Friday, 21 February 2014

Bristol City Council agrees over £80m of cuts

By Tom Baldwin

Bristol was dealt a huge blow this week as the council agreed a budget with over £80m cuts to jobs and services. However, the budget meeting we were gave a tiny glimpse of what a determined opposition could have achieved.

Despite a shocking lack of detail, the budget proposed by the 'independent' Mayor and his cross-party cabinet made for chilling reading. At stake were up to 1000 jobs and vast swathes of council services including libraries and care services. But the seriousness of the situation was lost on most councillors. They laughed and joked or fought staged skirmishes around the edge of the budget, while 95% of the cuts went virtually unchallenged.

Confusion reigned in large parts of the meeting as councillors tied themselves in knots trying to face both ways at once. The Labour, LibDem and Green groups all announced their intention to vote against the budget. Panic set in as they realised this would mean the budget being rejected. Clearly this was intended as a gesture to try keep themselves 'clean', it wasn't meant to actually stop the cuts!

The Conservative group leader berated the others for "grandstanding" when they hadn't proposed significant amendments to the budget and all had members in the cabinet that was recommending it. He was right but of course, the Tories weren't about to offer any real opposition. On the contrary, he was keen to see his party's policies implemented and not above lying to achieve it, falsely claiming that the budget had to be agreed that night by law.

The meeting was adjourned and frantic horse-trading began to try and get the budget through. Despite being told for months that level of cuts was necessary and unchangeable, suddenly an extra £1.3m could be rustled up in just half an hour. This was the cost of buying Labour's support. It was a small improvement but the cuts they prevented were dwarfed by those they voted for. This was a cosmetic concession, £1.3m out of an £83m cuts budget, when the council is sitting on £200m in reserves! The overall effects will still be disastrous for the city.

Nevertheless, it shows that austerity is not the immovable object our councillors would have us believe. Despite all their crocodile tears about the 'tough decisions' they're being forced into, they do have the power to oppose cuts.

Imagine how much more could be done by principled and consistent anti-cuts councillors. The night before the budget meeting the Council House held a very different event. In a meeting organised by Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts, Southampton anti-cuts councillor Keith Morrell gave the example of how councillors can fight cuts. He was expelled from the Labour Party for voting against cuts but was successful in campaigning to save a swimming pool in his ward.

Keith explained how the council’s budget should reflect the city’s needs, not Tory demands for cuts. He and colleague Don Thomas had put forward an alternative budget that used borrowing and reserves to protect all jobs and services for a year while a campaign could be built to win back the money stolen by the Tories.

Campaigns for needs budgets could force this unpopular government back but we’d be far stronger with political representatives that were willing to take a stand. Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts will be standing in every seat in Bristol in May to offer a genuine anti-cuts alternative.

Bristol Demo - No to Budget Cuts!



Video of the 8th Feb demonstration of hundreds in Bristol against council budget cuts, organised by Save Our City.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Bloodshed in Kiev: What lies behind the Ukraine crisis?

www.socialistworld.net, 19/02/2014
website of the committee for a workers' international, CWI

What lies behind the Ukraine crisis?

Rob Jones, from Socialism Today (March edition, No.176)


Massive protests are rocking Ukraine once again. President Yanukovich’s riot police have violently clashed with protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square. To date, 29 are reported dead and hundreds injured. A rotten political system lies exposed. In article written just before these events, Rob Jones looks at the different forces behind the Ukraine crisis.

Passions have run as high as the weather has been cold in Ukraine. Demonstrators have seized ministry and city administration buildings in the capital Kiev and throughout the country, particularly in the western regions. In the East, where president Viktor Yanukovich has his main base of support, local authorities have blockaded their own offices using huge blocks of concrete to prevent their occupation. Protestors have used whatever materials they can to build their barricades. In some places, piles of old tyres are used. In others, sandbags full of snow and ice have been heaped up.

Ten years ago, a massive protest, the ‘Orange revolution’, against the fraudulent conduct of Ukrainian presidential elections, saw Yanukovich replaced as president by Viktor Yushenko. Yushenko kept his grip on power for one term before Yanukovich was elected back to office. Now, once again, Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) has been filled for over two months with protesters, tents and barricades as thousands of protesters hold out in their campaign to bring Yanukovich down again. The word ‘Maidan’ has entered the political lexicon as symbolising protest, this time in the form of ‘Euromaidan’.






The spark was the unexpected decision by the Supreme Rada (parliament) on 21 November to suspend the signing of the ‘association agreement’ with the European Union, scheduled to take place at the EU summit in Lithuania at the end of November. This was not a proposal for Ukraine to join the EU. In the current economic climate the EU can maybe integrate one or two of the smaller states in eastern Europe, but it would not be able to handle Ukraine, the third poorest country in Europe with a GDP per head of €5,600, yet the largest by area and the fifth largest by population (excluding Russia). The association agreement was intended to encourage Ukraine to adopt EU ‘values of democracy and justice’ and, most importantly, enable a free-trade agreement to be reached.

According to the then premier, Mykola Azarov, who was sacked in January as part of Yanukovich’s concessions to the protesters, the decision to delay the association agreement was taken following the receipt of a letter from the IMF on 29 November. This outlined the conditions for the refinancing of the rescue loans taken out in 2008 and 2010. Azarov said: “The terms were an increase of gas and heating tariffs for the population by approximately 40%, a commitment to freezing basic, minimal and net salaries at the current level, a significant reduction of budget expenditures, the lowering of energy subsidies, and the gradual curtailment of VAT exemption benefits for agriculture and other sectors”. He complained that, although the EU was making promises about future economic benefits, it was not prepared to offer immediate help to the country.

