRs that had killed Voldarsky and Uritisky? How much of an authoritarian travesty of socialism was the Bolsheviks’ effort to do without a standing army after October? The people killed by the Cheka before 6 July 1918 were common criminals (The Cheka, George Leggett, p.58). The Bolsheviks’ call for a Constituent Assembly in the months after April and before October was not hypocritical (John Marot, Lenin, Bolshevism, and Social-Democratic Political Theory: The 1905 and 1917 Soviets).
If the Bolsheviks were so opposed to parliamentarism, how do we account for Lenin and Trotsky’s efforts for the United Front at the Third Comintern congress in 1921? Erber did get one thing right, though. Commenting on the role of Bolshevism in the Russian Revolution he says: “It remains a vastly rich experience which no serious movement of social change can ignore, no matter how different the conditions under which it operates are from those of Russia”.