Review: Ben Fowkes, The German Left and the Weimar Republic, Haymarket, 2015 • 399 pages • US$28.
By John Riddell. Socialist historian Ben Fowkes has given us a unique and vivid text documentary of the German workers’ movement during the tumultuous years of its greatest influence, from November 1918 to its defeat by Nazism 15 years later. Fowkes presents 182 brief statements reflecting every socialist viewpoint during these years. His running commentary – short passages interspersed among the documents – provide a well-researched and insightful capsule history of the German Left in this period.
Fowkes’s study, just published by Haymarket Books, has the rarely found merit of placing side by side texts from the two great antagonists of the workers’ movement at that time, Germany’s Communist Party (KPD) and Social Democratic Party (SPD). For socialists, this unique resource breaks through veils of historical interpretation and ideology and permits us to hear the protagonists of our movement’s past in their own words. Read more…
Here’s a change of pace from the historical studies that have dominated this blog in recent months. I’ve been deeply involved in cross-Canada efforts to rein in extraction of tar sands oil, which spells ruin for the world’s climate. We’ve just won a major victory in delaying Toronto’s own tar sands pipeline project, “Line 9.” Here’s my report on an important resource for this struggle, as posted today on the “East End Against Line 9” blog.
By John Riddell. ‘First the verdict, then the evidence.’ That was the gist of the Crown Solicitor’s response to Chippewas of the Thames First Nation’s complaint that it had not been consulted about Enbridge’s dangerous Line 9 pipeline project. Read more…
The 1921 Third Congress of the Communist International, the most contentious and perhaps also the most creative of early-20th century global revolutionary gatherings, is now available in a 1,300-page library edition. A paperback version will appear in February 2016; prepublication orders for it will be taken in July at a 30% discount.
To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, completes the publication of the four Comintern congresses held in Lenin’s time, carried out under my editorship.
I’ve prepared a Library Acquisition Recommendation that you can fill out online and then email or hand in to your library.
The following paper, a criticism of recent studies by Lars Lih, was first published in Historical Materialism, 22:3-4 (2014) and is reposted on John Marot’s request. The abstract and introduction are below; for the full text, see Marot on Lenin and Bolshevism. The first part of Marot’s article takes up Lih’s book, Lenin Rediscovered, available from Haymarket Books. The second and longer part of the paper discusses a major paper by Lih, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in perspective.” A shorter presentation of this paper is available on this website. Some references to further readings follow the notes.—John Riddell
By John Eric Marot
Abstract: Lars Lih has contributed to our knowledge of Russian Social Democracy lately. However, serious methodological flaws bedevil this advance in knowledge. Lih’s overall approach displays a very static understanding of political ideas in relation to political movements. In the first section, ‘Lenin, the St Petersburg Bolshevik Leadership, and the 1905 Soviet’, I challenge Lih’s position that Lenin never changed his mind about bringing socialist consciousness into the working class ‘from without’.
In the second section, ‘Lenin, “Old Bolshevism” and Permanent Revolution: The Soviets in 1917’, I challenge Lih’s revisionist view that Old Bolshevism’s pre-1917 goal of ‘democratic revolution to the end’ drove Lenin’s partisans to make a working-class, socialist revolution in 1917. On this singular account, Lenin’s April Theses, which called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the transfer of all power to the soviets, was merely a further expression of Old Bolshevik politics, not a break with it, as has almost universally been held. Read more…
The ‘April debates’ and their impact on Bolshevik strategy in 1917
Lars T. Lih challenges a commonly held view of the Russian Bolshevik party conduct during the Russian Revolution of 1917, stressing the continuity between the Bolsheviks’ positions before World War 1 and those advanced during the revolutionary upheaval. The text is based on a talk Lih gave in 2010 and recently revised. Following the text is a note on other places where Lih’s views on this topic are available.–JR
By Lars T. Lih. The negative-sounding title of this talk was a necessary starting point. ‘Old Bolshevism’ – before 1917 and Lenin’s April theses – has a bad reputation on the left as well as the right. It is largely seen as representing a stage which had passed and could be safely discarded. Nobody defends it, and it is considered at best irrelevant to our times. But I think there is a lot of misunderstanding as to what it actually was.
The phrase is introduced into history as an insult, when Lenin says in April 1917 that “old Bolshevism needs to be abandoned”, castigating those ‘old Bolsheviks’ who “have played so regrettable a role in the history of our party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote, instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality”. So the term is birthed under a cloud.
