Anti-Capital generally does not publish book reviews, but an exception will be made for the book, “Centenary of the Russian Revolution,” published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). 2017 was a carnival of anti-communism, in which all forms of media carried a century’s worth of reaction against the greatest event in the history of humanity. Defending the revolution is a necessary obligation for all who work toward the emancipation of labor from capital. This defense is especially important within the socialist movement, where you will find those who claim the method of Marx but energetically reject the revolution. An Anti-Capital reader requested a review of the SPGB’s book and we thought the subject important enough to act on that request.
But the text isn’t a traditional book. It’s a collection of articles originally published in the SPGB press organ– the Socialist Standard. The earliest article in the collection was published in 1905 and the latest in 1990. It is a collection which was assembled for the occasion of the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917 and elaborates the definitive political positions of the SPGB.
18 months after the formation of the SPGB in 1904 from a split in the Social Democratic Federation, the new party published an article about the then-contemporary events happening in Russia:
“No one can gainsay the fact that the Russian workers have in the present upheaval shown great power of organization and class solidarity, but, on the other hand, nobody understanding even in the smallest degree the causes of the great Russian crisis can honestly assert that the struggle in which the Russian workers are now taking part by means of strikes and demonstrations is distinctly working class in character” (Centenary of the Russian Revolution, ‘The Russian Upheaval’, December 1905, p. 17-18)
This article concerning the Russian Revolution of 1905 and its inclusion in a book about 1917 was clearly an intentional statement by the SPGB. This article frames their entire conception of the class struggle and by extension, their position on the October Revolution of 1917.
The SPGB claims the method of Marx while at the same time rejecting Marx’s own application of this method. There can be no doubt, based on the SPGB’s position on all the revolutions and revolutionary movements of the 20th century, that they would have dismissed the Revolutions of 1848-49 and the Commune of 1871 for the same reasons that they dismissed the Russian revolutions of 1905, 1917 and the Spanish revolution of 1934-39. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the SPGB would have rejected the positions of the Communist League and the actions of its militants, like Joseph Moll who fell during the Palatine Uprising or Joseph Weydemeyer who served as an artillery officer in the Union Army during the American civil war, for the same reason they rejected the positions and actions of the Bolsheviks.
This explicit rejection of the Bolsheviks and its implicit rejection of Marx and his co-workers can be distilled into 1 topic: the Marxist conception of the class struggle.
For the SPGB, every revolution is a coup d’etat. February 1917 was a capitalist coup d’etat (Ibid, ‘The Russian Situation’, June 1917, p. 23), October 1917 was a Bolshevik coup d’etat (Ibid, p.31); 1905 was a “capitalist movement” (Ibid, ‘The Revolution in Russia: Where it Fails’, August 1918, p. 37).
A common theme throughout the SPGB’s writings is an explicit rejection of the class struggle as the motor force of human society (historical materialism) and a rejection of the class struggle as the material basis for the revolutionary movement of the working-class (socialism).
There are a series of bizarre contradictions arising from this rejection of the class struggle. At the same time that they claim that struggles for higher wages, shorter hours and improved working conditions are inevitable and necessary under capitalism, they also claim that the workers’ party has no role in these struggles. At the same time that they reject the workers’ councils as organs of the proletarian revolution, they observe that the workers’ councils effectively wielded dual power after the “capitalist coup d’état” of the February Revolution (Ibid, p. 25 and p. 52-53).
Apparent in their flippant categorizations of the three Russian revolutions which completely disenfranchise and erase the millions of organized workers who were fighting under the red flag for socialism is a crass economic determinism:
“Capitalism may develop, but its basis and essential character remains the same. The principles, therefore, which are deduced from that basis and serve as a guide to working-class action remain unchanged. As for the application of those principles, in the words of Marx: ‘The more highly developed country holds up to the less developed the mirror of its own future.’ It is not, therefore, a question of us following Russia, but it will be a question of Russia having to follow us” (Ibid, ‘Parliament or Soviet? A Critical Examination’, April 1920, p. 47-48)
This rejection of the class struggle combined with crass economic determinism allowed the SPGB to deny the proletarian revolution in general and the October Revolution in particular on a basis much like that of the Mensheviks: the old line about Russia not being industrially developed enough for a proletarian-socialist revolution.
In place of the living dynamics of the real-existing class struggle as it actually exists and the course it actually takes at the heart of Marxist materialism, the SPGB substitutes metaphysics:
“In this huge mass of people, numbering about 160,000,000 and spread over eight and a half millions of square miles, ready for Socialism? Are the hunters of the North, the struggling peasant proprietors of the South, the agricultural wage slaves of the Central Provinces and the industrial wage slaves of the towns convinced of the necessity, and equipped with the knowledge requisite, for the establishment of the social ownership of the means of life?
Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred immensely more rapidly than history has recorded, the answer is ‘No!'” (Ibid, ‘The Revolution in Russia: Where it Fails’, August 1918, p. 40)
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
In ‘The Russian Dictatorship’ (July 1920, p. 54), we find an incredible claim: that the dictatorship of the proletariat is not a central theory of Marxism. The SPGB waded into the then-contemporary polemics between Lenin and Kautsky to give the following commentary:
“Marx, of course, is freely quoted by both writers. On p. 140 Kautsky, while stating that the Bolsheviks are Marxists, asks how they find a Marxist foundation for their proceedings.