Since the start of the global crisis, Ukraine has been in a dire economic situation. Between 2008 and 2009 the economy dropped by 15% and has not yet recovered. Unemployment jumped from 3% to 9%, a figure that vastly underestimates the real situation. GDP per head is the third lowest in Europe, beating only that of impoverished Moldova and Kosovo.

The desperate situation in which many Ukrainians live explains why the movement took on such a pro-EU colouring, at least in the early stages. Many, particularly youth, look on the EU as a haven of relative wealth and freedom, especially when compared to the alternative – Russia. One figure alone is enough to explain why: the average wage in Ukraine is €250 a month, and this tends to be lower in the western part. The average wage in neighbouring Poland, which is in the EU, is twice as much. As news came out that the signing of the agreement had been cancelled under Russian pressure, students flooded onto the streets in the west of the country. In Lviv, capital of West Ukraine, the demands were wide-ranging: from demands that the government sign the association agreement to those on university administrations to allow students to come and go from their hostels whenever they like.
East-west tug-of-war

Underlying the original Orange revolution, and playing as significant a role in Euromaidan, is the national question. There are sharp divisions between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east of the country, where most heavy industry is located. But exacerbating the language division has been a no-holds-barred struggle by the different imperialist powers to reap economic gain from the exploitation of Ukraine and achieve geopolitical advantage. The western powers were prepared to go further in making concessions to the Ukrainian government before the outbreak of Euromaidan solely because they wanted to use the country as a bulwark restricting Russia’s influence. Russia in its turn wants to maintain its influence and uses any aid it offers as a lever to strengthen its position.

Yanukovich is usually seen as pro-Russian but, since his return to power in 2010, he has been pragmatic in his relations between the powers. His first visit was to Brussels, where he confirmed that Ukraine would remain as part of Nato’s outreach programme. Shortly after, he visited Moscow, where he promised to restore previous good relations. He resisted, however, any attempts by Vladimir Putin to recruit Ukraine to the Eurasian customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Until December’s shock decision, it seemed that Yanukovich was enthusiastic about the EU’s association agreement.

As the date for signing it came closer, Russia stepped up its restrictions on trade. Trade volume between the two countries fell by 11% in 2012 ($45bn) and by a further 15% in 2013. The trade volume between Ukraine and the EU is about the same but, given the state of the EU economy, it has not been able to increase its trade to make up for the loss from Russia. The €1.8 billion aid over ten years offered by the EU to compensate for such losses was clearly nowhere near adequate. In addition, Russia uses the gas pipelines crossing Ukraine as a further lever.

It now seems difficult to believe, but the first few days of Euromaidan were held in a holiday atmosphere. Many students seemed to treat it as one large picnic, commenting that they had not come to support any particular political idea. At the big rally on 24 November the speeches from the main opposition parties went down like damp squibs. The crowd chanted ‘down with the gang’ referring to Yanukovich’s clique. Some nationalist speakers who attempted to whip up division by chanting against the ‘Moskali’ (an offensive term for Russians) were also met with indifference. This was to change quite quickly. By early December, when a speaker from the Svoboda (freedom) party called for a stall set up by independent trade unions in the square to be removed, a crowd of far-right thugs attacked the trade unionists, leaving one with broken ribs.
The political ‘opposition’

From the beginning three figures, representing the coalition of opposition parties in the parliament, have been the political face of the protest. Arseniy Yatseniuk represents the party of the jailed former premier Yulia Timoshenko, once known as the ‘gas princess’ from the time when she controlled most of the gas imports from Russia. She was one of the leaders of the Orange revolution. In power, her government followed an economic course based on a dish of pro-Europeanism and neo-liberalism served with a mild populist sauce. Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion, leads his party Udar (punch or blow), which argues for European integration and is linked to the European People’s Party, the Christian Democratic bloc in the European parliament.

The third leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, represents the Svoboda party, which has 37 seats in parliament and controls local government in three regions. This party is ultra-right-wing and, according to some, neo-fascist. Until 2004 it used a Ukrainianised swastika as its party symbol. Tyahnybok himself virulently hates anything left wing and justifies those who collaborated with Hitler as fighting “Moskali, Germans, Jews and other unclean elements”. For electoral reasons Svoboda has attempted to moderate its image but has, together with the even nastier union of ultra-right-wing parties and football hooligans (the Right Sector), played an increasingly dangerous role in Euromaidan.

Following the refusal to sign the association agreement, Yanukovich was forced to travel the world searching for funds. Although agreeing to $8 billion-worth of trade deals in China, Beijing proved unwilling to give direct aid to Ukraine. Russia, however, agreed to a loan of $15 billion and to cut the price of natural gas by 33%, although this deal is subject to Yanukovich remaining in power. While helping Ukraine to avoid defaulting on its debts immediately, the economy, after three months of street protests, is still in a desperate state.





Increased state violence

By the time this deal was made, Euromaidan had already developed out of control. An attempt by state forces, and particularly the Verkuta riot police, to break up the protest by clearing Maidan Nezalizhimosti at 4am on 30 November, supposedly to allow for the New Year tree to be erected, left many badly wounded. In response, hundreds of thousands turned out to demonstrate on 1 December, with an even bigger demo a week later. The nature of demands changed. Demands to sign the association agreement became less important, those for the resignation of the president and government with early elections became more dominant. Various groups started to occupy government buildings. Even the presidential administration building was under siege. The ultra-right groups began to set up militia and defence squads.

