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Polemics

‘‘A Small Lesson in Marxism’’

Paresh Chattopadhyay

[The following piece was penned by the author in response to Saroj Giri’s article ‘‘Will Ambani have the last laugh’’ published in Sanhati (17-02-2014). In truth it was a rejoinder to Giri’s advice to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that it needs ‘‘A Small Lesson in Marxism’’.]

The author affirms—of course approvingly—"Lenin by-passed the elected Constituent Assembly (CA for short] in favour of the organs of working class power (the Soviets), this being one of the decisive moments of the Russian Revolution. This is the lesson of the Marxist theory of the state. Marxism teaches us that capitalist democracy is mostly the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." Most regretably the essay is informed by misinformation.

As regards the first point, Lenin bypassed not only the CA election—which almost all serious historians consider as the first and the last free, unhindered, election of the Russian people -but also ALL elections where people would have absolute freedom to choose their representatives. In other words, there never was any such election during almost the whole existence of the post-1917 regime. Roy Medvedev, a Lenin sympathiser (whose father was liquidated by Stalin regime) wrote that "Lenin frequently said that for the victory of the socialist revolution the Bolsheviks did not have to wait for an arithmetic majority. Victory was possible for the existing forces, and it would be criminal to let opportunity slip by when a reliable and energetic minority was willing to follow the Bolsheviks" (The October Revolution, 1979, p l45. Emphasis added). This negative attitude to elective principle is seen in action when one sees how what Lenin had solemnly promised before the seizure of power, that is, following the 1871 Paris Commune, free election and recall of all post holders of the regime, was totally belied. The possible excuse of civil war will not do. By the end of 1920, civil war was over, and Lenin would still be alive and kicking for at least another couple of years. In fact the Bolsheviks did not want any free choice of the people. Deutscher (no Rightist) writes referring to the years 1921-22, "For the first time since 1917, the bulk of the working class, not to speak of the peasantry, unmistakeably turned against the Bolsheviks... If the Bolsheviks had now permitted free elections to the Soviets, they certainly would have been swept from power". (in The Prophet Armed, Trotsky : 1979-1921, 1963, p 504). This negative attitude to elective principle was evident in action from the start of the regime even before the civil war broke out. Instead of all officers being elected and subject to recall, the body of appointed officials, organically linked with central establishments and hierarchically organized from top downwards—responsible only to their superiors in rank—increased in gigantic stride. Similarly there arose the secret police, the dreaded Cheka, only five weeks after the seizure of power, growing to over a quarter million by 1921. In deed, Lenin's denunciation of bureaucracy during his last days sounds absolutely hollow, if not absolutely dishonest (he himself having presided over this growth of what he called 'cancer").

Let us return to the CA. (in the following we draw on the authoritative J Bunyan and H Fisher book The Bolshevik Revolution : Documents and Materials, 1934). This was an institution for which The Russian people had fought and died over a hundred year period in their struggle for freedom from the monarchical and feudal-ecclesiastical regime. All the different sections of the population were involved in this struggle for a national democratic parliament. The Bolsheviks had claimed that the Provisional Government was not capable of calling the CA, and that only they could call it. When after CA was finally called on Januaiy 5, 1918, it appeared that the Bolsheviks had a little less than a quarter of the total number of the elected representatives. It was dissolved by the new government by a decree of the Soviet of People's Commissars, the next day on spurious grounds. On the day the CA opened, there a was a popular, entirely peaceful, demonstration in honour of the opening of the Assembly. As they approached the Traurida palace with the slogan "All power to the Constituent Assembly", armed soldiers and red guards appeared and demanded the crowd to disperse. When no attention was paid to the order, volleys of fire met them. Several were killed and injured. The Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries left the Assembly accusing the opponents of setting up the Assembly against the Soviets, and thus acting as counter-revolutionaries. Only two Bolsheviks-Lozovsky and the great Marx scholar David Riazanov, to their honour, voted against the withdrawal of the Party from the Assembly. A few days later Maxim Gorky in his organ New Life came out with a comparison of this bloody business of the Bolsheviks with the shooting of unarmed people by the Tsarist soldiers on January 9, 1905. He wrote, "Members of the intelligentsia and labourers rushed up to the soldiers shouting 'what are you doing? Whom are you killing? They are your brothers;and they are without arms. They are merely petitioning. Think what you are doing, you idiots! The reply of the soldiers was : We have orders. We do not know anything'. On January 5, 1918, the unarmed Petersberg democracy, workers and employees came out to celebrate the honour of Constituent Assembly. For nearly a century the best of of the Russians have dreamed of this day. The People's Commissars have given orders to shoot. The Pravda lies when it says these democrats were the bourgeoisie and Bankers... Just as on January 9, 1905, so on January 5, 1918, there are people who ask those who fired : 'idiots, what are you doing? These are your own brothers. Can't you see the red banners?. Now, just as then, the soldiers reply we have orders to shoot'.

