1917–2017 the February Revolution

1917 october revolution

Under the slogan ‘Power to the Soviets, Land to the Peasants, Peace to the Nations, Bread to the Starving’, the working class in Russia seized state power. In 2017 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of the most important struggle for socialism, peace, and progress in our history.

In the wake of October 1917, the newly-founded Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) aimed to banish exploitation from every sphere of social and economic life, to develop its industry and agriculture to provide for all its people, and to revolutionise political, cultural, and social institutions. As a result, the world was transformed. The example of seizing the control of a nation away from capitalists and imperialists inspired socialist revolutions across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas and the victorious proletarian revolution gave unstinting support to national liberation struggles in oppressed nations. This legacy lives on in socialist Cuba and in all those fighting oppression and imperialism.

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The Communist Manifesto - a world still to win

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 120 - August/September 1994

As part of an occasional series re-evaluating major works of communist literature, EDDIE ABRAHAMS and MAXINE WILLIAMS ask whether the Communist Manifesto still has relevance for today.

'A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism.'

These are the opening words of the most influential political pamphlet of all time - the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, it was published on the outbreak of the European-wide 1848 revolutions. It was not merely a pamphlet but the programme of a revolutionary class. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the Manifesto and the varied international attempts to put its ideas into practice enraged the wealthy ruling elite of every country. The Manifesto after all unashamedly declared:

' . . . you reproach us [Communists] with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.'

'You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of nine-tenths.'

An alternative vision of society - based on communality not competition - was propounded with fierce confidence. But it was not merely a vision; there have after all been many Utopias in history. For the first time the Manifesto offered a scientific analysis of historical progress and an agency for bringing about the emancipation of humanity. Capitalism itself produces a revolutionary class, a class with nothing to sell but its labour power. Its historical mission is to bring about socialism so that:

'In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.'

The struggle to put these ideas into action has proved harder than any-one could have predicted. The ruling class has often deliriously announced that it has finally vanquished this age-old enemy, sometimes by force, sometimes by claiming to have solved the problems associated with capitalism, usually by a combination of the two. Never have such calls been louder than since the collapse of the socialist countries in the 1980s. But despite 'the monotonous sound of the trumpet that indecently announces the perpetuity of liberalism and the end of utopias' (Tomas Barge) a reader can find much in the Manifesto as relevant today as in 1848.

Socialism or barbarism

Marx and Engels believed that the Manifesto was expressing the entrance onto the social stage of a new force, the working class, capable of liberating not just themselves but society as a whole. They were brimming with confidence that the bourgeoisie could be defeated: 'Its fall and the victory of the proletariat is inevitable.' But Marx and Engels did not believe that socialism was historically predetermined. The Manifesto warns of both the possibility of 'a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or . . . the common ruin of the contending classes.' Socialism or barbarism. Historical 'inevitability' was conditional on conscious human action. And the Manifesto's main aim was to rouse the working class to action, to highlight the objective course of capitalist development and chart the path to working class liberation. Thus the famous call 'The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!'

The emancipation of society can come only from the action of the exploited and oppressed. If they do not take the decisive steps or are defeated in the attempt, then capitalism continues its barbarous course. In 1848, no one could envisage quite how barbarous that course would be, a course which has brought humanity and this planet to the brink of catastrophe.

Profit is all

No late 20th century critic of capitalism can rival the burning passion of the Manifesto. The authors might well have been describing the selfishness, the contempt for human morality so striking in this neo-liberal age. Today, when barely an inch of the globe does not bear the hallmarks of capital there truly remains 'no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash-payment".' The bourgeoisie has ensured that all values, all morality, all honour is drowned 'in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value... ' The bourgeoisie 'has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into paid wage-labourers.' It has produced a culture which is 'for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine'.

If so in 1848, in capitalism's youth, how much more now, in its selfish dotage? It resembles one of its ageing Californian beneficiaries in its determination to live forever, to conceal its wrinkled flesh and buy the vigour that belongs only to youth. Its symbols today are the junk-bond dealer, the men who grow fat from famine, the besuited pimps of the media industry, the bankers who conjure vast polluted cities into existence and whose decisions have ensured that the very mechanisms that allow life to exist are being poisoned at source. Its culture is at once both murderous and soporific. Witness the spectacle of the richest nation on earth trans-fixed by televised images of an ex-footballer charged with murdering his wife fleeing police capture.

Already in 1848 we find a powerful critique of the logic of capital-production for profit. Those who today talk of the global economy, of the internationalisation of communication and culture follow in the pamphlet's footsteps. 'The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country ... it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood.' As a result 'we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.'

