Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lenin on "Left-Wing" Communism in Great Britain

Thomas Riggins

There was no Communist Party in Great Britain when Lenin wrote "Left-Wing" Communism an Infantile Disorder [LWC]  (the Communist Party of Great Britain was founded a few months later at the end of July 1920). Nevertheless, Lenin devoted chapter nine of the aforementioned book to discussing the problems of ultra-leftism in Britain. It is not my intention to rehash all the political fights of 1920 surrounding the formation of the CPGB discussed in  LWC, instead I will highlight those insights from Lenin that pertain to general principles of Marxism and that are arguably relevant to the struggle for socialism in the early 21st century.

Lenin begins this chapter with a discussion of an article written by Willie Gallacher (1881-1963) published in the  "The Workers' Dreadnought" (a publication of one of the groups which were in the process of founding the CPGB) which was full enthusiasm for communism, the Russian Revolution, and the future of the working class in Britain. It also rejected cooperation with the Labour Party and working in the Parliament and the author did not want to cooperate with those who did.

Lenin praised Gallacher's article [he later refers to it as "a letter to the editor"] for expressing the mood, or the temper, of the masses and explained it was just these type of young workers, represented by the author, who would be the future of socialism and who should be supported in all their efforts to build a revolutionary socialist party in Britain. Nevertheless, he does not want them to commit the same errors that the early Bolsheviks made, and that the German party made with respect to ultra-leftism.

The future CPGB would be a formation composed of the coming together of at least four different socialist groups. To build a mass party it would be necessary to work with many other groups of workers at differing levels of class consciousness. Lenin stress that the CPGB, as should be the case with all Marxist parties, has to base its activities on SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES: and science, Lenin says, requires two things.

 First, a knowledge of what is happening in other countries, capitalist countries, and an analysis of the similarities and differences with your own country and how revolutionaries in those countries have coped with their own conditions. Second, a knowledge of your own country and ALL the groups, classes, parties, etc., and their positions and relationships. The policy adopted, in order to have the greatest number of supporters and best chance of wining, "should not be determined only by the desires and views, by the degree of class-consciousness and the militancy of one group or party alone."

The focus of all this fuss about cooperating and compromising with the bourgeoisie was the Labour Party. The leaders of the Labour Party were considered by the radical workers as sell outs and "social patriots" who would govern in the interests of the capitalists not the workers whom they ostensibly represented and led. Lenin agrees with this and then states "it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentleman a certain amount of parliamentary support." But why does this follow? Why give any support to false leaders who pose as progressives and really do the dirty work of the enemy? What can Lenin be thinking of?

We must consider what was going on in Britain in the 1920s. The Labour Party was growing and the two main governing parties (the Liberals and the Conservatives) were beginning to panic. The Leader of the Liberals, Lloyd George, proposed a coalition with the Conservatives to stop the Labour Party. [Imagine a time in the US when the Republicans and Democrats unite to stop the Green Party!].

Meanwhile many Liberals are jumping ship and going over to the Labour Party. Lenin says that what is happening is that the liberal bourgeoisie is abandoning the traditional two party system by which the liberal and conservative capitalists alternate in ruling the government and exploiting the workers; a system "which has been hallowed by centuries of experience and has been extremely advantageous to the exploiters…."

The British leaders of the revolutionary workers, the very leaders of the future CPGB saw what was going on and even admitted the majority of workers were supporting the Labour Party saying, as did Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) one of the founders of the CPGB, that "the majority of the British working class has not yet emerged" from the way of thinking represented by the Labour Party.

Even knowing this she said: "The Communist Party must not compromise…. The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate: its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution." Shades of Blanqui!

Lenin is a firm believer that the working class learns by doing. If the workers believe in such a party or such and such an idea, which is wrong and will not emancipate them, they must go through the experience of living and working with these false ideas until they learn from experience that they must abandon these wrong approaches.

Meanwhile the revolutionary Marxists will have been working along with the workers and supporting their efforts but also explaining why their views will not succeed and why Marxism provides a better alternative. This is the only way to win over the working people to the revolutionary Marxist point of view. This is why we must work in the reactionary institutions of the bourgeoisie.

 "To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone."

We come now to Lenin's famous formulation of The Fundamental Law of Revolution. Lenin says this law applies to all revolutions which means many of the revolts, insurrections, and coups that historians like to call "revolutions" are not revolutions at all. The Law states: "for a revolution to take place it is not enough for exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the "LOWER CLASSES" DO NOT WANT to live in the old way and the "upper classes" CANNOT CARRY ON IN THE OLD WAY that the revolution can triumph."