As to the author's second part of this bypassing business: Lenin bypassed CA election "in favour of the organs of working class power". This is a pure fiction. As a matter of fact, exactly the opposite is the truth. To illustrate this, a little recall of the background might be helpful. In October, 1917, the fate of over 170 million people was decided by a handful of non-proletarian, radicalised intelligentsia, far removed from the real process of material production and exploitation and not subject to free election and recall by the labouring people, and not responsible to anybody outside the Party. There is no evidence that the working class had either initiated or led the act of seizure of power. The workers' role was simply to follow the 'leaders'. Through the substitution of a whole class by a single party, power was seized—under the slogan 'all power to the soviets'not from the Provisional Government but really from the Soviets themselves, the authentic organs of labouring people's self rule created, independently of any political party, by the immense, self-emancipatory, spontaneous popular uprising in February 1917. Contentwise a bourgeois democratic revolution in process, the February uprising, given its spontaneous mass character, had, it seems, the potential to go over, at a later phase-given appropriate material conditionsto an authentic socialist revolutionin Marx's sense-if the labouring masses had been allowed unfettered freedom to continue, through their self-administering organs, their march forward. The Bolsheviks, putting a brake on the process, destroyed this great possibilitythe greatest in the 20th century. This pre-emptive strike was perpetrated independently of and behind the back of the Congress of Soviets depriving, by this singular operation, the Congress of the right of maternity regarding the founding act of the new order.

The Bolsheviks had no mandate from the labouring people to bypass the Soviets, seize power and establish a single party rule. In fact, the monopoly of power by the Bolshevik party never crossed the minds of even the ordinary Bolshevik delegates to the Second Congress of the Soviets, which is shown by the recorded fact that when on the eve of the Congress the delegates were asked what type of government they wanted, almost all of them answered by asserting 'all power to the Soviets', that is, not to a single party, but to a coalition of all socialist parties excluding the Cadets (see the blow by blow account in Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, 2014). This seems to explain Lenin's determination not to take any risk for seizing power. Though as a majority party in the Second Congess of Soviets, the Bolsheviks could have gained power by normal process of democratic representation, as was desired by the democratic elements in the party, like Riazanov and the much maligned Kamenev among others, Lenin decided not to have recourse to this democratic method, because he was not sure about how his own party members would react. SG's assertion of Lenin being in favour of the workers' organs of power (the Soviets) is completely contradicted by Lenin's lack of faith in these Soviets, as seen, further, in his secret, confidential correspondence with his leadership comrades a short time before the meeting of the Second Congresss of the Soviets. Ridiculing those comrades who wanted to wait for the Congress to take place in order to begin the insurrection, Lenin wrote that it was "sheer idiocy because the Congress will give nothing and can give nothing. To wait for the Congress would be utter idiocy or complete treachery (polnaya izmena)".

In case the author's "Marxism" includes Marx himself, then one has to say that all this is foreign to Marx's "lessons" which the author wants to impart to the AAP. First, Marx nowhere speaks of a single party seizing power, even when it calls itself communist, and substituting for the proletariat in the name of proletarian revolution. As the 1848 Manifesto underlines, the proletarian movement is the "autonomous movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority", and the task of the proletarian revolution arising out of this movement is to raise the whole class of proletariat to the position of the ruling class. There is no question of substitution of a whole class by a single party. The celebrated historian E H Carr writes "Lenin described the attempt to distinguish between the dictatorship of the class and the dictatorship of the party as an 'unbelievable and inextricable confusion of thought". (The Bolshevik Revolution vol. 11964, pp. 231-32). And Marx's 1864 clarion call of workers' self-emancipation : "The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves" seems not to find any echo in Leninthe state comnunists always prefer the other sIogan: 'Proletarians of all countries unite', which means to them 'unite under the communist banner'. (Incidentally, in the standard English translation the term 'proletarian' of the original version was substituted by 'Workingmen', which appears to be rather sexist). Speaking of Lenin being in favour of the "organs of working class power", to use SG's phrase, it is precisely the Bolshevik seizure of these organs of working class power which signalled the radioactive decay of the Soviets as independent self-governing organs of power of the labouring people such that by the end of summer 1918 they ceased to exist for all practical purposes. The historian Robert Daniels writes, "all power to the Soviets appeared to be a reality on the 26th of October, 1917, but it was mostly the power to the Bolsheviks in those Soviets. The procedure of parliamentary responsibility lasted scarcely for six months. By July 1918 all parties but the communists were outlawed, and the locus of decision making shifted from the Soviets to the organization of the communist party. Through single-slate elections and communist party discipline the whole system of Soviets and executive committees was reduced to an administrative and propaganda auxiliary of the party" (Red October, 1967, New York, pp. 224-25).

