The fall of the Wall, 1989

November 8, 2014 at 8:47 am (AWL, democracy, From the archives, Germany, history, Human rights, liberation, posted by JD, revolution, stalinism, USSR)

The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by the East German state, was a symbol of the totalitarian Stalinist systems. The wall was a monstrosity and we are glad it was torn down by Berliners on the night of 9 November 1989. The collapse of Stalinism was a victory for freedom. Despite a wave of capitalist triumphalism that followed, the workers of the former Stalinist states are now able to meet, discuss and form their own organisations. Here, an editorial in Workers’ Liberty magazine of July 1990 examines the reasons behind Stalinism’s collapse in Eastern Europe.


For over 60 years the typical totalitarian Stalinist society — in the USSR, in the USSR’s East European satellites, in Mao’s China, or in Vietnam — has presented itself to the world as a durable, congealed, frozen system, made of a hitherto unknown substance.

Now the Stalinist societies look like so many ice floes in a rapidly warming sea — melting, dissolving, thawing, sinking and blending into the world capitalist environment around them.

To many calling themselves Marxists or even Trotskyists, Stalinism seemed for decades to be “the wave of the future”. They thought they saw the future and — less explicably — they thought it worked.

The world was mysteriously out of kilter. Somehow parts of it had slipped into the condition of being “post-capitalist”, and, strangely, they were among the relatively backward parts, those which to any halfway literate Marxist were least ripe for it. Now Stalin’s terror turns out to have been, not the birth pangs of a new civilisation, but a bloodletting to fertilise the soil for capitalism.

Nobody foresaw the way that East European Stalinism would collapse. But the decay that led to that collapse was, or should have been, visible long ago.

According to every criterion from productivity and technological dynamism through military might to social development, the world was still incontestably dominated by international capitalism, and by a capitalism which has for decades experienced consistent, though not uninterrupted, growth.

By contrast, the Stalinist states, almost all of which had begun a long way down the world scale of development, have for decades now lurched through successive unavailing efforts to shake off creeping stagnation.

The Stalinist systems have become sicker and sicker. The bureaucracies tried to run their economies by command, and in practice a vast area of the economic life of their societies was rendered subterranean, even more anarchic than a regular, legal, recognised market-capitalist system.

The ruling class of the model Stalinist state, the USSR, emerged out of the workers’ state set up by the October 1917 revolution by way of a struggle to suppress and control the working class and to eliminate the weak Russian bourgeoisie that had come back to life in the 1920s. It made itself master of society in a series of murderous if muffled class struggles. Its state aspired to control everything to a degree and for purposes alien to the Marxism whose authority it invoked. And it did that in a backward country.

In the days of Stalin’s forced collectivisation and crash industrialisation, the whole of society could be turned upside down by a central government intent on crude quantitative goals and using an immense machinery of terror as its instrument of control, motivation, and organisation.

When the terror slackened off — and that is what Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin essentially meant: he told the members of his bureaucratic class that life would be easier from then on — much of the dynamism of the system slackened off too.

To survive, the bureaucracy had to maintain its political monopoly. It could not have democracy because it was in a sharp antagonism with most of the people, and in the first place with the working class.

So there was a “compromise formation”, neither a self-regulating market system nor properly planned, dominated by a huge clogging bureaucratic state which could take crude decisions and make them good, but do little else. State repression was now conservative, not what it was in the “heroic” days either in intensity or in social function.

The USSR slowed down and began to stagnate. And then the rulers of the USSR seemed to suffer a collapse of the will to continue. They collapsed as spectacularly as the old German empire collapsed on 11 November 1918.

Initiatives from the rulers in the Kremlin, acting like 18th century enlightened despots, triggered the collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe. But it was a collapse in preparation for at least quarter of a century.

The Stalinists had tried nearly 30 years before to make their rule more rational, flexible and productive by giving more scope to market mechanisms. Now, it seems, the dominant faction in the USSR’s bureaucracy has bit the bullet: they want full-scale restoration of market capitalism. Some of the bureaucrats hope to become capitalists themselves. But with its central prop — its political monopoly — gone, the bureaucracy is falling apart.

The fundamental determinant of what happened in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 was that the Kremlin signalled to its satraps that it would not back them by force: then the people took to the streets, and no-one could stop them.

It is an immense triumph for the world bourgeoisie — public self-disavowal by the rulers of the Stalinist system, and their decision to embrace market capitalism and open up their states to asset-stripping.

We deny that the Stalinist system had anything to do with socialism or working-class power. Neither a workers’ state, nor the Stalinist states in underdeveloped countries, could ever hope to win in economic competition with capitalism expanding as it has done in recent decades The socialist answer was the spreading of the workers’ revolution to the advanced countries; the Stalinists had no answer.

The Stalinist system was never “post capitalist”. It paralleled capitalism as an underdeveloped alter ego. Socialists have no reason to be surprised or dismayed about Stalinism losing its competition with capitalism.

