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Welcoming refugees then and now

My personal historical research finds current resonance. By Suzanne Weiss. 

In September I accompanied Suzanne Weiss on a research trip concerning the work of anti-Nazi resistance in France 1940-45 to save Jewish children. Suzanne’s work took an unexpected turn, becoming part of present debate on attitudes to refugees. Here is her report. — John Riddell

Suzanne Figaro 2Toronto, 1 October 2015: Last month I visited Auvergne, a farming region in central France where, as a Jewish child of two, I was protected from the Nazis by a peasant family. It was the third time I had gone there with John Riddell, my husband, to find out where and how I had been saved from the Holocaust.

To my surprise, this time reporters sought me out for interviews to learn my story. How am I connected to Auvergne? Why was I interviewing villagers? Why did I seek the place where I had been hidden? Read more…

Zimmerwald 1915: A new socialist resistance against war

The Zimmerwald Conference, a small gathering held in Switzerland 100 years ago, on September 5-8, 1915, marked a turning point in the world socialist movement. Socialists from many countries issued an appeal that united antiwar socialists during World War 1 and helped prepare the revolutions with which it concluded. To mark the Zimmerwald centenary I am presenting three major documents of the conference in new translations, together with my short introduction.—John Riddell Read more…

Zimmerwald 1915: Karl Liebknecht’s letter to the conference

Karl Liebknecht

Karl Liebknecht

On the first day of the September 1915 Zimmerwald Conference, a letter from imprisoned German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht was read out and received with great enthusiasm. Liebknecht had won fame among workers across Europe in December 1914 as the first German parliamentary deputy to vote against war credits. (See When Karl Liebknecht said ‘no’ to world war.)

Liebknecht’s letter (below) is presented together with two other documents of the Zimmerwald Conference and an introduction.—John Riddell

Documents of the Zimmerwald Conference

1. Introduction to the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference (by John Riddell)
2. Letter to the Conference by Karl Liebknecht (see below)
3. Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left (drafted by Karl Radek)
4. The Zimmerwald Manifesto (drafted by Leon Trotsky) Read more…

1915: Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left

Karl Radek

Karl Radek

Translated below is the resolution drafted by Polish socialist Karl Radek on behalf of 11 left-wing delegates from Russia, Poland, Latvia, Germany, and Switzerland convened by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin. This group, which became known as the Zimmerwald Left, said that workers’ antiwar struggle should aim at “the overthrow of the capitalist government” and an end to capitalist power. The proposed resolution, which was not adopted, is presented together with two other documents of the Zimmerwald Conference and an introduction.—John Riddell.

Documents of the Zimmerwald Conference

  1. Introduction to the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference (by John Riddell)
  2. Letter to the Conference by Karl Liebknecht
  3. Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left (drafted by Karl Radek) – see below
  4. The Zimmerwald Manifesto (drafted by Leon Trotsky)

Read more…

1915: The Zimmerwald Manifesto

The conference unanimously approved a manifesto drafted by Leon Trotsky, translated below. The manifesto was widely distributed as an underground leaflet. The ideals of Zimmerwald became a source of inspiration for a growing movement of militant action which prepared the revolutions of 1917 and 1918. It is presented here together with two other documents of the Zimmerwald Conference and an introduction.—John Riddell

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction to the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference (by John Riddell)
  2. Letter to the Conference by Karl Liebknecht
  3. Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left (drafted by Karl Radek)
  4. The Zimmerwald Manifesto (drafted by Leon Trotsky) — see below

Read more…

Triumph, disarray, defeat – German workers 1918-1933

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…

‘Piperisks’ reveals a failed pipeline process

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 contentious Third Comintern Congress: Library edition now available

To the Masses Brill coverThe 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.

Here is some information on the new book. You’re always welcome to comment on my blog at– John Riddell Read more…

John Marot: Lenin, Bolshevism, and Social-Democratic political theory

Leon Trotsky, V.I. Lenin, Lev Kamenev

Leon Trotsky, V.I. Lenin, Lev Kamenev

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.”[1] 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…

Lars Lih: The ironic triumph of ‘old Bolshevism’

The ‘April debates’ and their impact on Bolshevik strategy in 1917

Lars T. Lih

Lars T. Lih

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”.[1] 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…

Dissecting the failure of Soviet ‘socialism’

Real SocialismReview by John Riddell of The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted, by Michael A. Lebowitz, New York: Monthly Review 2012.

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…

Trotsky on the role of workers’ democracy and markets in socialist planning

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

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, 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.
Read more…

Socialist planning and the bureaucratic economy

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…

Lenin the unifier: The Comintern compromise of 1921

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)

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.”[1] 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.[2] Read more…

Lars Lih: Russia 1917 — Bolshevism was fully armed

Pravda editor Lev Kamenev

Pravda editor Lev Kamenev

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.

Read more…


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