Across the roar of guns

In Issue 60 (June 2015) Maeve Connaughton reviewed a selection of voices raised against the first world war.

Not Our War: Writings against the First World War. Edited by A W Zurbrugg (Merlin Press)

This is a timely anthology as the imperialist slaughter of a century ago continues to bask in a wave of posthumous glorification, all the better to soften us up for its modern-day equivalents. The voices to be heard here range from fleeting comments, almost captions flashing across a screen, to lengthy extracts—and we could maybe have done without Lenin’s seven-page harangue of anti-war socialists who just weren’t his particular kind of anti-war socialists. But many of them will be new to us, some new to all of us, and the whole sheds valuable light on the breadth of opposition to the slaughter.

Rosa Luxemburg’s characterisation of it all can hardly be bettered:

Violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth—there stands bourgeois society. This is it. Not all spick and span and moral, with pretence to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law—but the ravening beast, the witches’ Sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. In the midst of this witches’ Sabbath a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social-democracy has capitulated.

It is impossible to separate the outbreak of the war from the collapse of the socialist movement, because they didn’t just accompany each other but caused each other. Only something as big as the war could have brought the European left of that time to its knees, and without such a surrender the war could hardly have gone ahead, at least on as overwhelming a scale.

Genuine socialists were literally horrified at the prospect, and James Connolly’s reaction conjures up the cruel reality of decades of hope dying a painful death in a mayhem of hypocrisy:

When the socialist pressed into the army of the Austrian Kaiser sticks a long, cruel bayonet-knife into the stomach of the socialist conscript in the army of the Russian Tsar, and gives it a twist so that when pulled out it will pull the entrails out along with it, will the terrible act lose any of its fiendish cruelty by the fact of their common theoretical adherence to an anti-war propaganda in times of peace?

Russian socialist Alexander Shlyapnikov writes of being “stupefied” by it all. Italian socialist Angelica Balabanoff recalls socialist leaders who “looked at me as if they thought I were crazy”.

And yet, as is noted here, 750,000 demonstrated in Germany against the war only a week before it broke out. Such a rapid decline and fall of such strong principles has few precedents. English socialist Fred Bower captures part of the reason as no more or less than going with the flow: “It is not too hard to be a parrot, and repeat what your masters and pastors tell you”.

Zurbrugg points to structural factors behind it: “Organisation had a momentum of its own; it became a way of life.” The socialist parties of Europe with their allied organisations constituted a vast bureaucracy concerned to preserve and protect itself, with the means swallowing the end whole. For many of their officials, “it has been a matter of salary, of the commonest sort of economic determinism”, as German socialist Franz Mehring commented (although his opinions appear as those of his interviewer here). It was more than their job was worth to go against the stream and imperil the party machine they depended on.

Another strong pull factor lay in the exponential growth of the state during wartime. Much of the contemporary left had seen state expansion as a positive phenomenon, something which came as near to socialism as made no difference. The understanding that “Social­ism is not based upon national ownership, but upon the strength, the might of the proletariat”, as Dutch socialist Anton Pannekoek puts it here, had been all but lost. The prospect of playing even a supporting role to a state stretching its tentacles into more and more sectors of economic and social life was one which appealed to the social-democratic mindset.

The betrayal of the leaders comes as less of a surprise than the way thousands of rank-and-file socialists meekly followed their example. But these were, as Pannekoek observes, “accustomed to do only what the party ordered”. With good reason, we remember the left wing of the Second International and their stand for socialism, but their presence and arguments shouldn’t blind us to the fact that such parties were in large part built on a deadeningly passive membership. Initiative from below rarely went much further than choosing which leader from above should be cheered loudest. A left resting on members who don’t think and act for themselves is helpless when the leaders it blindly trusts go off the rails—a lesson as necessary to learn today as it was then.

Pannekoek concludes that these organisations were victims of their times. Growing up in a period when reforms could be conceded by an expanding capitalist system, they had settled into a routine of operating within the confines of that system. Such parties were in no fit state to suddenly shift to a situation where they would work in all-out active opposition to it: “the party’s structure, as it was formed in an earlier period, was not up to the job of taking on new respon­sibilities. It had to be submerged.” In a sense, social democracy going under in the war can be seen as a cruel necessity, a bloody clearing of the decks.

For those socialists who remained true to the cause, working up opposition to the war was hard work. Many reported that their arguments fell flat in the early years, when the hold of jingoism on the popular mind was still strong. Even when workers started to question the war, it was often from a sectional viewpoint, as in an engineers’ song which insisted that their union card should exempt skilled workers from fighting: “Take all the bloody labourers, / But for God’s sake don’t take me!”

“For the first time in my life I was ashamed of my class”, wrote Wilf McCartney (described here as a “British Anarchist”, although he was born in Ireland). American socialist Frank Bohn believed that ten thousand German socialists could have stopped the war if they were prepared to face jail or the firing squad, but then again, that could have been the state’s easiest method of getting rid of them. Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta seems more realistic in outlining the left’s duty “if they are materially powerless to act efficaciously for their own cause, at least to refuse any voluntary help to the cause of the enemy, and stand aside to save at least their principles—which means to save the future”. Merely preserving your political integrity intact was an achievement when so many were lining up to kiss the beast.