Two obvious conclusions Lenin draws, with respect to an anti-capitalist revolution, are, first,  the majority of the working class (or at a minimum the majority of the politically active class conscious workers [this is "iffy" a majority of these may still be too small]) must fully understand the need for a revolution and be willing to take up arms if necessary to carry it out; second, the government of the ruling class must be undergoing a crisis which brings the masses of people, even those "hitherto apathetic," into a movement that so weakens it (the government) that the revolutionary elements can "rapidly overthrow it".  The revolution will not be a tea party.

Lenin thought the two conditions mentioned above were fast developing in Great Britain, but they did not in fact come about. Nevertheless, Lenin's advice in general as to how the Marxists in Great Britain should behave still makes sense even in our own day, and it is not restricted to any particular country. Briefly he says that unless we want to risk being seen as "mere wind bags"  and  a party that represents only a group and not the masses of the revolutionary working class ["revolutionary" is the key word to understand in this context] we must get the MASSES to follow our party.

To do this we must help the working class achieve the maximum of class consciousness and this means working in the political world in which we and they find ourselves and helping them to understand, by their own experiences, that no solutions of bourgeois politics can solve their problems and the only way forward for their class is by supporting a revolutionary Marxist party.

How would this practically be done? Extrapolating from the conditions of Lenin's day to the present time, and using the experience of the 2012 US elections, I suggest the following edited comment from Lenin: We would take part in the election campaign, we would hand out leaflets in favor of Marxism and explaining what's wrong with capitalism, and where we are not running our own candidates we would urge support for the candidate most favorable to the workers and who had the most support from the union movement and we would urge the defeat of all reactionary, ultra-right and anti-labor, anti-progressive candidates.

Lenin's actual advice to the British Marxists was: "We would take part in the election campaign, distribute leaflets agitating for communism, and in ALL constituencies where we have no candidates, we would urge the electors TO VOTE FOR THE LABOUR CANDIDATE AND AGAINST THE BOURGEOIS CANDIDATE." Others may have a better revision of this quote than what I have proposed above, but I have tried to factor in specifically US conditions (both major parties are bourgeois, the ultra-right poses a clear and present danger, the labor movement is under attack, among others).

As Lenin maintained that each country had an unique historical configuration of its own regarding the class struggle and the relations between the classes and parties making it up, it was therefore the task of Marxists to learn "to apply the general and basic principles" of Marxism to their own situation in order to "study, discover, and predict" the proper course of action. It is with this conclusion that he ends this chapter of LWC.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Betrayal Without Remedy: The Case of the Missing Wages

 Thomas Riggins

Monday's Wall Street Journal tell's the story of how Hostess Brands, Inc., took its workers wages and used them to cover its own expenses ("Hostess Maneuver Deprived Pension" WSJ 12-10-12).

Hostess Brands (famous for Twinkies and Wonder Bread) has gone out of business after a lengthy bankruptcy process. During this process information has come out about how corporations can break their contracts with and steal from, their workers and yet escape prosecution for their actions. It is an object lesson on how the laws are written to benefit private property and capitalists at the expense of working people who are often denied equal protection.

Here is what Hostess did. It signed contracts with workers in which it was agreed that part of their wages would be diverted from their paychecks and be invested in their pensions. This was a contribution made by the workers independently of the contractual payments made to the pension funds by the company.

In 2011, due to the company's financial problems, Hostess announced that it would end payments to the pension funds. OK, that is one problem for the unions to deal with. But what happened to the worker's wages that Hostess was supposed to be putting into the funds? These wages were not payments coming out of the pockets of Hostess per se.

Well, Hostess did not start to include these payments in the worker's paychecks. Instead they just kept their wages for the company and used them to pay for their own expenses. During an interview the new CEO, brought in to oversee the liquidation of the company, said this was "terrible" but , "I think it's like a lot of things in this case. It's not a good situation to have." As to getting the money back-- C'est la vie.

The WSJ reports that "experts" say that since the money didn't come "directly" from the workers [?] no federal laws were violated ("probably"). Huh! The company says they will put the wages I earned into X and they divert it to Z and since I didn't have it listed as "deducted" from my paycheck it didn't come "directly" from me therefore it is really theirs!

The WSJ quoted a lawyer not involved in the case who said, "It's what lawyers call betrayal without remedy. It's sad, but that stuff does happen, unfortunately." Why then would any union sign contracts with companies to co-contribute to their pension funds and allow the companies to oversee the payments if they can just keep them and the workers are "without remedy." Is this gaping hole in federal law being addressed?