"Marxism teaches us that capitalist democracy is mostly the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", so asserts the author. One could ask, was the Bolshevik party dictatorship, miscalled proletarian dictatorship, any kind of democracy at all? Let us get the answer from the horse's own mouth. In April, 1918, Lenin discovered that the Russian is a bad worker in comparison with the worker of the capitalist countries. Therefore, instead of collectively administering the affairs of the work place, through their own elected organs—a practice of which the Bolsheviks . earlier, were the foremost champions, but now denounced by them as "petty bourgeois spontaneity"—the masses, Lenin emphasized, must show the "unquestioning obedience to the single will of the leaders of the labour process" and must accept "unquestioning subordination during working time to one person decision of soviet directors, of soviet dictators, elected or nominated by soviet institutions " (emphasis added). A whole series of measures were adopted by the authorities to "discipline" labour: labour book, forced labour camps, piece wage, Taylor sytem (see Carr The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. II, 1963 : pp. l98-216). At the 9th party congress (1920), Lenin denounced "still surviving notorious democratism", and characterized the "outcry against appointees" as "pernicious trash (vrednyi khlam)". It seems one should forget what one has read in the 1848 Manifesto: the proletariat rising to the rank of the ruling class means the "conquest of democracy" which logically follows from the central proposition of the brochure, namely, "the proletarian movement is the autonomous movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority". This of course was certainly not the case in Russia in 1917. What was relevant to the Russian case is the opposite. This case is covered rather by what is expressed in the first part of the statement just cited: "till now all movements have been the movement of minorities or in the interest of minorities".

Let us now return to what we had left off on Lenin's alleged preference for the workers' self-governing organs, as opposed to the 'bourgeois' such as the CA.

The separation-alienation of the working people from the "workers' state" reached its limit in the movement against the 'workers' state by the politically most advanced section of Russia's working people in Kronstadt in 1921 (In the following we draw on A Wade (ed.) Documents of Soviet History, vol. 2, 1993; A Berkman, The Russian Tragedy 1976; R Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution 1960 : and the best researched work on the subject, by I Getzler. Kronstadt 1917-1921, 1983).

In continuation of the mass protests and the suppressive acts of the regime, strike proclamations now began to appear in the streets of Petrograd. One significant poster appeared on the walls of the city:
"Workers and peasants need freedom. They do not want to live by the decrees of the Bolsheviks, they want to control their own destinies.

Liberation of all arrested socialists and non partisan working people.

Abolition of martial law;freedom of press, speech and assembly for all who labour.

Free election of shop and factory committees, labour union and soviet representatives."

The regime replied to the demands of the strikers by making numerous arrests and suppressing several labour organisations. Petrograd was put under "extraordinary martial law".

The Kronstadt sailors were greatly disturbed by what they heard was happening in Petrograd. The crews of the Sevastopol and of the Petropavlovsk elected a fact-finding mission of thirty three sailors who on 27 February proceeded to Petrograd and made the round of some factories as well as some military units. From professor I Getzler's authoritative account one learns that the Kronstadt sailors found that the workers whom they addressed and questioned were too frightened to speak up in presence of communist factory guards, trade union officials, party committee men and Chekists. The Kronstadters finally found one dare-devil who taking his life in his hands said "Since you are from Kronstadt with which they frighten us all the time, and you want to know the truth here it is: we are starving. We have no shoes and no clothes. We are physically and morally terrorised. Each and every one of our requests and demands is met by authorities with terror, terror, endless terror. No, comrades, the time has come to tell the communists openly—you have spoken enough on our behalf. Down with your dictatorship which has landed us in this blind alley. Make way for non-party men. Long live freely elected Soviets! They alone can take us out of this mess!" On 28 February the delegation returned from Petrograd and reported to a general meeting of ships' crew who after a long discussion adopted a 15-point resolution embodying the Kronstadters' understanding of the crisis and their critique of the Bolshevik regime, surmounting the effort of the two communist leaders of the Kronstadt Soviet to block them. Far from the false characterization of these demands by the regime, the programme underlying the resolution appears to be extremely clear and the demands remarkably self-emancipatory—so foreign to the Bolsheviks. Some of the main points of the resolution were—(1) demand for new elections by secret ballot since the 'present Soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants', (2) freedom of speech and press for workers and peasants including anarchists and left socialist parties, (3) freedom of assembly for trade unions and peasant organizations, (4) freeing all political prisoners of socialist parties as well as workers, peasants, sailors and soldiers imprisoned for their involvement in popular mass movement. The next day at a mass meeting of about 15000 people, where the veteran central leader of the communist party Kalinin, together with two other party leaders were present, the 15-point resolution was moved and passed quasi-unanimously-the opposition coming only from a handful of communist party members. A considerable number of communists, on the other hand, voted for the resolution.