A remarkable example of this is the reaction of Serbian socialists in 1914. The threats and ultimate invasion unleashed upon Serbia by Austria-Hungary were a clear enough case of an imperialist power oppressing a weak neighbour, and they could have been forgiven for going along with their own state—as many others did in response to German war crimes in Belgium. “However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Austria and Serbia was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal European war,” wrote Dušan Popovic, “and this latter, we were profoundly convinced, could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character.” To see beyond their own particular situation and take in the overall context of the war, and act accordingly, took a lot of real inter­nationalist spirit.

The immediate response of Britain’s Independent Labour Party to the war also stands out:

We are told that International Socialism is dead, that all our hopes and ideals are wrecked by the fire and pestilence of European war. It is not true. Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working-class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greetings to the German Socialists.

Eventually the reality of the war began to seep through. In between the two revolutions of 1917, a tired and muddy Russian soldier brings the demands of his comrades “from the place where men are digging their graves and calling them trenches!” Similar sentiments begin to appear in all the warring armies sooner or later.

While the British army was no exception, it was one of the slowest to move. Widespread unrest did take hold there, but at the end of the war, and as a protest against delays in letting soldiers go home. A nice story here tells of a Welsh miner’s son who, having taken part in the firing squad that executed Connolly, goes to apologise to his widow, who tells him Connolly would forgive him as “only a working-class boy”. It’s only a shame that this is an obvious myth. The idea of a soldier, a fortnight after the Easter rising, finding out where the family of a notorious rebel leader were staying, and then strolling through the streets of Dublin, then occupied by his army, to pay his respects there is far easier to reconcile with romantic wishful thinking than with the facts as we know them.

Interesting examples of anti-war poetry and song are on display here. The dark humour of an American industrial unionist refusing to enlist—

I love my flag, I do, I do, which floats upon the breeze.
I also love my arms and legs, and neck and nose and knees.

—contrasts with a powerful and disturbing anonymous poem from England, portraying a devastated and devastating panorama:

Paint two vast heaps of mildewed human skulls
In pyramidal shape, with top depressed…
In distant background let fat vultures tear
Dead flesh from bones that seem from earth to spring,
And let your masterpiece this title bear
In letters deadly black — God save the King!

The editor insists on a simple but all-important truth: “Ultimately the war ended when soldiers refused to go on fighting.” It was not military victory or diplomatic negotiation which brought the fighting to a conclusion, but mutinies and rebellions and revolutions which denied the warmongers the cannon fodder without which they are powerless. The story of the opposition which was thus vindicated is an inspiring one, and we would do well to draw upon it as we face up to the wars which curse our own century.

Socialist Classics: Leon Trotsky, ‘Results and Prospects’

75 years after Trotsky’s assassination Maeve Connaughton examined one of his lasting contributions to revolutionary thought in March 2015 (Issue 59).

In 1905 Leon Trotsky was a leader of the St Petersburg Council of Workers’ Deputies, the most extraordinary phenomenon thrown up by the revolution Russia went through that year. As the Tsarist regime began to regain the upper hand against the revolutionaries, it moved to arrest leading members of that council, or soviet as it was called in Russian. There is a photograph of Trotsky in his prison cell in 1906 as he awaited the trial where he would speak in defence of the soviet. He sits on a chair and looks away from the camera awkwardly, self-consciously, as if making an effort to do so. Just behind him the cell door frames the jailers’ spy-hole, supposedly all-seeing but unable to prevent a camera being smuggled in to capture this image. No more could the regime imprison the minds of its captives, and Trotsky was spending his time behind bars profitably, drawing lessons from the revolutionary events in the hope of assisting future efforts in the same line.

The outstanding work of that period is Results and Prospects, similarly smuggled out and published before Trotsky and his com­rades were hauled off to Siberia after the inevitable verdict. It bears the imprint of the revolution on its pages, invoking “growing social conflicts, uprisings of new sections of the masses, unceasing attacks by the proletariat upon the economic and political privileges of the ruling classes”, the kind of period which “gives the proletariat ten years’ experience in a month”.

The book addressed a major debate on the Russian left about what kind of revolution they were involved in. Most socialists were agreed that it was a bourgeois revolution, which could at most get rid of Tsarism, clear the way for capitalist development, and leave the working class a clearer field to begin its own fight for socialism. Where they differed was over who would lead this bourgeois revolution. The Mensheviks insisted that the capitalists would stand at the front of their own revolution, with the workers pressurising them to keep up the fight against the regime. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had no faith in the capitalists, and thought the workers should take power alongside the peasantry in order to push the bourgeois revolution as far as it could go within the limits of capitalism. The uniqueness of Trotsky’s position lay in his argument that the working class could not just take power but, instead of stopping at the overthrow of Tsarism, could move towards ending capitalism itself.

This idea was rooted in an analysis of Russia’s economic develop­ment. Coming to capitalism later than western Europe, it could assimilate the technologies and processes of its predecessors. As a result, a political system based on a more or less feudal autocracy oversaw the introduction of a thoroughly modern capitalism. This inevitably entailed the creation of a working class with its hands at the levers of this new economic power, the secret of “the dis­proportionately large political role played by the Russian proletariat”. On the other side of the equation a capitalist class grew, but instead of boldly asserting its political interests against Tsarism, it preferred the protection of the regime to the threatening power of the workers.