When writing my PhD thesis in the 1980s I ran across this quote and had no idea what Lenin was talking about, what old Bolshevism was. But now, after much effort spent in trying to find out, I have finally come to the conclusion that the commonplace idea that old Bolshevism was thrown overboard is very much misplaced. Read more…
In current discussions of twenty-first century socialism, the work of Michael Lebowitz has a unique merit: it is rooted in the experience of Cuba and Venezuela, where efforts in recent decades to move toward socialism have been the most vigorous. Quotations from Che Guevara and Hugo Chávez set the tone.
Lebowitz’s vision of the path to a socialist future is developed in several recent volumes (see “Selective Bibliography,” below). His Contradictions of “Real Socialism”, by contrast, analyzes the failure of the most concerted attempt to launch a transition to socialism, which took place in the Soviet Union and, after 1945, in allied states in Eastern Europe. As late as the early 1960s, the Soviet Union was widely hailed for setting the pace in economic growth among industrialized countries. But already its dynamism was flagging. Its downhill course from sputnik (the world’s first artificial satellite, 1957) to zastoy (stagnation) and collapse took only 34 years. Read more…
Introductory note by John Riddell: The following two excerpts from articles by Leon Trotsky present his thoughts on the state of the Soviet economy in 1932–3, at the close of a five-year campaign of forced-pace industrialization. Trotsky’s remarks on planning, markets, bureaucracy, and rank-and-file democracy are highly relevant to all twenty-first century efforts to launch a transition to a socialist economy.
In the first text, from his October 1932 article “The Soviet Economy in Danger,” the exiled Bolshevik leader examines the interplay of planning, trade conducted through markets, and economic regulation by the masses. The full text is available at marxists.org, from which this excerpt is taken. The article was written in the final year of the first Five Year Plan, during which industrialization at a forced pace was accompanied by severe economic distortions, the deportation or arrest of close to two million supposedly privileged peasants (kulaks), a deep crisis in agriculture, and – in 1932-33 – widespread famine.
The second text, taken from the conclusion of Trotsky’s April 1933 article, “Problems of the Soviet Regime,” provides a concise summary of the damage caused by a bureaucratic approach to economic planning. See also Trotsky’s 1937 study of Soviet society and economy, The Revolution Betrayed.
By John Riddell. The following previously unpublished position paper, pulled from my archives, was written in 1992. I am posting it in conjunction with my review of Michael Lebowitz’s Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’.
My comments raised many of the themes found in Lebowitz’s writings of that time, of which I was then quite unaware. My approach, however, gives more emphasis to the problem of economic allocation and the role of non-capitalist markets. Read more…
By John Riddell. In 1921, a time of declining mass struggles, the Communist International (Comintern) was thrown off course by insistent demands at every level of the organization for the young movement to launch confrontational actions, even if Communists must fight almost alone. In mid-1921, the Comintern’s Third Congress turned decisively away from this policy. Under the slogan “To the masses,” it adopted, on Lenin’s insistence, the strategy of unifying working people in struggle that was codified six months later as the “united front.”
Nonetheless, the Third Congress has been much criticized for its handling of such ultraleft errors. Marxist writer Tony Cliff branded the congress “the great cover-up.” The publication this year of my edition of the congress proceedings (To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921) has now provided a basis to reassess this verdict. Read more…
Did the Bolsheviks, as has often been argued, set aside their pre-1914 strategy in April 1917 on Lenin’s insistence? Recent studies by Lars Lih criticize this thesis, maintaining that the actual course followed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was close to that of pre-war “Old Bolshevism.”
In the following article, Lih tests his conclusion by examining the editorial course of the Bolsheviks’ main newspaper, Pravda, soon after the February revolution and before Lenin’s return to Russia.
Lih’s text is followed by both a translation and the original Russian text of a March 1917 Pravda editorial by Lev Kamenev, and by a note on further reading.
Response by Jim Creegan to Lars T. Lih’s ‘Bolshevism Was Fully Armed’
- “Bolshevism was fully armed,” by Lars T. Lih.
- “The Bolsheviks achieved a mighty peoples revolution,” a response by Lars Lih to Jim Creegan.
By Jim Creegan. Lars Lih’s article, ‘The Bolsheviks were fully armed’(February 26), seems to me to suffer from the absence of at least two crucial distinctions.
The first – and more important – concerns Lih’s view, which he shares with the CPGB, that there was no operational difference between, on the one hand, the Bolshevik slogan of ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ and, on the other, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and Lenin’s April theses. On the contrary, the differences were of great practical significance. Read more…