The stepping up of protests in this way caused a catastrophic crisis in the regime. By retreating to repression, the government had merely provoked more anger. Unable to calm the protesters, the government passed a series of twelve laws on 16 January that became known as the ‘laws on dictatorship’. These would have brought Ukraine into line with the more authoritarian regimes of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. ‘Extremist’ activity, although undefined, could lead to a three-year prison sentence, occupying government buildings could earn five years. Organisations receiving money from aboard would be treated as ‘foreign agents’, the wearing of masks was banned, and restrictions were placed on the internet. Police and other state agents would be granted immunity for any crimes carried out while dealing with protestors.

These laws led to another upsurge in protest. Not only was the weekend demonstration following the passing of the laws attended by over 200,000, but the more extreme, mainly far-right protesters stepped up the occupation of government buildings. The far-right UNA-UNSO issued a call for all Ukrainians to take up arms against the government. Rumours were rife throughout the country that tanks were being moved. The wife of a riot police officer told the press that the riot police were being ordered to evacuate their families from the city. The riot police were given permission to use water cannon in temperatures of -10C.

But Yanukovich was first to blink. On 24 January he hinted that the dictatorship laws would be amended. Four days later, prime minister Azarov offered his resignation and the government fell. The promise to repeal the dictatorship laws was used as a lever to end the occupation of government buildings. Yanukovich offered to form a coalition government, including Yatseniuk and Klitschko. Undoubtedly the two would have been prepared to serve but, under pressure from the more radical protesters, they have initially rejected the offer, saying that the only possible option is for a ‘government of the Maidan’ to be formed and Yanukovich to resign, paving the way for new elections.
Left political confusion

If an election were held today, the parties of Yatseniuk and Klitschko would get good votes. But their willingness to work with Svoboda could well mean this far-right party getting places in government too. The bourgeois opposition leaders have created a trap for themselves by being prepared to work with the ultra-right. In particular Klitschko, who positions himself as the natural European and actually lives in Germany, has bowed to the pressure of the far-right. He now begins his speeches on the Maidan with the ultra-right slogan ‘Glory to the Ukraine’, to which the crowd respond, ‘Glory to its heroes’.

These events have led to an apparent strengthening of support for Svoboda and the Right Sector. The reasons for this should be understood, however, and to a large degree the left has to take responsibility. Nominally, the largest ‘left’ party in the country is the Communist Party with 32 seats in parliament. Unbelievably, as soon as the protests began, its parliamentary fraction announced it would stop calling for the government’s resignation. It fully supported the passing of the dictatorship laws and complained when they were partially withdrawn.

The CP bases its policies not on what serves the interests of the working class in Ukraine but on what serves the geopolitical interests of Russia. While CP leader Petr Simonenko criticises the EU and US for their outrageous and direct intervention in the Maidan, he argues that Ukraine should join Russia’s customs union. Regional branches of his party have even tried to organise demonstrations with this demand. This position, of course, gives the far-right ammunition to attack the left in general for just wanting to abandon Ukrainian independence in the interests of Russian imperialism.

The ‘non-system’ left – those not represented in parliament – have not been much better. There is no doubt that, from the beginning of the Orange revolution, the main feature has been a clash between the interests of different sections of the Ukrainian bourgeois. This time is no exception. Those oligarchs in favour of going west are those in general whose business interests are related to light industry and services, while those who look east are from heavy industry.

However, as has happened with sections of the state and security forces, there have been signs that some of the oligarchs are hedging their bets. Even Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akmetov, who originally proposed Yanukovich for president, condemned the violence against the protesters, although he has since ‘returned’ to Yanukovich’s side. The third richest, Dmitry Firtash, who made his wealth through his links with Russia, is reportedly the main sponsor of Klitschko’s Udar party. Petr Poroshenko, in fourth place, addressed the demonstrations in Maidan demanding that the association agreement be signed immediately. His interest is clear. When Russia introduced trade sanctions against Ukraine in 2013, his Roshin chocolate factory was the main victim.

A section of the non-system left draws the conclusion from this that the whole Maidan experience is simply a struggle for the interests of the oligarchs, without sufficiently understanding that the anger of those who participate is fuelled by economic desperation and hatred of the increasingly autocratic government. Those from a ‘communist’ tradition tend to argue that this is not our struggle. In particular, they see no other factors involved other than the influence of the far-right. An example is the Borotba group, which on many questions has a good position. In Odessa, overwhelmingly a Russian-speaking city, it occupied the administration building to prevent it being taken over by the small but vocal local Svoboda organisation. In essence, its actions were understandable, but it failed to give an alternative, apart from general phrases, either to the Maidan or Yanukovich’s forces. To do otherwise would have required addressing the national question.

Another section of the non-system left depicts Yanukovich as a fascist. It argues that to refuse to struggle on the grounds that it is impossible to work with the right-wing forces will lead to the victory of the fascist junta, which would mean that any form of self-organisation, independent trade unions, or political parties, will be impossible. Its intervention in the protests fails to provide a clear alternative and it ends up tail-ending the pro-capitalist opposition leaders.