Trotsky only applied his conclusions to the Russian situation, and it would be another twenty years before he saw them having a wider application. Nevertheless, his arguments about Russia’s prospective development entail a general conception of Marxism which goes against the grain of how it is commonly understood. To counter the claim that Russia and its working class were insufficiently developed for socialism to come on the agenda, he had to examine what the necessary conditions for socialist revolution are.

First of all, socialism cannot be a realistic prospect unless it provides a better way of producing and distributing humanity’s resources. But Trotsky argues that, in this sense, “sufficient technical prerequisites for collective production have already existed for a hundred or two hundred years”. There could scarcely have been any time when the great industrial advances introduced under capitalism would not have worked better in a hypothetical socialist economy.

It is not possible to draw an equals sign between a society’s economic position and its politics: “Between the productive forces of a country and the political strength of its classes there cut across at any given time various social and political factors of a national and international character, and these displace and even sometimes completely alter the political expression of economic relations.” A complex interaction of objective and subjective causes is at play here:

the day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and finally, upon a number of sub­jective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers.… Politics is the plane upon which the ob­jective prerequisites of socialism are intersected by the subjective ones.

All the economic development in the world will not bring about socialism unless the working class understands the need for it and is prepared to fight accordingly. Such class consciousness on the part of the workers is an indispensable prerequisite. But that doesn’t mean the physical establishment of a new world has to wait until workers mentally inhabit it beforehand:

One must not confuse here the conscious striving towards socialism with socialist psychology. The latter presupposes the absence of egotistical motives in economic life; whereas the striving towards socialism and the struggle for it arise from the class psychology of the proletariat. However many points of contact there may be between the class psychology of the proletariat and classless socialist psychology, nevertheless a deep chasm divides them.

Fighting against capitalism does give rise to “splendid shoots of idealism, comradely solidarity and self-sacrifice”, but Trotsky is right to say that these get smothered by capitalism at every turn. Living a life of selfless altruism in a society based on selfish individualism is impossible: even the most committed socialist could hardly afford to pass up a job because someone else might be in greater need of it.

However, he undermines his argument when summing it up thus: “Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a prerequisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a prerequisite to socialist psychology.” The attitudes engendered in the fight for socialism are a precursor of the attitudes which a socialist society itself would engender, attitudes which would be moulded in struggles to bring about such a society. The “points of contact” Trotsky noted get forgotten here, as material conditions are simply presented as cause and consciousness as effect, when a more dialectical relation would be evident in reality.

Such a relation can be seen where Trotsky discusses the interface between economic development and political awareness: “these processes take place simultaneously, and not only give an impetus to each other, but also retard and limit each other”. If they grow out of proportion, with one aspect failing to keep pace with others, this can throw up problems. Socialist organisations can increase their vote and membership without increasing their value to the class struggle:

the work of agitation and organisation among the ranks of the proletariat has an internal inertia. The European Socialist Parties, particularly the largest of then, the German Social Democratic Party, have developed their conservatism in proportion as the great masses have embraced socialism… the propagandist socialist conservatism of the proletarian parties may at a certain moment hold back the direct struggle of the proletariat for power.

Not the least service of the revolution in Russia had been to shake up this inertia on the European left.

The conclusion from Trotsky’s analysis was that “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.” The implication of this global conclusion for his own country was also clear: “the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers”.

This clearly distanced Trotsky from the Mensheviks’ idea that the working class couldn’t and shouldn’t aim at taking charge. But he was no less opposed to the Bolshevik plan for workers taking a share of power in a revolutionary government which would pull up short before the prospect of socialism. To imagine that socialists could enter such a government and introduce radical reforms with workers’ support but then “leave the edifice they have constructed so as to make way for the bourgeois parties” was utopian. On the contrary, such a government would be forced “by the very logic of its position” to move in a socialist direction.

Trotsky cites a very practical example. One of the measures a revolutionary government would introduce was the eight-hour day, a basic demand of workers in Russia and elsewhere, a reform which didn’t threaten the capitalist system itself but would make life under it more tolerable. The capitalists would resist it, however, and likely close down their factories, locking out workers until they agreed to return for ten or eleven hours a day. How would the government respond? As Trotsky says, “it is quite obvious that the representatives of the workers in the government cannot reply to the demands of un­employed workers with arguments about the bourgeois character of the revolution”. They would have no alternative but to take over those factories, for those workers to take control of them. The very fact of socialists being in power to genuinely fight for the cause of the working class “places collectivism on the order of the day”.

A workers’ government in Russia would of course have to bring about basic political changes in Russian society, to abolish the Tsarist dictatorship and enshrine democratic rights. But it would also have to face up to the questions at issue between workers and capitalists. Rather than avoiding or postponing them, it would have to deepen the revolution, to make it socialist:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy.

A major objection to this notion was the fact that the urban working class made up only a minority of Russia’s population. Trotsky’s reply—that this minority was concentrated in the decisive areas of the economy—was true, but still, the vast majority of the people lived in the countryside and worked in agriculture. This was why the Bolsheviks insisted on a revolutionary government “of the proletariat and peasantry”. Trotsky agreed that representatives of the peasantry should absolutely be part of a revolutionary government alongside the workers. But who would direct such a government? Which class would play the leading role in it? “When we speak of a workers’ government”, he wrote, “we have in view a government in which the working-class representatives dominate and lead.”

“Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role”, he insisted. While this sounds harsh, it holds true. The scattered nature of small farming as a way of life, both geographically and economically, has always left farmers playing a supporting role to the main urban classes—an important one, but not an independent one. Because of the unstable intermediate social situation in which they find themselves, their politics has a tendency to be “indefinite, unformed, full of possibilities and therefore full of surprises”.

The working class would have to “carry the class struggle into the villages”, supporting poor farmers and above all agricultural workers against rich farmers, encouraging such class antagonism in order to “destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits”. It would promote socialised agriculture on large units, but expropriating small holdings “in no way enters into the plans of the socialist proletariat”.

Trotsky foresees a very defined relationship between the two classes:

The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it. …nothing remains for the peasantry to do but to rally to the regime of workers’ democracy. It will not matter much even if the peasantry does this with a degree of consciousness not larger than that with which it usually rallies to the bourgeois regime.

The peasants would support the working class in the constituent assembly, but this would be “nothing else than a democratic dress for the rule of the proletariat”.

In passages like these, Trotsky is clearly going too far, consigning Russia’s peasantry to an utterly subordinate role as passive camp followers, unthinking objects of whichever political force happens to bestow benefits upon them from the heights of power. On the contrary, workers would have to go out of their way to win over small farmers, to persuade them of the benefits of a socialist order, repeatedly and continuously. For the working class, hegemony is not a cynical politicians’ game but a process of active political engagement with its allies, taking their concerns on board and incorporating them into the work of socialist transformation. If the peasantry were as devoid of initiative as Trotsky paints them here, it would be difficult to envisage the practicalities of abolishing landlordism and moving towards socialist agriculture, if only because there would be hardly anyone on the ground to carry it out.

The claim that the workers of Russia could begin to assault the very foundations of capitalism was an audacious one, but if they could begin that job, Trotsky never claimed that they could finish it. Their position at the helm of Russia would be “cast into the scales of the class struggle of the entire capitalist world”. The workers of more economically advanced countries would have to follow their example and take power themselves: “Without the direct state support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power”. On their own, Russian workers would go down to inevitable defeat, but if their revolution became just one link in a chain of revolutions, an international foundation could be laid on which socialism could develop.

Legends of the fall

Twenty five years after the collapse of Stalinism, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh looked at its consequences in Issue 58 (December 2014).

A quarter of a century has now passed since the fall of the Berlin wall. Unless you’re pushing forty at least, your entire political activity will have taken place in the post-Wall world. The majority of that activity will have happened since its fall unless you have the free bus pass in your pocket or in the post. As if that wasn’t enough, Marathon and Opal Fruits have in the meantime become Snickers and Starburst. The point is not to remind ourselves how old we’re getting, but of how long a shadow the upheavals of 1989 cast over us all.

Some on the left haven’t stopped crying into their beer since. The most lachrymose are those who frankly believe that Stalinism was a good thing, people whose conception of socialism is irreparably warped anyway. But beyond that, many socialists look at 1989 and all that as a tragedy, an outright victory for capitalism and a catastrophe for the cause of socialism.

Of course, much depends on how we regard the system which got swept away in it all. The claim of that system to be socialist has to qualify as the cruellest and biggest of its lies. The decay of the Russian revolution became a full-scale counter-revolution from the 1920s on under the leadership of Stalin. Russian society came under the control of a ruling class, accumulating wealth and privileges for itself through the exploitation of workers. The fundamental driving force of the Russian economy was essentially the same as that at work elsewhere: it was a capitalist country through and through. Under the political influence it won at the end of the second world war, it imposed versions of the same system in eastern Europe.

The most noticeable difference between this capitalism and others was the overarching role of the state. However, in spite of neoliberal propaganda, the state is not the antithesis of capitalism, but an integral part of its functioning. The history of capitalism, east and west, is indelibly marked with the use of the state’s coercive powers to clear the way for accumulation and maintain its functioning. This, after all, is why Marxists have seen it as an instrument of capitalist rule. State control of key sectors of the economy is commonplace where private capital cannot see its way to making enough profit. In times of war and emergency, this state has never hesitated to assume overall direction of economic activity. Such state capitalism keeps the system intact. The political power inextricably bound up with it can even facilitate capitalist exploitation further by preventing workers organising in unions or parties to defend their interests against their political-economic rulers.

It was common enough for socialists to say that the Stalinist system wasn’t fully socialist, but that it was a post-capitalist one, based on socialised planned economies. Therefore such societies represented something other than capitalism, a step forward compared to it, which was worth defending. Radical democratisation was needed in the political sphere, but their economic frameworks should be reformed rather than overthrown.

Such a view mistook certain common features of capitalism for the system’s essence. State ownership of the economy, in part or in whole, is in no way incompatible with the extraction of surplus value from the working class. Government planning is something increasingly common in capitalist economies. The crucial point is the situation of the workers. If they are subject to the direction of another class, forced to accumulate wealth for the good of others, alienated from their own labour, then what you have is capitalism, whatever its outer covering looks like. Socialism would see workers democratically controlling their own labour, directing it towards their collective and individual welfare. A society in transition from capitalism to socialism would be moving from the first to the second, and the success of its transition could be measured precisely by how far it had progressed along that path.