A delegation from Kronstadt was sent to Petrograd to inform the Petrograd workers about the resolution. But the delegates were arrested. Kronstadt responded by forming a Provisional Revolutionary Committee consisting entirely of ratings of worker or peasant origin. . Denying any legitimacy to these grievances the regime branded these Kronstadters-without a shred of evidence-as counter-revolutionaries led by the White generals and demanded the surrender of the Committee which was promptly refused. Quite logically the Party-State responded to the Kronstadters' demands with two ultimatums: one by Trotsky and the other by the Petrograd Defence Committee led by Zinoviev asking for unconditional surrender lacking which the insurgents would be 'shot like partridges'. On March 7 the assault by the 'red' army on Kronstadt began. The next day the insurgents replied with a moving appeal to the toiling masses of Russia:'What we are fighting for' emphasizing the need for a 'Third Revolution' with 'all power to the Soviets and not to parties', leaving behind 'the Constituent Assembly with its bourgeois regime and the dictatorship of the Communist Party with its secret police and its state capitalism'. 'Here in Kronstadt has been laid the first stone of the third revolution'. On March 18 the fortress was finally stormed by the 'red' army followed by massacre of numerous individuals like the young Anatolii Lamanov, the editor of the insurgents' Izvestiia and very probably the author of the slogan 'all power to Soviets and not to parties', being specially chosen for execution as a 'counter revolutionary' . It was essential for the Communist Party to suppress the idea of Kronstadt as a movement which defended the principles of October Revolution against the communists. The utter baselessness of the Bolsheviks' accusation of the Kronstadters as being agents of the Whites was confirmed by no less an authority than Lenin himself when he declared at the party's tenth congress that, ‘they do not want the White Guards and they do not want our power either’ (our emphasis). Completely misunderstanding the Kronstad-ters, Lenin thought, as mentioned by Getzler that 'the Kronstadt episode pointed to the need for the widest possible concession to the middle peasantry, notably local free trade in short the NEP. Getzler adds 'The Kronstadters' immediate and indignant protest of 14th March (that) Kronstadt does not demand 'free trade' but the genuine power of the Soviets, was certainly lost on Lenin. From Getzler one learns that the denunciation of Kronstadt continued unabated for months after its savage repression. The denunciation of Kronstadt became a test of loyalty, if not a party ritual. Even Alexandra Kollontai had boasted at the tenth Party Congress that it was members of her Workers' Opposition faction who had been the 'first' to volunteer 'for Kronstadt' and thus fulfil our duty in the name of communism and the international workers revolution'. ....If anything in the international communist movement not a single finger was lifted as a protest against the Kronstadt massacre. Getzler mentions the sole exception was the Dutch dissident communist Hermann Gorter who, to his honour, protested, saying that it was the 'proletariat of Kronstadt' which rose against the 'communist party'. Here is what arguably the most authoritative view-that of Professor Getzler, no anarchist : "It was in its commune-like self-government that Red Kronstadt really came into its own, realizing the radical, democratic and equalitarian aspirations of its garrison and working people. …Power and democracy were the fundamental questions which bedevilled Russia in the 1917 revolution. The Kronstadters' attempt to solve them produced a bustling, self-governing, and highly politicised Soviet democracy, the like of which had not been seen in Europe since the days of the Paris Commune" (our italics) (pp. 247, 248 of his book cited earlier).

This segment of the professor's long discourse is in fact about a "small lesson in Leninism". But this Leninism he calls "Marxism". If this last expression is intended to include Marx, following the conventional ('communist') wisdom, one is legitimately entitled to ask, why evoke Marx to justify these sordid acts of the Leninist Bolsheviks? Is this not like evoking the great Buddha and asking his blessings by the Japanese soldiers before embarking on their mission of mass massacre of the humans (as one reads jn Rabindranath's immortal poem)? Before seizing power, in April 1917, Lenin had declared Russia (at that time under 'bourgeois' rule) to be the freest country in the world. The irony of history is that the regime that followed the Bolshevik victory turned out to be one of the most repressive in the world, far worse than the bourgeois democracies. This Bolshevik dungeon was more sinister than the prison house of Pizarro in Beethoven's Fidelio without a Leonara to liberate the prisoners. The AAP is much better off being innocent of this 'Marxism'.

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 42, Apr 27 - May 3, 2014