Support for the far-right

Although support for the far-right groups appears to have grown during these protests, it has not been built on a firm base. Svoboda has only managed to gain by hiding its real nature from the masses. Not so long ago, Svoboda criticised the moves to integrate with the EU as an “acceptance of cosmopolitanism, the neoliberal empire which will lead to the complete loss of national identity with the legalisation of single-sex marriages and the integration of Afro-Asian migrants into a multi-cultured society”. Just three days after the start of Euromaidan, its Lviv organisation organised a torchlight march with white-power flags in solidarity with Greece’s Golden Dawn. But such was the distaste among others, that Svoboda has put such interventions on hold. The Right Sector, however, does not hide its position. The EU, it says, is an “anti-Christian, anti-national structure whose real face is gay parades, race riots, the legalisation of drugs and prostitution, single-sex marriages, the collapse of morality and spiritual decline”.

Some of those protesters who are following the nationalists argue that they are not doing so, primarily, because they support the nationalists’ ideas but because they are providing a lead. Such support will not last for long. Indeed, according to at least three opinion polls in January, support for Svoboda nationally has fallen significantly since the last election. Unfortunately, even the presence of the far-right gives the regime a powerful propaganda weapon for use in the eastern part of the country where the vast majority of the population still associate fascism with the horrors of the world war.

The clear weakness in the current movement, and indeed one that has existed since the first Orange revolution, is the lack of a clear left and working-class alternative that could give it a genuine revolutionary character. From its start in November many of the activists have expressed their opposition to the current political parties. Only in this vacuum has it been possible for the far-right to gain the position it has. If a serious left force had existed, and intervened decisively in these events, this would not have happened.
The role of the workers’ movement

This necessity for a left alternative is demonstrated by the continuing economic crisis. Ukraine has already been in recession for 18 months and, although Ukraine’s central bank supported the hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency) by nearly $2 billion in January, it has still fallen by 10% since November. Economists warn that the country is on the verge of another default. Neither the alliance with the EU nor agreement to join Russia’s customs union will provide a solution to Ukraine’s dire economic crisis.

Clearly a central part of the struggle should be over wages and conditions. While Yanukovich is touring the world searching for $15 billion to bail out the economy, his friend Akmetov has that precise sum in the bank. Ukraine’s industry and banks should be brought into public ownership so that the resources of the country can be used in the interests of all its citizens and not for the benefit of a few oligarchs. If that was to happen, Ukraine would not have to turn to the EU or Russia for help. It is necessary for genuine trade unions to be built to head the fight for decent living conditions.

The workers’ movement should place itself at the head of the struggle for democratic rights. The current movement is correctly calling for the resignation of Yanukovich and for new elections. But all that means today is the return of a new coalition government made up of the same parties that held power after the Orange revolution with the addition of the far-right Svoboda. It is necessary for the working class to organise to establish its own genuine and mass workers’ party that can defend the interests of all workers in the country and fight for political power. The current Rada is dominated by politicians who only represent the interests of the oligarchs. The workers’ movement should spearhead a struggle for the convening of a constitutional assembly at which representatives of Ukraine’s working people, students, unemployed and pensioners can decide how they want the country to be run in a democratic way.

Most importantly, the left and workers’ movement needs to take a clear and unequivocal position on the national question. The division of the country along national lines can only benefit the oligarchs, imperialist powers and big business. Decent wages and conditions, democratic rights and a workers’ government can only become reality if there is a united working-class struggle on these questions.

It is essential therefore that the working class rejects those politicians who seek to sell the country to either Russia or the EU, or attempt to establish a regime in the country that is based on the domination of one nationality against another. A united workers’ movement would give full support to the development of the Ukrainian language and culture but also defend the rights of those who speak Russian. While supporting the right to self-determination, the left needs to emphasise the need for the united struggle of the whole Ukrainian working class.

There is no solution to the problems faced by the Ukrainian population on the basis of the policies proposed by politicians such as Yanukovich or Klitschko, or by joining Russia’s customs union or the EU. A victory of the far-right around Svoboda or the Right Sector would lead Ukraine into dark days of ethnic conflict and reactionary dictatorship. The only way out is to fight for the establishment of a strong, united workers’ movement with its own mass workers’ party that can take political power. It would need to establish a socialist economy based on the public ownership of industry, banking and natural resources democratically planned by working people, in a united and independent socialist Ukraine as part of a wider federation of socialist states.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Floods misery: Government cuts to blame

 By Dave Carr - http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/18129/12-02-2014/floods-misery-government-cuts-to-blame

 While thousands of homes and shops are waist deep in toxic water, and flooding hits new areas, government ministers indulge in a blame game.

Stand-in
environment minister Eric Pickles blamed the Environment Agency for not dredging rivers, while the department's incapacitated minister Owen Paterson was reportedly raging to Prime Minister David Cameron over Pickles' attacks.

In reality, the entire
government is to blame for a lack of preparation and its outrageously inadequate response.

After all,
climate change scientists have been warning for years about the expected increased frequency of extreme weather events - including unprecedented rainfall - caused by human induced global warming.

Moreover, instead of investing in measures that have enormous potential to defend people, land and property against flooding, the government has pursued a vicious austerity agenda of public spending
cuts.

These cuts have been borne heavily by the Environment Agency, including its budget for flood prevention.

Incredibly, on top of previous cuts, some 1,500 agency jobs (15% of the workforce), including 550 jobs in flood prevention, are due to be axed by October.

Yet the cost to people's homes and the country's ruined infrastructure will run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

The floods have exposed how this government puts the interests of a rich elite above those of a long-suffering public.

It's high time that these 'Eton millionaires' are booted out and an environmentally sustainable plan of flood defences and infrastructure is put in place.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

PUBLIC MEETING - Councillors CAN Fight the Cuts!