Although when and how is a matter of debate, there would be a point in Russia’s counter-revolution when it could have been halted and reversed, when the working class could have asserted itself strongly enough to push the bureaucracy aside and regain the initiative it had won in 1917. But when that counter-revolution had consolidated its power for generations, the prospect of removing it while leaving the economic pillars standing was gone. In eastern Europe such a prospect was never there, because nothing like workers’ revolutions had happened there. Indeed, how workers’ states —even horribly misshapen ones—can be established without the workers is one of the strangest paradoxes to be resolved by socialists who imagined that capitalism had been got rid of in eastern Europe.

Much like capitalism elsewhere, Stalinist societies were prone to economic crisis, and fearful of revolt by the working class. Such revolt surfaced repeatedly, against odds difficult to imagine in the west, adding heroic chapters to the struggles of our class. Again and again, the ruling classes were forced to manoeuvre between concession and repression. Attempts in the 1980s to refurbish the system opened cracks among the rulers through which popular discontent could break through.

Admirers of Gorbachev’s limited reforms can still be found cursing the fact that the people just didn’t know their place, refused to accept the passive role alloted to them in incremental reform, instead taking matters into their own hands and further than was intended from above. Because it is, of course, untrue to say that the Berlin Wall ‘fell’: it was knocked, smashed to rubble by a popular uprising which —not unlike 1848 or the Arab spring—spread across borders like wildfire. The joy and enthusiasm of people getting off their knees and into the streets to kick a hated dictatorship into the gutter is some­thing every socialist should celebrate.

And no socialist should honestly be surprised that right-wing forces managed to ride the wave of these movements. The simple force of inertia weighs in favour of those looking to reconstitute the old order on a new basis, as against those looking to overthrow it. While socialist currents existed throughout Russia and eastern Europe, they had been kept quiet for decades and were hardly likely to emerge fully formed out of the darkness. The myth that ‘western democracy’ was the answer to people’s problems had far more power­ful forces to propagate it. Many popular revolts throughout history have stalled at an early stage, allowing other forces to fill the gap, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t authentic movements to begin with. It means that the left and the working class weren’t strong enough to win leadership of them.

“Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss”, the lyric sung a thousand times in such circumstances, was often literally true here. To an alarming extent, Communist Party apparatchiks and their placemen simply decked themselves out in reformers’ clothes and held on to positions of economic and political influence. The ease with which they shed their skins is further confirmation that socialism was not being replaced with capitalism, but one form of capitalism with another. In many cases they already had experience of introducing market mechanisms and forming partnerships with multinational companies, and adapting themselves to the new surroundings proved easy enough.

Twenty five years on, the political situation in Russia and eastern Europe is often grim enough, with right-wing governments merrily attacking the working class with gusto, sometimes utilising the repressive measures of old against opponents. To many, this is proof enough that the working class of these countries are worse off for the events of 1989, that those events clearly represent a setback.

But any comparison has to be a universal rather than a selective one. It is easy to isolate a particular time and place and find the result you are looking for, but we are dealing with a vast expanse of space and time. So we need to look at the devastating Russian famines of the 1930s as well as the shiny industrial breakthroughs of the 1960s, to examine the economic growth of modern Slovenia as well as the stagnation of Moldova, to see the wood rather than picking individual trees. Such a comprehensive examination would reveal a mixed pattern of improvement and decline in different areas. Medical statistics show that life expectancy across eastern Europe has clearly increased since 1989, but also that the differential with western Europe remains much the same. Overall, neither a dramatic rise nor a catastrophic fall in living standards is evident. Both nostalgic Stalinists and neoliberal ideologues have to systematically cherrypick their facts to sustain claims that 1989 was either the end or the beginning of a golden era for Russia and eastern Europe.

The theory that Stalinism was less than socialism but more than capitalism comes across here as an each-way bet. When such societies achieve something good such as full employment or space travel, that can be claimed as a benefit of the state-owned planned economy; when they do something bad such as shooting protestors or failing to provide basic consumer goods, that can be condemned as a failure of bureaucratic rigidity. Having your cake and eating it may be more comfortable than taking a clear position and sticking to it, but makes for political confusion.

The social welfare systems of Stalinist countries are often advanced in their favour. It is true that free health, education and childcare were often of a high standard. But the same could be said for Scandinavian countries in the heyday of Nordic social democracy. They were capitalist societies which provided a more generous welfare state. To see them as more than that is to shake hands with reformism in the belief that socialism is about making class society more tolerable rather than abolishing it.

It is important not to limit the comparison to raw economic indicators. People don’t live by bread alone, and as well as the absolute necessities of nourishment and shelter, need the freedom to think and express, to discuss and act collectively. The denial of political liberties under Stalinism is not an incidental matter, but at the heart of what was wrong with it, a sufficient condition in itself to rule out any affinity with socialism. The significant improvements in this relation across most of those countries (not all) is a major item on the credit side of the balance sheet.

Around the same time that Stalinism was departing the scene in eastern Europe, an array of states around the world dropped it too. For the most part, these were countries in the southern hemisphere which had adopted versions of the Russian model after ending colonial rule. Again, no workers’ revolution had brought them about, and no revolution was required to usher them out. Essentially, ruling elites saw no further advantage in hitching their wagons to an imploding star, and remodelled themselves accordingly.