This betrayal only affected one of two major unions at Hostess: the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers International Union. The Teamsters did not have this kind of arrangement with the company. The baker's union did because "This local was very aggressive about saving for the future," according to a union officer. This is just another example of the truth of the socialist adage that any future for workers under capitalism is problematic.

Update 1: The Kansas City Star reported on 12-10-12 that the National Labor Relations Board has found "that Hostess had failed to bargain collectively and in good faith with a union."

Update 2: Hostess Brands issued the following statement on 12-11-12: “At no time were these pension contributions paid as wages, so no funds were ever ‘deducted from paychecks,’ as one news outlet erroneously reported. Hostess Brands has at all times continued to pay its union employees' current wages in full compliance with its collective bargaining agreements.''

This statement from Hostess is a new low in the metaphysics of mendacity: since the wages were not first paid then deducted but went directly to the pension funds they were not wages. Caveat faber.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Lenin on Marxism and Bourgeois Democracy

Thomas Riggins

In chapter seven of "'Left-Wing' Communism an Infantile Disorder" Lenin addresses himself to the ultra-left claim that socialists should no longer work with or be members of bourgeois parliaments. This may not be a very pressing issue for American (i.e., U.S.) socialists and it seems settled as far as other countries are concerned (as a result of widespread agreement with Lenin's views) but in Lenin's day there were many so-called Left socialists who supported boycotting all bourgeois electoral work. Lenin thought this totally incorrect.

The ultra-Left's position was that bourgeois democracy was historically and politically obsolete; the wave of the future was advancing worker's democracy in the form of Soviets and so all Marxist socialists must only work to build that future. Lenin's response to this is philosophically interesting and rooted in his reading of Hegel and his understanding of the latter's historicism.

Lenin had made a profound study of Hegel's Logic while in exile (among other of the German's works) and could not but have been impressed by the following passage in Hegel's introduction to his "Lectures on the Philosophy of History" (even though he thought Hegel had been completely antiquated with respect to most of his views on history by the work of Marx and Engels.) But the following Hegelian passage, I believe, still had meaning for him, and for us today as well.

 Hegel wrote that he wished to call his students "attention to the important difference between a conception, a principle, a truth limited to an ABSTRACT form and its determinate application and concrete development." An example would be that "all men are created equal" was an abstract truth, the civil war was a determinate application-- as was the later civil rights movement. That application is still working itself out.

Grasping that Hegelian principle we can understand Lenin when he agrees with the ultra-left that indeed bourgeois democracy IS historically obsolete.  Lenin says this is true in a "propaganda sense."  Capitalism has also been obsolete for over a hundred years, he says, it is obsolete today in that we know its contradictions, that it doesn't work and cannot feed the people and insure their future and we know that socialism is the answer and the only future available if humanity is not to perish but this ABSTRACT truth, from the point of view of world history, does not mean that its determinate application, its concrete development will not require "a very long and persistent struggle ON THE BASIS of capitalism"

Lenin says world history is measured in decades, indeed he could have said centuries (Napoleon saw the Sphinx looking down on him from 40 centuries): whether the concrete development reaches fruition now or a century from now is something indifferent to world history. Lenin was mistaken in seeing the revolutionary era of his day as the fruition of the social ideal just as we are wrong to see the globalization of the capitalist world market as the refutation of the social ideal which from the point of view of world history may be ushered in by a new revolutionary era which may even now be at the heart of the current world capitalist
breakdown and may take place in a decade or in 20 decades. For this "very reason," Lenin says, "it is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics."

So, while in a technical sense the ultra-left is correct about the historical "obsolescence" of bourgeois democracy, the real question is, is bourgeois democracy politically obsolete? The answer to that is a resounding "NO!" The masses of working people participate in bourgeois elections and think in terms of bourgeois constitutionality and for Marxists to ignore that fact and refuse to engage in political work where the masses are is the height of irresponsibility. This mistake that is raising its head again in 1920 was already refuted and abandoned in 1918 by the German socialists. Both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, "outstanding political leaders" opposed it in Germany and subsequent events have proven them to be correct.

Those parties today (1920) that are again bringing up this erroneous theory should
study the history of Marxism on this issue and admit their mistake. This is a most important principle for Lenin. When a mistake is made it cannot be papered over, ignored, denied, or explained away. How a party treats its mistakes is one of the best ways of judging how serious it is about its duty towards its CLASS and towards WORKING PEOPLE in general. A party that fails to admit and rectify publicly its mistakes is NOT a party of the masses.

