The Dead Russians Society
Anyone want to buy a dozen statues of Lenin? The recent recession in the Lenin-statue works is terminal. Now that Sir Nikolai Ceauceascu and his mates have bitten the dust or headed off to their holiday homes in North Korea, only a few fossilised Chinese and Cuban academics are still paid to sing the praises of dead Russians.
In the 1920s Lenin-worship was all the rage. Naive leftists from Tottenham to Turin would dutifully repeat the Bolshevik liturgy to whoever could be persuaded to listen. Russia, it was said, had had the first ever socialist revolution. It was led by Lenin who had translated Marx’s theories into practice. If you wanted to see socialism in all its living glory, look no further than the centralised hell-holes of the Kremlin-ruled state dictatorships. That was “the line””. Here was the leading Labour politician, George Lansbury, returning from Moscow as a born-again Bolshevik:
” In my judgement, no set of men and women responsible for a revolution ever made fewer mistakes or carried their revolution through with less interference with the rights of individuals, or with less terrorism and destruction, than the men in control in Russia.”(What I Saw In Russia, p. xii, 1920).
Lenin, wrote Lansbury, exhibited “devotion to the cause of humanity” and Trotsky, whom he never even met, was said to be “one of the greatest leaders of men ever.” This elevation of demagogic Russian history-makers was one of the most sickening characteristics of the ecstasies with which the deluded praised their gods. Of course, you had to be up with the fashions. One year Trotsky was your main man and Bukharin on historical materialism was second to none; a little later Trotsky was a viper and Stalin repaid Bukharin’s servility by liquidating him.
In the 1970s the present writer went to a “Marxist Conference” where sects prepared to become vanguards while the world outside listened to Gary Glitter and wore flowery ties. It was a day-long event and a conveyor belt of gesticulating gurus were taking turns explaining how the storming of the Winter Palace by the war-weary Russian peasants (known in leftist circles as the brave proletarian masses) could be reproduced in Manchester if only the Trots could fiddle enough votes at the forthcoming regional NALGO conference. One speaker accused another of being a Stalinist. A woman selling papers at the door told a rival paper-seller that he was clearly unfamiliar with Preobrazhensky, at which he retaliated devilishly with the wounding observation that she had clearly more in common with Zinoviev and Kamenev than Lenin. I pointed out that she had a voice not unlike Cilla Black’s and was instantly dismissed as a Menshevik stooge. Half a century after the Bolshevik coup and even the vocabulary of abuse was stale Russian.
As long as the Leninist Empire remained, the blood-flow into this queer movement of dead-Russian worshippers did not cease. Cheap editions of Lenin’s anti-socialist speeches and writings rolled off Moscow printing presses like Bibles from the Catholic Truth Society. Now that it has become apparent that the victims of state capitalism were the first to want to cast off religious Leninism, only the most entrenched believers can carry on the faith. The present writer paid his annual visit to the Hampstead Morning Star bazaar at the end of last summer. It is always a good place to pick up some cheap editions of long-wanted volumes. But last year, with the Berlin Wall gone, the August coup failed and “Communist” economists busy planning the free market, there was something unusually bizarre about the bazaar.
Old women sitting behind stalls muttered about how Gorbachev would see them through and a man of eighty boasted that he was a hundred years before his time and looked forward to the when starving East Germans would turn to Lenin and repent for their disaffection. An old Stalinist addressed a young Morning Star reader (perhaps the young Morning Star reader) about how he had visited collective farms in Bulgaria and never seen such happiness in his life. Looking around the bazaar, the cemetery of lost dreams, it was easy to see that even ignorance is not always bliss. Their god had died. A bust of Lenin was on sale for fifty pence; I bought it to put next to the burglar alarm and the flick-knife that are being carefully preserved for the Museum of Capitalist Madness that needs to be set up once we have a socialist world.
The bizarre, fetishised attachments of geriatric Bolshevik dogmatists need not detain us. They will die. and with them their illusions. Nobody will be selling Soviet Weekly in the year 2000: in fact, the paper no longer exists and never will again. But what of young Leninists? Why young Leninists? What can it be that makes any one with genuine hatred for capitalism and a desire for social transformation still adhere to these sterile dogmas?