One of the last men standing is China, along with its neighbours Vietnam and Laos. (North Korea, with its grotesque system of feudal absolutism, must be an embarrassment to even the most dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist.) While quaintly retaining the name of Communists, the Chinese ruling class have seamlessly presided over the most capitalist country in the world, coining its vast human and physical resources into profits all the bigger for the continuing suppression of workers’ rights. The options available to untramelled state capitalism have brought China close to a leading role in the world economy.

Cuba, on the other hand, has suffered heavily from the dis­appearance of the subsidies and trade it received as a loyal camp follower of the USSR. At the same time, the reprehensible economic blockade enforced by the US has limited Cuba’s chances of full dependence on the world market. Nevertheless, a move from state capitalism towards market capitalism is clearly taking place in slow motion, while Chinese-style restrictions on democratic rights remain. Supporting the Cuban people against the continuing efforts of US imperialism to bring them to heel should go without saying for any socialist, but that is not the same thing at all as supporting the Cuban government, let alone the undemocratic system it presides over. Supporting that government leads to going along with its solidarity towards reactionary regimes in Beijing and Tehran, for no better reason than they happen to find themselves on a different side to the US. There is no credibility in opposing US oppression of Cuba if you remain silent over China’s oppression of Tibet or Iran’s oppression of the Kurds. That would be to accept imperialism in some of its guises, when it should be rejected in total.

Some are taking it a step further, backing up Putin’s expansionist intimidation in Ukraine and elsewhere, and even Assad’s murderous attempt to cling to power. Old-fashioned Stalinism has here passed over into straightforward cheerleading of whoever sits in the Kremlin, as well as his puppets and his right to an imperial sphere of influence, regardless of what political flag he flies. Believing that a balance of empires is all we can hope for, desperately seeking someone with power to worship, dismissing any prospect of the working class being capable of acting for themselves on the political stage, is one of the most pathetic hangovers of Stalinism.

Claiming that life was alright under Stalinism for people who didn’t bother those in power—even if it were true—is to consign working people to a role as permanently meek objects of history, never its bold subjects. The lack of democracy under Stalinism was one of the key reasons it never caught on where people had any choice in the matter. It is crucial for the left to understand that having a free say in your life is important to the working class. And rightly so: we are not animals who can be satisfied with better rations, but humans who demand power over our lives. As Marx said, the working class needs its independence and self-respect as much as its daily bread. The basic human urge to control our destinies, to make life more democratic in the real sense, is at the heart of any meaningful socialist project.

While twenty five years is a long time, the mundane banalities and exceptional cruelties of life in Russia and eastern Europe before 1989 are still identified in the public mind with what socialism looks like. It continues to weigh down on attempts to envisage, let alone achieve, a society beyond capitalism. Instead of openly advocating an alternative way of running the world, these days the left usually reserves talk of revolution for internal consumption while presenting the working class with energetic programmes for reforming the worst excesses of capitalism. Failing to nail the lie that Stalinism equals socialism, or even a step towards it, has handed a huge advantage to the other side in the class struggle. Politics, even left-wing politics, now focusses on internal modifications of the power and wealth structure without questioning its foundations.

So Stalinism cannot be dismissed as ‘a historical question’. Being historical is no reason for socialists to forget something, anyway, but the shadow of Stalinism does still linger. Socialism has to make crystal clear that it has nothing whatever in common with that system, is determined to break unreservedly and unambiguously with that perversion of socialism, to remove that stain. Otherwise our gains won’t just be few, but will be deservedly so.

The Hidden Connolly 57

Issue 57 (September 2014) published more articles by James Connolly for the first time since his execution, this time discussing wartime recruitment, and how a socialist society would work.

Notes on the Front

[The Workers’ Republic, September 25 1915]

We reprint the following letter from the Dublin Daily Independent. It is a gem:

To the Editor, Irish Independent.
Being much astonished at seeing the statement “Jim Larkin astonishes the Americans” on the poster for the last issue of the Workers’ Republic, I purchased a copy, and was much interested to find how the redoubtable “Jim” had astonished the Americans.
It appears from a report quoted from an unnamed American Socialist paper that an immense crowd in Court House Park, in Fresno, California, listened to “Jim Larkin—a striking personality and a most enlightened and convincing speaker”.1
One cannot be surprised at the astonishment of the Americans when one finds that he stated: “My crime in my own country consisted of preaching solidarity. The workers said: ‘We will not move one wheel; and we won the Dublin strike.’” At such a statement the Dublin workmen will be even more astonished than the Americans.
No Influence
I have before me some letters from America which have something to say about Larkin, and may help to show how much the Americans are astonished by him.
From Chicago:
“We have heard of ‘Jim’ Larkin in several of our New England towns. At the present time he is not associated with any of the well-recognised organisations, and he has done nothing to draw public attention particularly to him.”
“While James Larkin has made a number of speeches I do not believe his influence has been at all marked.”
From New York:
“With respect to Larkin, none of our people here know anything about his movements in this country.”
From Kansas City:
“As regards Larkin, from what I am able to learn from better grade of Labour leaders, his movement is utterly un­successful. He has not been recognised by the better class of Labour leaders. The only impression he has made, if any at all, is with the IWWs,2 who are themselves thoroughly dis­credited by the general public, as well as by sensible Labour men.”
Such is the astonishment of the Americans.