The Manifesto was written too early to chart, as Marx did later, the transformation of free competition into monopoly and the associated trend toward world monopoly capitalism, imperialism. This is the age of the giant multinationals, of Micro-soft, Toyota, Coca-Cola, of Disney-land, of Hollywood, of the international 'best-seller', of McDonalds from China to the USA, of international pop-stars and internationally celebrated criminals. Marx and Engels, who understood the internationalisation of capital, could not foresee the division of the world between oppressed and oppressor nations. But they hinted at the role of the first emerging capitalist countries 'whose cheap commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls.' Those countries which first trod the path of capitalism have created a system of exploiting the poor nations which produces super-profits and which has had profound consequences for the development of the working class movement internationally.

Whilst understanding the ability of capitalism vastly to develop the productive forces, the Manifesto also explained its inherent instability, its barbaric and self-destructive character. Capitalism which has 'conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.'

The Manifesto describes the inherent contradiction between production for profit and the sheer scale of modern productive forces. Capitalism in all its phases expresses this contradiction in an obvious way: theoretically the scale of modern production could provide the whole world with enough food, housing, education etc. It does not do so be-cause if production is only for profit then it will produce only that which is profitable, be it Coca Cola or micro-chips. Capitalism relies on exploiting the mass of people, precisely depriving them of real necessities. Periodically it expresses the contradiction more dramatically.

The Manifesto describes capitalism's tendency to crisis that has been its most enduring characteristic. 'Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce . .. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.'

Such crises have been more the rule than the exception in the past 150 years. The post-war boom, one of the longer periods of stability, has given way for the past 20 years to what are called 'recessions' but are merely the usual crises of profitability. Such prolonged crisis merely accentuates capital's tendency towards international competition and, ultimately, war.

 One of the most criticised aspects of the Manifesto in modern times is its prediction that the worker:

'becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than the population and wealth. And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.'

In the era of TVs and fridges, and cars and computers, say the critics, how can this be true? If they removed their Eurocentric glasses they would find these are the conditions of the vast majority of the world's working class, those who live in the oppressed nations. And a growing portion of those in the rich nations have also been denied seats at the banquet. However, a section of the working class in the rich nations has indeed grown privileged and their loyalty to their benefactors has had a huge and negative political influence in the working class movement.

The role of the working class

A demonstration of the inability of capitalism to meet basic human needs and proof of this system's inherent instability was not sufficient for Marx and Engels. They wanted to demonstrate that capital-ism produced a class whose very conditions of life drove it to revolutionary action. Under capitalism the . . . modern labourer . . . instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.'

Driven to revolt against this misery, the working class emerges as a revolutionary class and, with the development of industry, it 'not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.' And then begins the journey of humanity 'from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom'.

'...The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.'

Can the working class of the late twentieth century play this role? In the rich nations, its political development has been dominated by the outlook of the privileged - reformism, rather than the revolutionary anger of the exploited. The defeat of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries also seems a telling blow. Finally, in many countries, the workers are not becoming more concentrated but more atomised. In such a brief article such huge questions can only be raised rather than dealt with.

To those who say the working class cannot play this role we would counter-question: who else can? It remains the case that the majority of the world's population consists of those without property and power. On their shoulders rests the whole construction of profit-making. And it remains the case that capitalism is inherently unable to provide the majority with the means of life. Those who criticised the Soviet Union are quiet now as the reintroduction of capitalism dissolves the gains the working class there made: employment, health care, literacy. The crisis-ridden character of capitalism is depriving not only the poorest of the world of life, but increasingly imposes insecurity on workers in the rich nations.

History does not pose questions that it cannot answer. The working class has indeed changed in composition and character since the Manifesto was written. But the necessity for it to change society has not disappeared. It struggles on in many forms, in many nations with its fight against World Bank-imposed development, against privatisation, against police states. Its task has be-come both harder and more urgent. For when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto they could not see a day when the struggle was not merely for human progress but for human life itself. Capitalism has brought ruination to the earth as well as its people. We have a world to win and not long to do it.  

The state and revolution

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 116 - December 1993/January 1994

The naked state violence which was used against anti-fascists on 16 October will not be forgotten. Like Grunwicks in 1977 where one quarter of the Metropolitan Police were used to break the mass picket; like the police occupation of Southall in 1979; like the brutal suppression of the 1980, 1981 and 1985 uprisings led by black youth, like the 1984-85 miners strike; like the 1990 anti-Poll Tax street fighting, the 16 October anti-fascist demonstration 1993 revealed the stark truth: behind the charade of parliament there stands special bodies of armed men, specially equipped and trained, to enforce capitalist interests through organised violence. 16 October showed that the British state is nothing other than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Lenin, as Marx and Engels before him, argued that the real political power of a ruling class rests in its control of a coercive state apparatus. All those opposed to the growing authoritarianism, of the British state should read his celebrated and utterly relevant State and Revolution.