£83m of cuts to Bristol council are being prepared by Mayor George Ferguson. These will mean 1000 jobs lost and huge cuts to services including libraries, parks, care services, leisure centres, children's centres, pollution management and sexual and domestic violence projects.

But this can be stopped. Below are details of two important events in the campaign against these cuts...
 
 

PUBLIC MEETING – Councillors CAN Fight the Cuts!

Mon 17th Feb, 7.30pm, Council House/City Hall, College Green. Speaker: Keith Morrell

Keith is an anti-cuts councillor in Southampton. He was kicked out of the Labour group for sticking to his promises and refusing to vote for the closure of a swimming pool. His campaign was successful and the pool has been saved. The day after the meeting councillors in Bristol will vote on £83m of cuts to the city. Keith will explain they have a choice and can save jobs and services.
 
Organised by Bristol Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts
Facebook event:  www.facebook.com/events/266947373462749/?ref=ts&fref=ts
Contact Tom on 07986951527 or tomobaldwin@gmail.com
www.tusc.org.uk www.facebook.com/TUSCBristol

 

DEMONSTRATION
Sat 8th Feb, 1pm, Castle Park to College Green
 
Called by Save Our City
Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/655410307815077/?fref=ts
see www.saveourcitybristol.org for more info

Friday, 24 January 2014

Lenin's revolutionary legacy

Lenin's revolutionary legacy

A review of "Lenin", by Lars T Lih

In an attempt to answer the description of Lenin by capitalist historians as a brutal dictator, some on the left turn to Lars T Lih. He has tried to reinvent the leader of the Russian revolution as some kind of woolly liberal. In so doing, Peter Taaffe writes in the February 2014 issue of Socialism Today, the understanding of how to build a movement capable of transforming society is in danger of being lost.
In the recent 'revolution' in Ukraine - aimed against Vladimir Putin's attempts to blackmail the Ukrainian government to keep within Russia's sphere of influence - a crowd demolished the last remaining statue of Lenin in the capital, Kiev. Statues like this were erected in the past in the former 'Soviet Union' by the privileged Stalinist bureaucratic elites, who wished to screen themselves from the anger of the masses by basking in the political authority of Lenin. In reality, they were separated by a colossal gulf from Lenin's real ideas about socialism and workers' democracy.
In the capitalist West there were few if any statues of Lenin to be toppled. So capitalist historians and academics, particularly after the collapse of Stalinism - and with this, unfortunately, the planned economies in Russia and Eastern Europe - did the next best thing. They vilified Lenin, and his co-leader of the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky, in an attempt to systematically discredit the ideas of socialism and genuine Marxism.
In a series of weighty tomes a small army of modern 'historians', like Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, and not forgetting the inimitable Robert Service, undertook a colossal rewriting of history. Figes was publicly exposed as criticising other historians' works while secretly writing laudatory reviews of his own books! Service's 'biography' of Trotsky, which we answered as soon as it was published, has now been discredited even by non-Marxist historians as lacking any objectivity.
Today, however, a new, more 'subtle' approach is required given the protracted crisis of capitalism, which has seen a renewed interest in socialism and Marxism. There is already a revolt in academia against the previous concentration on pro-market, capitalisteconomic teaching. There are increasing demands by students and lecturers that they be familiarised with the ideas of Karl Marx, as well as the more 'radical' of the capitalist Keynesian economists. In this can be perceived an element of the reappearance of the 1960s within the hallowed institutions of learning. The enormous radicalisation of students and academics which developed then was a reflection and, to some extent, precursor to the mass movements of workers in the 1960s and 1970s.
This book by Lars T Lih - first published in the 'Critical Lives' series in 2011 - is a response to this new situation. In it, and in his other writings, he is more sympathetic to Lenin than those historians mentioned above. But the claim on the jacket that the book "presents a striking new interpretation of Lenin's political outlook" is overblown, to say the least. Lars himself admits: "My view of Lenin is not particularly original and chimes in closely with most observers of Lenin and his time". Unfortunately, 'most observers' are still not 'sympathetic' to Lenin's views. This is particularly the case when it comes to the character of the kind of party the working class will need for a successful struggle against capitalism and for socialism.

Workers and peasants

Trotsky, who barely gets a mention in this book, gives a much richer account of the real history of Bolshevism in its initial phase in his unfinished biography of Stalin, albeit in a sketchy fashion. He also outlines clearly the views of Lenin on the crucial issues of the character ofrevolutionary party needed, and on the structures and practices of such a party, including democratic centralism and its origins.
Leon Trotsky reading The Militant newspaper in 1931
Leon Trotsky reading The Militant newspaper in 1931   (Click to enlarge)
Lars on the other hand, writes in a misleading, cloudy and abstruse fashion: "Lenin had a romantic view of leadership within the class. He sought to inspire the rank-and-file activists... with an exalted idea of what their own leadership could accomplish". In the same vein the book is irritatingly peppered throughout with phrases like Lenin's "heroic scenario". Then there are crude assertions on relations between the working class and the peasantry in Russia: "His insistence on the peasant as follower did not exclude an exalted, even romantic view of the peasants in the revolution. Heroic leaders required heroic followers".
Of course Lenin, like most Marxists, could be enthusiastic. In turn, they could be enthused by the spectacle of workers in struggle, especially when it reached a high point of revolution. Marxism is saturated with the spirit of optimism. At the same time, Lenin is deadly realistic about the prospects of the class struggle in general and all the issues involving the fate of the working class. His view of leadership, as with the need for the party, was not 'exalted' but practical and flowed from what was necessary.
Then again, what are we to make of Lars's conclusions at the end of the book when he writes: "Old Bolshevism was defined by its wager on the revolutionary qualities of the peasantry. Yet less than a decade after his death, the regime founded by Lenin was waging war on the peasants and imposing a revolution from above during the collectivisation campaign, contributing to a devastating famine". (p202)
Firstly, Bolshevism never put a 'wager' on the peasantry, but recognised that it could never play an independent role. Therefore, the issue was who would lead them in the revolution - who would satisfy their demand for the land - the working class or the bourgeoisie? History attested to the fact that the working class satisfied the peasantry in action, after the bourgeois and its parties had demonstrated that they would never give the land, as well as peace and bread, to the masses, including the peasant masses. Secondly, it is ludicrous to identify "the regime founded by Lenin", as Lars does, with that presided over by Stalin, already, ten years after Lenin's death, one dominated by a privileged bureaucratic elite. Indeed, Lenin's widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, famously stated in 1926 that if Lenin had lived, he would have been imprisoned under the Stalinist regime.