Dublin, September 14, 1915.

The reader will observe that this letter writer, in making his attack on Larkin, does not give his own name, nor in quoting the opinions of his correspondents in America does he give their names. It is easy filling up space in that fashion, but is there anybody foolish enough to take stock in such anonymous stuff?

Following his example, we quote here some letters this office might have received from various quarters about William Martin Murphy and his friends:3

From Petrograd:
“We sadly missed Murphy’s trams in our recent brilliant advance backwards from Warsaw. Often when the German guns were booming in our ears we strained our eyes anxiously for the promised relief forces led by the commander from Dartry Hall.”4
From Gallipoli:
“The brilliant genius who organised the attack upon the people outside the Imperial Hotel5 is badly needed here. We were to be through the Dardanelles in March, but the military forces of the allies have as poor a footing in the peninsula as Murphy’s scabs have upon the port of Dublin. It is almost October, and the promised Expeditionary Force led by General Martin Murphy and ably captained by Tom McCormack, Barry, and Matty Long has not even sailed, and we are in despair.”
From Flanders:
“The Germans have just attacked us with great fury. They said they heard that we were eating Jacob’s biscuits.6 We sent for reinforcements to General Joffre,7 but he said that if the report was true he could not help us, that we must be a rotten lot. A German chemist taken prisoner said that eating Jacob’s biscuits is in violation of the Hague Convention, and a contra­vention of the rules of Civilised Warfare, as these biscuits were infected by the scab.”8
From South West Africa:
“Anxiously awaiting the arrival of the last tram from Dartry. We hear that Guinness’ Fleet have anchored outside of the Thirteenth Lock and threatened to throw a shell into Richmond Barracks,9 and that the Colonel in charge defiantly declared that he did not want a shell but could do with a couple of barrels. The last of the German forces here had strongly entrenched themselves, and were prepared to resist to the last cartridge, but gave up in despair when they heard that Lorcan Sherlock, Alderman Farrell, Alfie Byrne, Lord Mayor Gallagher, High Sheriff Scully, Shackleton of Lucan, J D Nugent, Wee Joe Devlin, and Paddy Meade of the Telegraph had joined the Pals Battalion, and were last seen advancing in skirmishing order upon Mooney’s pub.”10

That kind of thing is easy. As the Americans would say, “it is as easy as falling off a log”. Just try it and send in the result for publication in next week’s Republic. Just try your imagination and the result will be as trustworthy as the letter of the correspondent of the Independent, or as a Russian account of a victory.

We have pointed out in this page before that all sorts of people are engaged in hoodwinking the Censor under pretext of writing loyalist letters, and making loyalist speeches.11 Here is another sample of how the poor, dear man is being fooled. It is an account in the daily press of a recruiting meeting:

Ballybough Recruiting Meeting
Mr James Brady, Solicitor, presiding at a largely attended recruiting meeting held at the Tramway Terminus, Ballybough, last night, said he was accompanied by his son, Private Matt Brady, who came over with the Canadian contingent and had been through the battlefield of Flanders, and was there to ask his old pals in Dublin to help to rid Europe of the Germans. He was also accompanied by Lieutenant Maurice Healy, a member of a well-known Nationalist family, who had done good service to the country.12 Addresses were also delivered by Mr J C Percy JP, Private Bray, Private Trower, Professor Edmund Burke BA. Lieutenant M Healy, of the Dublin Fusiliers, said if the war were lost Great Britain and Ireland would be saddled with the cost, which would amount to twenty thousand millions, and represent a tax of £250 on every man, woman and child in Ireland.

Now if that is not rank treason I do not know what is. Lieutenant Healy said in effect that it would cost every man, woman and child in Ireland the sum of £250 if England lost the war and Ireland was left under the British Empire. If that is so then every man, woman and child in Ireland should leave no stone unturned to destroy the British Empire which would tax them each £250 for a war about which they were never consulted. Lieutenant Healy is trying to frighten the Irish people into hatred of England, for if you ask any sensible person in Ireland if he or she is willing to pay £250 for the privilege of being in the British Empire then that sensible person would surely answer that his or her share in the British Empire would be dear at the price.

When the average Irish workingman or woman is out looking for a job and can’t get it, their share of the British Empire would look very insignificant compared with £250, or, indeed, compared with a week’s rent for a room in a tenement.

We would advise Lieutenant Healy to run along and play at marbles or some other job suited to his intellect. And while he is looking for someone to play marbles with him, let him exercise his poor little brain upon this problem:

Over fifty women and girls have been dismissed by Williams and Woods13 in the interests of cheap labour. These women and girls are in danger of starvation. Can Lieutenant Healy tell a waiting world how the British or any other Empire can raise a tax of £250 each from these sisters of ours who do not possess two pence halfpenny.