The bourgeois state must be smashed

State and Revolution answers two fundamental questions. Firstly, why must the old state machine be smashed? And secondly, what should be put in its place? Lenin did not start from abstract definitions but reached his conclusions about the state and revolution by summing up the experience of class struggle. Lenin follows the analysis by Marx and Engels of two revolutions. He shows that the 1848 French Revolution, and more especially the negative experience of its counter-revolution where the bourgeoisie turned traitor to democracy rather than share political power with the working class, led Marx to conclude: 'The next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it...'

In a 1852 letter to J Weydemeyer Marx stated that no credit was due to him for discovering the class struggle:

'What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society ...'

Note that while in 1852 he posed the dictatorship of the proletariat as an historical necessity, it was not yet possible for Marx to give a precise positive content to it.

Then in 1871 the heroic workers of the Paris Commune actually took a decisive step further on the road to socialism, before they too were defeated. Albeit briefly, the Communards demonstrated for the first time in history that the proletariat can smash bourgeois rule and organise its own forms of state power.

Marx and Engels thought this experience so important that they wrote in the 1872 preface to the Communist Manifesto, originally written on the eve of 1848, that changes were necessary in the programme in view of the practical experience of the 1848 Revolution and, still more, of the Paris Commune:

'One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."'

Marx and Engels learnt from the class struggle and were able to re-examine their theory in the light of it. Henceforth anyone who wanted to learn what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like could look to the Commune.

The state is a class power

Human society began without classes and without a state. The state 'is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the evidence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.'

The state is 'a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons etc. at their command'.

The state is a class instrument for the exploitation of the oppressed class. The capitalist class rules through its state apparatus. The state is tied to the ruling class by a thousand threads, by direct corruption of its officials and by an alliance between the government and the Stock Exchange which 'imperialism and the domination of the banks have developed into an exceptional art'.

'Every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class tries to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organisation of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters'.

The state is 'a "special coercive force" for the suppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, of millions of working people by handfuls of the rich; it must be replaced by a "special coercive force" for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat ... which is impossible without a violent revolution.'

What is meant by 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'?

The Paris Commune had shown in its practical measures what is meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

'The workers, after winning political power, will smash the old bureaucratic apparatus, shatter it to its very foundations, and raze it to the ground; they will replace it by a new one, consisting of the very same workers and other employees, against whose transformation into bureaucrats the measures will at once be taken which were specified in detail by Marx and Engels [ie from the Commune]: (1) not only election, but also recall at any time; (2) pay not to exceed that of a work-man; (3) immediate introduction of control and suppression by all, so that all may become "bureaucrats" for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a "bureaucrat".'

Marx's genius lay in articulating the essence of the Commune, thus making it available for the whole movement. Instead of the fake capitalist democracy where 'the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representative of the oppressing class shall represent them in parliament', the Commune was a working body, it broke down the divisions between legislature, executive and judiciary. It was a real democracy which was defended by the workers, i.e. by all the workers, men, women and youth, organised in arms. The economic and political strength of the working class stems from a conscious, organised collectivity. That is why Marx was a centralist. Critics of Marxism cannot understand this, for they 'simply cannot conceive of voluntary centralism'.

Marx's analysis of 1871 celebrated the direct proletarian democracy whilst at the same time pointing to the Communards' weakness in organising for a national, people's revolution:

'History has no like example of like greatness! If they are defeated only their "good nature" will be to blame. They should have marched at once on Versailles ... [the national centre of the reactionaries] ... They missed their opportunity because of conscientious scruples. They did not want to start a civil war ... '

The sombre truth was that as soon as it regained the upper hand the counter-revolution resorted to butchering tens of thousands of workers. This was a fundamental lesson for the future.

In summary the dictatorship of the proletariat, the proletarian state, is 'the organisation of the armed people'.

The withering away of the proletarian state

The new proletarian state is a necessary stage in the transition from capitalism to communism. Lenin considered the political and economic conditions in which this new state will start 'dying down of itself' will be, firstly, when there is no longer capitalist resistance and the threat of a bourgeois counter-revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a new class rule 'the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries'.

State and Revolution also examines the economic basis to the withering away of the state. A proletarian state is not only necessary for the suppression of counter-revolution, its economic role is indispensable in a society which has just broken from capitalism. The proletarian state must centralise the accounting and control of production and distribution; it must plan the economy.

Bourgeois rights, law and habits will linger for a period. For how long a period, Lenin insists, cannot be determined in advance. The people would have to learn new habits, to educate themselves through the practical experience of collective responsibility. Lenin was not a utopian, he did not impose a blueprint on future generations but understood that:

'For the state to whither away completely, complete communism is necessary ...'

What Lenin added to Marx and Engels

Lenin paid detailed attention to the theory of the state because it had become necessary to define the tasks of the proletariat in a further, socialist revolution. He grasped that imperialism had produced the objective and subjective conditions for socialism. He saw that the Russian Revolution, taken as a whole, 'can only be understood as a link in the chain of socialist proletarian revolutions being caused by the imperialist war'.

In Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin exposed the objective roots of the war as rival capitalist powers seeking to redivide the world. And imperialism, ie monopoly capitalism, had through its concentration of production prepared the economic basis for socialism.

Due to the Tsarist censor, Lenin's Imperialism only deals obliquely with consequences for political action against the state. As Lenin argued elsewhere the war had transformed capitalism to state monopoly capitalism. We see this today: every where democracy is subverted to suit the needs of the multinational companies.

The primary purpose of State and Revolution was to wage war, 'against opportunist prejudices concerning the "state"'. Lenin realised that the subjective conditions for a socialist revolution were rapidly maturing as well. Ever since his return to Russia in April 1917, Lenin had conducted a campaign urging the workers to take power based on their own mass organisations, the Soviets. He spoke thus to a soldiers meeting:

'Not the police, not the bureaucracy, who are unanswerable to the people and placed above the people, not the standing army separated from the people, but the people themselves, universally armed and united in the Soviets, must run the state ... '

The Marxists and the anarchists

From April to October 1917 the Bolsheviks and anarchists fought as revolutionary allies against the bourgeois state and bourgeois socialists. Although there were tactical disputes in those turbulent months, they were differences within the revolution and Lenin never tired of trying to win the anarchist revolutionaries to Marxism. Both trends opposed the Provisional Government because it continued the imperialist war, both trends realised that the only way to end the slaughter would be to smash the Russian military apparatus, and both sought to organise the masses on the streets.

Concrete experience backed Lenin's carefully drawn 'distinction between the Marxists and the anarchists':

'(1) The former, while aiming at the complete abolition of the state, recognise that this aim can only be achieved after classes have been abolished by the socialist revolution, as the result of the establishment of socialism, which leads to the withering away of the state. The latter want to abolish the state completely overnight, not understanding the conditions under which the state can be abolished.

(2) The former recognise that after the proletariat has won political power it must completely destroy the old state machine and replace it by a new one consisting of an organisation of the armed workers, after the type of the Commune. The latter, while insisting on the destruction of the state machine, have a very vague idea of what the proletariat will put in its place and how it will use its revolutionary power. The anarchists even deny that the revolutionary proletariat should use the state power, they reject its revolutionary dictatorship.'

Lenin was determined to learn from the weaknesses of the Commune as well as its strengths. There was no possibility that the state could be abolished overnight. Lenin, who saw that 'socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows of modern capitalism' also saw that the proletarian revolution, in whatever country it first broke out, would have to create a new type of state capable of fighting defensive wars against imperialist intervention and capitalist restoration.

State and Revolution was written for the socialist revolution, not about the socialist revolution. That is what shines through even today, and is why it should be read and reread by all seeking to oppose the British state and fight for socialist revolution in Britain.

Andy Higginbottom

World War II, Churchill and the big lie

The end of January 2015 has seen the British Tories, helped along by their press and the BBC, re-enacting Winston Churchill’s funeral of 50 years ago. This anniversary is an absurd and empty charade, concocted to bolster their flagging fortunes in the lead up to the next general election. We take this opportunity to reprint a few truths about Britain’s ‘great leader’ – a racist, anti-working class bigot, from a review of Clive Ponting’s book on Churchill.

World War II, Churchill and the big lie

from FRFI 120, August/September 1994

Publishers are usually quick to take advantage of anniversaries to boost sales and the 50th anniversary of D-Day in June was no exception. Rehashed, relived and reinvented the events of June 1944 were played out on screen and in print. Clive Ponting’s book on Churchill, however, does not fit into this category. He does not just destroy Churchill’s reputation which was substantially self-manufactured anyway he also attempts to grasp the real stuff of bourgeois leadership and the myths which are invented and reinvented to keep the idea alive.

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Poland: solidarity and counter-revolution

General Wojciech Jaruzelski

Introduction to Poland: solidarity and counter-revolution

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s last communist president, died on 25 May 2014. He was responsible for the imposition of martial law in December 1981 in response to waves of strikes and organised opposition to the communist government. Solidarnosc, the trade union and social movement, was banned and its leaders were arrested. International support for this anti-communist movement came from the likes of US President Reagan, British Prime Minister Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, a Pole who actively opposed communism. Behind the scenes the CIA, the Catholic Church and AFL-CIO provided funds for the counter-revolution. Believing that any movement supported by the mass of the working class would necessarily be progressive, the British left were keen to jump on the bandwagon of anti-communist and anti-Soviet reaction. As our article from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (published January 1982) shows, a review of Solidarnosc’s programme at the time reveals its real anti-working class character. Events since 1982 confirm how correct our analysis was – Poland is now ruled by a right-wing party closely aligned to the Catholic Church and its opposition to women’s rights.

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