‘They remembered opportunely the expression ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, which Marx used in a letter written in 1875.’
Kautsky states that this is the only place in the whole of Marx’s writings where this phrase occurs, though Engels used it in his preface to the 3rd edition of Marx’s Civil War in France.
Lenin’s reply to this is to call the passage a ‘celebrated’ one, and to call Kautsky several names. He then makes the following statement:
‘Kautsky cannot but know that both Marx and Engels, both in their letters and public writings, spoke repeatedly about the dictatorship of the proletariat, both before and after the Commune’ (p. 12.).
Here was a grand opportunity for Lenin to get in a powerful blow by giving some of these ‘letters and public writings’, but, to the chagrin, no doubt, of his followers, he does not give a single case outside those mentioned above. There are endeavors to twist some of Marx’s statements on the Commune of Paris (1871) into a support of this claim, but they are all dismal failures. Only in the Communist Manifesto is found a phrase – ‘the proletariat organized as a ruling class’ – that bears any resemblance”
The phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ originates in an article penned by Marx’s co-worker from the Communist League, Joseph Weydemeyer, and published on January 1st, 1852 in the New York Turn-Zeitung. The content of the phrase however was already several years old and goes back to the German communist milieu from which both he and Marx emerged. The SPGB correctly identifies the Manifesto of the Communist Party as expressing this content: the revolutionary proletariat organized as a ruling class. But that’s the sum total of what they got right.
In a letter from Marx to Weydemeyer a few weeks after Weydemeyer’s article, “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was published in New York, Marx said:
“… and now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes. 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.
Ignorant louts like Heinzen, who deny not merely the class struggle but even the existence of classes, only prove that, despite all their blood-curdling yelps and the humanitarian airs they give themselves, they regard the social conditions under which the bourgeoisie rules as the final product, the non plus ultra [highest point attainable] of history, and that they are only the servants of the bourgeoisie. And the less these louts realize the greatness and transient necessity of the bourgeois regime itself the more disgusting is their servitude….” (Extract of a Letter from Marx to Weydemeyer, February 5, 1852)
The dictatorship of the proletariat– the revolutionary organization of power by the working-class– was identified by Marx as one of his two unique contributions and equal to the other: historical materialism (both rejected by the SPGB).
This was before the Commune. After the Commune came Marx’s definitive statement on the subject:
“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875)
Both passages were included and analyzed in Lenin’s The State and Revolution, in addition to Marx’s writings on the Commune.
On the occasion of Lenin’s death in 1924, the SPGB criticized contemporary articles about it– specifically those that mentioned the proletarian dictatorship in Marxism and its application in Russia:
“In the first sentence we have two assertions; one, that Lenin established the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, the other that this is a ‘Marxian principle’. Both statements are deliberately false.
Lenin never established any ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ – whatever that may mean – but only the Dictatorship of the Communist Party which exists today. In the whole of Marx’s writing that he himself saw through the press the phrase ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ does not occur once!” (Ibid, ‘The Passing of Lenin’, March 1924, p. 77)
It doesn’t occur to the SPGB that it was the revolutionary workers and their allies, organized in all forms of labor organization including the organs that would replace the capitalist state– the councils– and led by the workers’ party that established the proletarian dictatorship. It wouldn’t have been possible for them to articulate the situation as it was, because October was just a “coup d’état” and Marx never saw fit to promulgate the seizure of power by the organized working-class in their conception.
Times Change, Doctrine Doesn’t
With these questions underlying every word from every article, there is a high degree of similarity in each and every article written by the SPGB about the October Revolution, the Communist Party and the Soviet Union– from 1917 to 1990.
If you removed the names and dates within the articles, you wouldn’t really be able to tell whether it was written in 1918, 1923, 1938, 1956, 1965, 1979 or 1986.
“When the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, the SPGB pointed out that it would not result in Socialism, but in a development of capitalism. We laid great emphasis on the fact that Russia, being still very backward, was not ripe for Socialism. The population of Russia was composed chiefly of peasants. How could they, illiterate and individualistic in outlook, have any understanding of Socialism, or any desire for it?” (Ibid, p. 128)
“The Bolsheviks in spite of their Marxist language and at times idealistic phrases were never socialists. They served instead as spokesmen of a new ruling class in Russia, a class itself the outcome of the very economic tendencies existing in Russia, the tendencies towards State Capitalism. In the furnace of the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks were themselves forged into an instrument of class domination” (Ibid, p. 147)
“We rejected the propositions that a Socialist revolution had taken place in Russia, that the working class had come to power, that ‘intellectual minorities’ could ‘lead’ an unprepared working class to Socialism, that Parliament was ‘useless’ and that Russia had forged new instruments for working class emancipation…
Our attitude on the Russian question is unchanged today and there is nothing that was written by our comrades in 1918 that we would withdraw” (Ibid, p. 153-154)
All that exists is the doctrine. There is no room for the living class struggle, for the working-class as it is, for the balance of forces between classes. Unless and until the working-class, the class struggle and history itself adapt to the SPGB’s doctrine, socialism is to remain an ideal divorced from reality (and must be kept that way lest it become corrupted).
They are going to be waiting forever, just as their predecessors waited, for the impossible.