Another returned hero at a recruiting meeting at Stillorgan gave his opinion of the national demand for Ireland for the Irish. Read:

Captain Frank Crozier, Royal Irish Fusiliers, who has returned wounded from the Dardanelles, said that he was proud to have joined the Army, where he found the best men in the world. Speaking of the fighting at Suvla Bay, Captain Crozier said that he saw one Irishman taking off his clothes on the beach. When asked whether he was going to bathe, he said, “It is something tickling my back.” The something was a big wound, but the man fought another two days before a bullet in the leg made it imperative for him to go to hospital. He had heard a lot about Ireland for the Irish, but there was a better cry in “Irish regiments for the Irish”. There were big gaps to be filled, and he wanted the men of Stillorgan and Foxrock to come back with him and carry rifles. They would never regret it.

Here you have condensed in a phrase the real loyalist opinion about Ireland and the position a kind providence allots to Irishmen.

Ireland for the Irish is ridiculous. Ireland for the classes who live on rent, profit and big Government sinecures and fat jobs, and Irishmen for the regiments recruited in Ireland to fight abroad for the above classes who plunder them at home, and insult them whilst doing so.

Captain Crozier is back from the Dardanelles. The published casualties there last week were 87,630, an enormously large pro­portion of which were Irish. What interest had these unfortunate countrymen of ours in the Dardanelles? What interest the people of Stillorgan and Foxrock? The unfortunate farm labourers around that district dare not join a trade union for fear of being dismissed, blacklisted, evicted and starved by the Croziers and their kind, and yet it is those poor slaves who dare not call their souls their own, who must cringe and crawl and lick the dust before their squireen employers, it is they who are asked to carry rifles, and add to the number of Irish corpses that manure the hills and ravines before the guns of the Turk.

Tommy Atkins14 does not talk of the Dardanelles. He calls it the “Garden of Hell”. And he is not far out. It is either a garden or a gateway.

Or a suicide club!

‘The Programme of Labour’[…]15

[The Workers’ Republic, February 12 1916]

comment by editor

In our editorial upon the meeting in the Trades Hall we said last week that the only points of difference between Father Laurence and ourselves seemed to be more matters of definition than of principle, and as we were more interested in satisfactory results than in definitions we would not press the points for discussion. But this correspondent seems determined that if we will not discuss definitions with Father Laurence we shall discuss them with him. Hence he labours the words “share equally” until he works himself into a sweat upon the matter, in conjuring up possible evils.

We still decline to waste our available space and time in such word-splitting. Our contention was and is that the entire people of the nation are the heir to all the nation’s resources, that those resources ought to be equally at the service of each and all to the extent to which they are able to avail themselves of such service, that physical or mental superiority does not entitle its possessor to the power to dominate or rule the weaker members (just as the stronger or brainier child in a family is not allowed to gorge itself before its brothers and sisters are allowed to the table) and that the ideal of the Labour Movement is a well ordered community in which the powers of the individual should be multiplied by all the powers of the organised community.

The problem is to find the social system by which that ideal can be secured. But it is a problem to ponder over and work out in the face of society, not a thing to quibble and wriggle around. Given the acceptance of the governing principle humanity will find the means to realise it. Or else humanity would not be worth saving.


  1. This report appeared on the front page of the Workers’ Republic for September 11.
  2. The Industrial Workers of the World.
  3. The following imaginary letters all come from battlefronts in the world war then raging.
  4. Home of Murphy.
  5. Bloody Sunday in O’Connell Street, 31 August 1913.
  6. Jacob’s took a leading role in the attack on the Dublin workers in 1913.
  7. Joseph Joffre, one of the leading generals in the French army.
  8. Among other things, the rules on the conduct of war laid down in the Hague Convention of 1899 forbid the use of poisonous substances.
  9. The British army’s Richmond Barracks at Inchicore was close to a lock on Dublin’s Grand Canal, used by Guinness to transport their wares, but Connolly is referring to a superstition that Lock 13 of the Royal Canal was unlucky.
  10. Sherlock, and before him J J Farrell, preceded James Gallagher as mayor of Dublin. Alderman Byrne was then the official home rule candidate in the Dublin Harbour by-election, which he won a week after this article appeared. James Scully was Dublin’s high sheriff. George Shackleton owned a flour mill and was to the fore in the 1913 lockout. Nugent had narrowly beaten the Labour candidate in the College Green by-election in June. Himself and Belfast MP Devlin led the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Meade edited Dublin’s pro-home rule Evening Telegraph. A company of the Dublin Fusiliers was nicknamed the ‘pals’ battalion’ after groups of friends and workmates enlisting.
  11. In the July 17 ‘Notes on the Front’ Connolly quoted a letter in support of army recruitment which also criticised social conditions in Ireland. This was a “distinctly treasonable idea”, wrote Connolly, and “the poor Censor was fooled… unable to observe the plotting of treason and inciting of seditious letters in the mansion of an Irish aristocrat”.
  12. Healy’s father, Maurice senior, was a nationalist MP, as was his uncle Timothy who represented the employers in the Board of Trade inquiry into the 1913 lockout.
  13. A confectionery company in central Dublin.
  14. A nickname for British soldiers.
  15. This was the title of Connolly’s editorial in the January 29 Workers’ Republic, in which he discussed a talk given by Father Laurence to Dublin trades’ council. Connolly argued that in society, as in a family, all members should share equally in the common resources (see Collected Works II, New Books 1988, p 366-8). Joseph Bailey wrote to the paper, objecting that natural differences in individuals would lead to different demands upon social resources, and so they couldn’t be shared equally. Connolly’s reply follows.