The revolutionary party

There are many misleading, and consequently erroneous, statements like this in the book and it cannot therefore be fully embraced as a correct account of Lenin's role in history. But it has been taken up by some on the left, even in certain quasi-Marxist circles. This is because Lars's presentation, particularly in relation to democratic centralism, chimes with a layer who rejects this idea, the 'hard' Lenin, in favour of an allegedly 'more open' one. It is not the first time we have confronted this phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s, journals like New Left Review would 'discover' woolly 'ground-breaking new theoreticians' who would then invariably disappear almost as quickly as they had appeared.
Lars's ideas have become the current fashion for those who are fleeing from genuine Marxism and the real traditions of Lenin and Trotsky. Vital in this respect is the need for a revolutionary party based upon the traditions of democratic centralism. This in no way contradicts the broader task of organising a mass workers' party at this stage. Of necessity, this will be required to organise on a much looser basis, involving a form of federation and in Britain, of course, rooted in the trade unions. The maintenance of a clear Marxist core within such broader formations is absolutely necessary. Without this, there will be no long-lasting gains for the working class.
History, including recent history, reinforces this point. For instance, the main forces behind the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998 came from our party. The leadership of Militant supported the formation of such a broad party; in fact, we were the first to advance this idea. But the leaders of Scottish Militant Labour (SML) proposed and carried out, at the same time as forming the SSP, the effective winding up of SML into this party. This, in turn, led to their separation from the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) in Scotland and internationally. They were not expelled but voluntarily departed from our ranks.
We warned at the time that not only would this mean the tragic weakening of a distinct revolutionary organisation and tradition in Scotland but, at a certain stage, the complete disintegration of the SSP as well. Unfortunately, this was borne out. A similar process happened in Italy, where different Marxist organisations joined Rifondazione Comunista (RC) when it was formed in 1991, but were incapable over time of winning the ranks of this party to a clear Marxist position. The RC has now effectively disintegrated.
Compare this to the achievements of Militant, both when it was in the Labour Party - in 1964, we had no more than 40 supporters - and during our expulsion in the late 1980s. The conclusion to draw from this is that in the case of both Scotland and Italy there was not a sufficiently organised and politically trained Marxist core capable of either winning a majority in the party or at least gaining more significant numbers, which could then form the basis of a new organisation or party.

The class, party and leadership

These mistakes flow from an incorrect understanding on the part of some Marxist forces of the relationship between the class, a party and its leadership. 'Democratic centralism' - the term itself - was not an invention of Lenin, but was first used in the Russian workers' movement by the Mensheviks within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). However, the conception of a party, its methods of organisation, and how discussion and internal debates should be conducted, have a long pedigree, beginning with Marx and Engels themselves.
This is shown, for instance, in the rules of the Communist League of 1847, of which Marx and Engels were members. Even before the term 'democratic centralism' was used, the concept was adopted within this, the first distinct international party of the working class.
In its statutes the Communist League states the conditions of membership: "Subordination to the decisions of the League... The circle [comprising a number of 'branches' as we would understand it today] authority is the executive organ for all the communities of the circle... The various circles of a country or province are subordinated to a leading circle... The Central Authority is the executive organ of the whole of the League and as such is responsible to the Congress... The Congress is the legislative authority of the whole League. All proposals for changes in the rules are sent to the Central Authority through the leading circles and submitted by them to the Congress... Whoever violates the conditions of membership... is according to the circumstances removed from the League and expelled".
Lenin took these and other examples from the historical experience of the workers' movement, including the German social democracy, and attempted to apply them to the specific conditions of Russia. Lenin's famous book, What is to be Done?, written in 1901, was devoted to the need for a centralised party in Russia. Lars deals, not very adequately, with some parts of the history. He touches on the disagreements over the formulas of Lenin in answer to the 'Economist school', who believed in concentrating on the purely day-to-day struggles. Lenin "bent the stick" too far, in his own words, in his description of how socialist consciousness arises in the working-class movement.
Lenin's assertion that socialist consciousness could only be brought to the working class from the outside by the revolutionary intelligentsia was wrong. He borrowed this also from the German social democratic leader and Marxist at the time, Karl Kautsky. Although Lenin corrected this later, it has been used to justify the haughty approach of self-appointed 'leaders', usually by tiny organisations, proclaiming to be 'the' leadership of the working class.
Trotsky paid tribute to Lenin's stubborn and painstaking work in laying the basis through the struggle of theBolsheviks for the mass party approach. Nevertheless, he emphasised that it was the 'steam', the working class, which is the driving force in the revolution. The party, if it acts correctly, plays the same role as a 'piston box' in harnessing this to a revolution.
Lenin emphasised the same point in opposition to the 'committeemen' who took shape in the underground. They were suspicious of the initiatives of workers. Trotsky had warned of the dangers of the emergence of such figures in his 1904 pamphlet, Political Problems. He pointed out that these types of committeemen have "forgone the need to rely upon the workers as they had found support in the principles of 'centralism'." Lenin recognised the dangers of a one-sided interpretation of what he was trying to build when he wrote: "I could not contain myself when I heard it said that there were no working men fit for the committee membership". Trotsky remarks: "Lenin understood better than anyone else the need for a centralised organisation; but he saw in it, above all, a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced working man. The idea of making a fetish of the political machine was not only alien but repugnant to his nature". (Stalin, p103, Panther edition)

