Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Leon Trotsky on the real traditions of Britain

Rather than the Monarchy, which is a relic of feudalism used today to drape a Union Jack over the class chasm in society, workers and socialists can look back to very different British 'traditions'. Leon Trotsky in his important work 'Where is Britain Going?' from 1925 looks at two of those traditions, republicanism and working-class democracy. This is just the start of the chapter so please read on...

Two Traditions: The Seventeenth-Century Revolution and Chartism

The editor of the Daily Herald recently expressed his doubts as to whether Oliver Cromwell could be called a “pioneer of the labour movement”. One of the newspaper’s collaborators supported the editor’s doubts and referred to the severe repressions that Cromwell conducted against the Levellers, the sect of equalitarians of that time (communists). These reflections and questions are extremely typical of the historical thinking of the leaders of the Labour Party. That Oliver Cromwell was a pioneer of bourgeoisand not socialist society there would appear to be no need to waste more than two words in proving. The great revolutionary bourgeois was against universal suffrage for he saw in it a danger to private property. It is relevant to note that the Webbs draw from this the conclusion of the “incompatibility” of democracy and capitalism while closing their eyes to the fact that capitalism has learnt to live on the best possible terms with democracy and to have taken control of the instrument of universal suffrage as an instrument of the stock exchange. Nevertheless British workers can learn incomparably more from Cromwell than from MacDonald, Snowden, Webb and other such compromising brethren. Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time, who knew how to uphold the interests of the new, bourgeois social system against the old aristocratic one without holding back at anything. This must be learnt from him, and the dead lion of the seventeenth century is in this sense immeasurably greater than many living dogs.

Following at the tails of those living non-lions who write leading articles in theManchester Guardian and other Liberal organs, the Labour Party leaders generally counterpose democracy to any sort of despotic government whether “the dictatorship of Lenin” or “the dictatorship of Mussolini”. The historical mumbo-jumbo of these gentlemen is nowhere expressed more clearly than in this juxtaposition. Not because we are in hindsight inclined to deny the “dictatorship of Lenin” – his power was, through its effective influence on the whole course of events in an enormous state, exceptional.

But how can one speak of dictatorship while passing over its social and historical content? History has known the dictatorship of Cromwell, the dictatorship of Robespierre, the dictatorship of Arakcheev, the dictatorship of Napoleon I, and the dictatorship of Mussolini. It is impossible to discuss anything with a crackpot who puts Robespierre and Arakcheev on a par. Different classes in different conditions and for different tasks find themselves compelled in particular and indeed, the most acute and critical, periods in their history, to vest an extraordinary power and authority in such of their leaders as can carry forward their fundamental interests most sharply and fully. When we speak of dictatorship we must in the first place be clear as to what interest of what particular classes find their historical expression through the dictatorship. For one era Oliver Cromwell, and for another, Robespierre expressed the historically progressive tendencies of development of bourgeois society. William Pitt, likewise extremely close to a personal dictatorship, defended the interests of the monarchy, the privileged classes and the top bourgeois against a revolution of the petty bourgeoisie that found its highest expression in the dictatorship of Robespierre.

The liberal vulgarians customarily say that they are against a dictatorship from the left just as much as from the right, although in practice they do not let slip any opportunity of supporting a dictatorship of the right. But for us the question is determined by the fact that one dictatorship moves society forward while another drags it back. Mussolini’s dictatorship is a dictatorship of the prematurely decayed, impotent, thoroughly contaminated Italian bourgeoisie: it is a dictatorship with a broken nose. The “dictatorship of Lenin” expresses the mighty pressure of the new historical class and its superhuman struggle against all the forces of the old society. If Lenin can be juxtaposed to anyone then it is not to Napoleon nor even less to Mussolini but to Cromwell and Robespierre. It can be with some justice said that Lenin is the proletarian twentieth-century Cromwell. Such a definition would at the same time be the highest compliment to the petty-bourgeois seventeenth-century Cromwell.

The French bourgeoisie, having falsified the revolution, adopted it and, changing it into small coinage, put it into daily circulation. The British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of the seventeenth century revolution by dissolving its past in “gradualness”. The advanced British workers will have to re-discover the English revolution and find within its ecclesiastical shell the mighty struggle of social forces. Cromwell was in no case a “pioneer of labour”. But in the seventeenth-century drama, the British proletariat can find great precedents for revolutionary action. This is equally a national tradition, and a thoroughly legitimate one that is wholly in place in the arsenal of the working class.

The proletarian movement has another great national tradition in Chartism. A familiarity with both these periods is vital to every conscious British worker. The clarification of the historical significance of the seventeenth-century revolution and the revolutionary content of Chartism is one of the most important obligations for British Marxists.....

Read the rest here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/britain/wibg/ch06.htm

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