The mistake of the ultra-lefts is failing to recognize what is obsolete from the point of view of Marxism-- from OUR point of view is NOT obsolete from the point of view of the masses. Granted then that we must work within the framework of bourgeois democracy so that we can influence the masses, Lenin stresses that we must not SINK TO THE LEVEL OF THE MASSES. The working people must be told "the bitter truth." That truth, which we are duty bound to tell the people, is that their allegiance to bourgeois democracy is nothing more than a "prejudice." Even so, we must also act politically with regard to the ACTUAL class consciousness of the working masses (not the class consciousness of the Marxist elements): if we don't, Lenin says we risk turning into "windbags."

Here I must mention an issue that was important to Lenin but is no longer applicable at the present time. One of reasons he was upset by the ultra-lefts is that some of them were in leadership positions within fraternal communist parties which were members of the Communist International (Third International). Lenin was convinced that his position on bourgeois democracy was correct and had been successfully applied in Russia and it was also the position of the International, which, he said "must work out its tactics internationally (not as narrow or exclusively national tactics, but as international tactics)…," and the rejection of his views by some members of the International amounted to abandoning the concept of internationalism even while giving lip service to it.

Today, of course, we have to be concerned with internationalism but there is no "International" to oversee and direct a unified program subscribed to by all the active Marxist parties. In fact, national tactics take a leading role everywhere. There are some regional groupings of Marxist parties as well some groupings based on particular ideological interpretations of Marxism, and some "go-it-alone" parties. This reflects the fragmented and ideological confusion that reigns on the left and is a major reason why more international meetings and conferences should be held with a view to creating some kind of consensus around international issues and how the national struggles in each country can relate to the movement  towards creating the conditions or preconditions for an international unified fight back against capitalism.

Another issue addressed by Lenin in this chapter is the relation between legal and illegal activities by the worker's party. All worker's parties are faced with this issue and all engage in some form of illegal activity. In the U.S. Marxist parties, for example, although they were legal parties, still engaged in illegal activities such as sit ins and illegal demonstrations during the civil rights movement , and various forms of civil disobedience in anti-war protests and marches. Lenin thought that as capitalism begins to breakdown and the workers become more militant the bourgeois state would crack down ever harder on the working class violating its own standards of legality.

As an example of ruthless persecution of working people he gives the example of the United States ("the example of America is edifying enough"). He has reference to the Palmer Raids and the espionage acts. It is also edifying to see the Obama administration dust off these old laws from ninety years ago to try and shut down whistle blowers and journalists (think of Wiki leaks). Socialist parties should be prepared to face savage persecution by the state as the class struggle intensifies. Paper tiger parties today will be treated as real tigers tomorrow if they effectively lead the workers in the struggle against capitalism.

Lenin stresses that before Marxists even think about repudiating working within bourgeois democracy there must be a revolutionary situation in which the majority of working people have lost faith in the bourgeoisie and are willing and able to advance towards the seizure of power and the establishment of a socialist state. People can talk revolution all they like and advocate revolutionary tactics all they want but "without a revolutionary mood among the masses, and without conditions facilitating the growth of this mood, revolutionary tactics will never develop into action."

Certainly in the U.S. there is no mass revolutionary mood [yet] and none on the immediate horizon and this must be taken into account by the left (as it has been in the pages of Political Affairs and other socialist publications- albeit with some confusion between tactics and strategy among those who have not kept their eyes on the prize). In Europe and other areas of the world the situation is different and various degrees of the "revolutionary mood" are rapidly advancing as the glacial melting of global capitalism speeds up a pace.

Lenin further notes that "it is very easy to show one's 'revolutionary' temper merely by hurling abuse at parliamentary opportunism" [i.e., bourgeois democracy] but tactics "must be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of ALL the class forces in a particular state (and of the states that surround it, and of all states the world over) as well as of the experience of revolutionary movements." A tall order, I should think, with many opportunities for error: all the more reason for more international conferences and even the creation of a new International.

So, the upshot of this discussion is that Marxists must work within bourgeois democratic institutions and it is childish to attack parties and socialist leaders who do so. The only justified criticism, Lenin says, is against those leaders "who are unable --- and still more against those who are UNWILLING --- to utilise the structures of bourgeois democracy … in a revolutionary and communist manner." The question that remains is: What constitutes a revolutionary and communist manner in the 21st Century?