Democratic centralism

Lars T makes sweeping, incorrect comments about democratic centralism. He writes that there was no "exposition of the meaning of the term - Lenin used it in passing to make particular points". He also states: "Lenin's points would have been: 'Democratic centralism is not possible in underground conditions. Genuine interparty democracy is mandatory when possible and dispensable when not'."
But he is completely wrong in asserting, with no basis in the actual practice of Bolshevism, that democratic centralism was practised at one stage and then withdrawn in a completely arbitrary fashion at another. The Bolsheviks, as with all genuinely revolutionary organisations, based themselves at all times on the general principles of democratic centralism: maximum discussion until a decision is arrived at and then a united effort by the whole party, group or organisation to implement the decision. Even then, it is totally false to imply that all discussion and debate ended after the decision was taken. The history of the genuine workers' movement showed that vital discussion on unresolved issues continued in the form of internal bulletins, debates, etc, outside of the framework of the national congress of the party.
The different sides of this question might be difficult for isolated intellectuals to grasp but it is an idea that the working class readily understands, particularly its more advanced, guiding layers. It flows from the very position of the working class under capitalism.
Never in history has capitalism been more centralised than today. Never have the means of coercion - witness the revelations of Wikileaks, the massive surveillance by capitalist governments of their own populations, as well as other governments - been so concentrated in the hands of the capitalist state. It is inconceivable therefore that a loose network would be capable of mobilising to defeat this colossal power. Without a centralised mass party capable of unifying working people and then acting in a decisive fashion when the time requires it, it is impossible to carry through the socialist transformation of society, the greatest change in human history.
The working class instinctively understands the need for a centralised party and the discipline that goes with it. This is shown in every serious struggle, particularly strikes, involving the working class. When shop stewards, for instance, are called to discuss and debate an issue, and sometimes heatedly, they will usually strive to adopt one voice when putting the issue to a mass meeting. There will, of course, be occasions when a minority of stewards and workers will disagree with a recommendation, and in that situation Marxists would argue for a full debate to take place.
These methods, which involve elements of democratic centralism, are instinctively understood by working people. This is demonstrated by the recent statement of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). When they announced a break from the ANC and supported the idea of a new mass workers' party, they declared: "Numsa is a revolutionary union and as such plays a leading role in the defeat of capitalism and the exploitation that is associated with it. We are democratic centralist - we believe in robust, vigorous and democratic debate leading to a united decision and action".

Discussion and decision

What is then posed is the balance between democracy, full debates and discussions and upholding the rights of all members to participate in the formulation of policy, and centralism, the need to act in a unified fashion, at each stage. This cannot be decided a priori - through general principles applicable at all times irrespective of the concrete circumstances. Organisation, even in the mass revolutionary party, is not an independent factor for a Marxist. It is an inference from policy. It is politics, perspectives and programme, as well as the concrete circumstances, which determine what forms of organisation should be applied at each stage. But it is not true, as Lars T suggests, that democratic centralism is applied only in some circumstances, and not in others. For Marxists, democratic centralism means a 'mobile balance' between democracy and centralism, with emphasis being given to democracy or centralism depending upon the concrete circumstances.
In underground conditions, centralist methods tend to dominate over the full expression of democratic discussion, rights and principles. But this does not in any way mean complete centralism with little democracy. On the contrary, while struggling against the brutal tsarist regime and its police, the Russian revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks, debated and fought with each other over programme and policy. This was a necessary means of sharpening the political and theoretical weapons in preparation for the revolution. There were even regular congresses, both in the underground and during the civil war.
There was full freedom of discussion and debate. But this did not mean for the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, that the revolutionary party should become a debating club. To those who characterise this method as inherently 'unhealthy', Trotsky had a word of advice. Faced with the disarray in the ranks of his followers in France in the 1930s, he commented: "An organisation smaller but unanimous can have enormous success with a clear policy, while an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot". There are some organisations in Britain and internationally today to whom Trotsky's words are very apt.
Lars T tries to present a softer Lenin, more 'open' and 'democratic' than the 'centralist', if not authoritarian, figure that is usually invoked by bourgeois and most 'Marxist' historians alike. This 'new' Lenin is almost a 'liberal' in his alleged acceptance of open, public, unrestricted discussion in a revolutionary party.
This new approach towards Lenin distorts his real views. There were times when Lenin and Trotsky advocated the most open kind of discussion, even in public forums and at difficult times, which to some extent took place outside of the party. Nikolai Bukharin and the so-called 'Left Communists', who supported him in his advocacy of a 'revolutionary war' at the time of the Brest-Litovsk controversy of 1918, had a daily newspaper which argued against the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky.
The mass communist parties in France and Italy argued in their daily papers against the idea of the united front. But after two years they were compelled to implement the decision of the Communist International.
There are many other such examples, including Trotsky's initial support for the minority within the American SWP in the 1930s for a public discussion on the class character of the Soviet Union. However, he withdrew his proposal when his American co-thinkers pointed out that this minority was appealing in the main to the petty bourgeois milieu outside the party who had moved from support of the Soviet Union under the pressure of 'democratic' public opinion. This did not prevent a vigorous discussion within the ranks of the SWP on this issue.