Part of the answer lies in the development of a mythology about the Russian revolution: wishful belief has replaced verifiable history and the end result is a statement like this one, in a leaflet handed out by the International Communist Current: “October was a revolution in the real sense of the term: the overthrow of one class by another”. Of which class by which? In the Russia of 1917 the vast majority of the population were illiterate peasants who wanted peace, land and bread. They wanted property society, not socialism. The Bolsheviks pandered to these non-socialist millions, and they won acquiescence from the politically unconscious workers. Especially after the Kornilov coup of August 1917. But when the Constituent Assembly elections came in 1918 a majority of Russian workers and peasants did not vote for the Bolsheviks who, regardless of the majority will, took dictatorial state power.
In a remarkably absurd eighty-page article in the SWP’s International Socialism (Autumn 1991), John Rees attempts to defend the tactics of the Leninist dictators over the proletariat. Rees and the SWP realise that everything they stand for depends upon the validity of the strategy adopted by the Dead Russians of 1917. Rees, following Lenin, argues that the problem facing the Bolshevik revolution was the failure of the workers in the rest of Europe to follow the Bolshevik lead. This failure is explained thus:
“What was lacking in these revolutionary upheavals was not the objective European-wide crisis. Neither was it the willingness of workers to struggle for power. What was lacking was a leadership of sufficient clarity and an organisation with a core of sufficiently experienced members to successfully lead these movements to power.“(p. 9. Our emphasis).
So, all across Europe in 1917 the workers were ready for socialist revolution, but what they needed, says this SWP leader, were a gang of good leaders – like Lenin and Trotsky, like Rees and the SWP. If only they were there at the time. In the course of this defence Rees justifies the Red Terror of the Cheka and the GPU, supports the massacre of the sailors at Kronstadt who wanted an end to Bolshevik totalitarianism within the soviets (“Had the Kronstadters demands for soviets without parties been realised they would have expressed the ferocious, elemental hostility of the peasants to the Bolsheviks” (p. 63)) and argues the case for the 1921 ban on parties dissenting from the leadership on the grounds that “the Workers Opposition’s plans could only have led to a disintegration of the regime” (p. 67). Such explicit support for such disgustingly undemocratic politics should he enough to dismiss the SWP from the minds of anyone whose conception of socialism is not perverted by deeply authoritarian beliefs.
Rees defends most of the Bolshevik actions against the workers (his article is entitled “In Defence of October”, after all – even though the revolution was in November), but even he will not openly defend the Bolshevik closure of the Constituent Assembly because they lost the election. Instead, historical myth is invoked and we are told that the Bolsheviks really won the 1918 election, but the results did not reflect this. Other Leninists are rather less coy about the crushing of the elected Assembly by the Bolsheviks: the ICC’s World Revolution (November 1991) argues that the soviets, not the Bolsheviks, closed down the Assembly and were right to do so because the parties elected to sit in it would not represent the working class. Apart from the historical fact that the Bolsheviks were the ones who smashed the Assembly by order of their own Central Committee, the ICC must be congratulated for their honesty: if you don’t trust the views of the workers at the ballot box you tell the workers to take a running jump. This is classical Leninist undemocratic arrogance.
What future can there be for this subworld of 1917-set Russian fantasies? For how much longer will gurus like Tony Cliff draw in bewildered young workers, attracted to the notion of socialist politics by real experiences under real capitalism, to listen to obsolete orations about the ten days which shook the world and put world socialism back for a century? How much longer can Lenin and Trotsky exercise a sort of mystical influence upon people searching for a way into the creation of a new social system and not a tour of the ruins of failed ideologies?
The most unsuccessful merchant in the modern world must surely be the jerk standing in Red Square selling copies of What Is to Be Done?, the handbook for professional authoritarian revolution-wreckers. The most foolish political thinkers around now must be those who imagine for one moment that they can build a revolution upon the rotting corpses and stale rhetoric of long-dead Russian leaders. The Socialist Party is hostile to all defenders of capitalism, but none more than those who preserve capitalism in the name of fighting for socialism. They are not only crazy, they are dangerous.