Anti-party mood

Part of the capitalists' campaign in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism was to feed the popular mood, particularly among the new generation, against 'parties' and the model of Lenin's supposedly closed, authoritarian type of party. We argued against this but also recognised that anything that appeared to be tainted with the mark of Stalinism would repel the new generation looking for a political alternative.
This 'anti-politics' and 'anti-party' mood represented, in reality, a deep hostility towards all 'official', 'traditional' parties; in other words, the capitalist parties, including the social democrats and even the Communist Party who were identified with the old order.
Moreover, this mood lasted for a considerable period of time and is still an important factor in the political situation in many countries today. We have had the phenomenon of the 'indignatos' in Spain, with similar trends in other countries. In Spain, it reflected the entirely justified hatred of the so-called 'Socialist Party', PSOE. This was a factor in the formation of the indignatos in the first place. But this hostility was also often directed against Marxist groups, although the most active promoters of this within the indignato movement were themselves members of small political organisations. They were, in effect, 'anti-group groups'.
But what was the net result of this abstention from politics? In Spain, the disastrous election of the present right-wing PP government, which has presided over a devastating crisis, with youth unemployment levels well over 50%. Therefore, there has been a reassessment by this new generation who are once more returning to the idea of building a political alternative.
A similar mood was present in the Occupy movement, which developed on a world scale following initiatives in the US. Subsequent experience demonstrated that an amorphous movement, albeit fuelled by youthful energy and idealism but which lacked clear direction and organisation, represented little danger to the highly centralised and organised forces of capitalism. A new road was sought and a significant layer of workers and youth found this road in the spectacular election campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis.
The election of a socialist to the Seattle council for the first time in 100 years represents a real leap forward in the possibility for political struggles not just in the US, but worldwide. Socialist Alternative took the initiative in this case, but similar radical political movements were expressed elsewhere: in New York with the election of Bill de Blasio, and his invocation of a 'tale of two cities', with 73% of the vote, and the election of 24 independent Labor candidates in Lorain County, Ohio.
A similar process has unfolded in Argentina, where a Trotskyist electoral front received 1.2 million votes in the recent elections. This arose from the completely changed situation compared, for instance, to 2001. Then, despite a catastrophic economic situation, parties were discredited; Marxist parties, in particular, made little headway.
These elections indicate that the situation has completely changed with the more conscious workers now aware of the need for organisation and parties. A layer has consequently transferred their hopes to this 'left front', which is in a particularly favourable situation to grow if it employs the correct tactics and openness to the new layers of the working class who will be looking for a mass party of their own in the battles to come. This is likely to involve the maintenance of a revolutionary core - in a distinct and separate organisation - seeking a wider base in a larger mass formation. There have been other opportunities in the past which have been lost because this open approach has not been adopted.

Look at Lenin in the round

Millions of workers are looking for a new way forward. This can be provided for them by the building of new mass parties of the working class. Because of the period that we have passed through, these are unlikely in most countries to immediately adopt a clear revolutionary, Marxist programme. But a Marxist organisation, working in an honest and open fashion, will be welcomed into the ranks by the best workers looking for a way forward.
Unfortunately, books like this of Lars T - and particularly those who uncritically praise his ideas - will not be able to prepare working people for the stormy but exciting period ahead. It does not present the ideas of Lenin clearly. It scandalously ignores the contribution made by Trotsky, in particular.
Our criticisms are not restricted just to the organisational plane. The author does not adequately explain Lenin's ideas in relation to the perspectives for the Russian revolution. The central idea of Lenin of the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' was different to the ideas of the Mensheviks, who saw Russia developing in a capitalist direction with socialism relegated to the mists of the future. Lenin completely rejected the idea that the weak Russian capitalists could carry through the tasks of the democratic capitalist revolution: of land reform, solution of the national question, the introduction of democracy, etc. Only an alliance of the workers and peasants, the overwhelming majority of the population of Russia, was capable of carrying through these tasks.
The weak point in Lenin's scenario, that Lars T in no way fully explores, is who would be the dominant force in the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. The whole of history attests to the fact that the peasantry has never played an independent political role because of its heterogeneity. Its upper layers tend to merge with the capitalists, its lower layers tend to sink into the ranks of the working class.
This is where Trotsky's famous theory of the permanent revolution comes in, which correctly anticipated how the Russian revolution would develop. Although a minority, the working class, because of its social position in society and its special features, dynamic and organised in big industry, would be able to lead the mass of the peasantry in revolution to overthrow the autocracy. Having come to power, it would then pass over to the tasks of the socialist revolution in Russia and the world. In Lenin's Letters From Afar, as well as his April Theses, he completely concurs with these ideas of Trotsky. This is not even mentioned in this book.
Lars T Lih's book undoubtedly presents an advance over the malicious distortions of Lenin and Trotsky's ideas. But at the same time, unless filled out and corrected, it will introduce further confusion as to what Lenin and Trotsky really stood for.

Lenin, by Lars T Lih, published by Reaktion Books, 2011, £10.95