The bourgeoisie has triumphed over the Stalinists, but it has not triumphed over socialism. And genuine socialism receives the possibility of rebirth as a mass movement from the events in Eastern Europe.

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Joe Wilder with Benny Goodman: ‘To Russia Without Love’

August 1, 2014 at 11:09 pm (gigs, jazz, music, posted by JD, Russia, USSR)


Above: Goodman plays to his Russian audience, 1962

The death in May of Joe Wilder, a beautiful, underrated trumpet player and delightful human being, reminded me that Joe had been part of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra on its tour of the Soviet Union in 1962. The tour was arranged by the US State Department as a sort of cultural exchange at the height of the cold war: I believe the Bolshoi Ballet visited the US in return.

Anyway, the Goodman tour was superficially quite successful (despite Khrushchev expressing a dislike of jazz in the course of a conversation with Benny), but behind the scenes it was a disaster in terms of band morale. The Goodman band included Joe Wilder on trumpet, Teddy Wilson on piano and as such ‘modern jazz’ luminaries as trombonist Jimmy Knepper, altoist Phil Woods and drummer Mel Lewis. Amongst the other ‘greats’ in the band were Bill Crow on bass and  Zoot Sims on tenor sax, and when later interviewed about the tour, Zoot said “Everywhere you go with Benny is like Russia.”

Here are the edited highlights (with an emphasis upon moments involving Joe Wilder) extracted from a full account of the tour by Bill Crow. Bill has kindly given me permission to use excerpts from his often hilarious article:

Because his music was lovely, most musicians expected Goodman to be lovable as well. The stories about him make us laugh because they describe our astonishment at discovering his true nature. They may sound exaggerated to anyone who never dealt directly with the man. Benny apparently did something to insult, offend or bewilder nearly everyone who ever worked for him. He put together some wonderful bands, but he had a reputation for spoiling the fun. During my brief time with him, I watched him completely demoralize an excellent band.

[…]

Jay Finegold [BG’s manager] had been nagging us for weeks about the contracts Benny wanted us to sign. A few guys had signed them, and he used whatever leverage he could devise to get the rest of the signatures. Joe Wilder’s trunk became a focus of his attention.

We had been warned that the laundry service would be poor and dry-cleaning nonexistent in Russia, so most of us had brought suitcases full of extra clothes and drip-dry shirts, but Joe Wilder had the largest single piece of luggage, a steamer trunk filled with the dapper suits and neckties he always wears. Jay told Joe that Benny was going to charge him for overweight baggage if he didn’t sign his contract.

Besides being a flawless musician, Joe Wilder is courteous, cooperative, and sweet-natured. He was delighted to be hired for the tour and was ready to do a professional job, and he couldn’t believe the way Benny was treating us. Joe never uses profanity. His strongest adjective is “blamed,” his most violent epithet “shoot!” If he quotes someone who uses strong language, he’ll say something like,

    “He said to get the F out of here!”

But Joe said the secret word in Tblisi when Jay told him that Benny was going to charge him for his luggage. It was the last straw. He indignantly refused to ride on the bus with Benny that night. He walked from the hotel to the concert hall, a distance of two or three miles.

During the last week in Moscow, Jay told Wilder that Benny wanted him to give all the lead parts he’d been playing to John Frosk, since Joe was going to Sweden after the tour and wouldn’t be available for any work in the States. Then, on stage one night, Benny acted surprised that Joe wasn’t playing lead on Bach Goes to Town. Before one of the last concerts, Benny called Joe into his dressing room. He said,

    “I just wanted you to know that I think you’re a fine musician.”

 Joe wasn’t having any.

    “As miserable as you’ve made life for me and the rest of the guys on this tour, do you expect me to be complimented?” he asked.

Benny received an invitation for the band to do a week of concerts in Warsaw on the way home. We were curious about Poland, and we could have used the extra money, but nobody wanted to go with Benny. Jim Maxwell called his wife and told her to send him a telegram saying there was an emergency at home and he was needed. The telegram she sent said:

“COME HOME AT ONCE. THE DOG DIED. THE CAT DIED. EVERYBODY DIED.”

   […]

 Joe Wilder and Joe Newman were trying to get their flight information from Muriel [Muriel Zuckerman, BG’s secretary]. They were to fly from Moscow to Stockholm to meet their wives, and wanted to let them know when to expect them, but Muriel didn’t get them the information. Before the evening concert she repeated her ultimatum. No contracts, no paychecks. We talked it over and decided that the only remedy was to refuse to play the last concert until we got paid.

At curtain time that night we were ready to play but wouldn’t go onstage without the checks. Muriel and Jay conferred, and told us that all they really needed was the first page of the contracts, the agreement on wages, in order to satisfy the paperwork required by the State Department. We conferred, and agreed to sign only that part. The other clauses were crossed out, the contracts were signed, and the paychecks were distributed as we were going onstage, twenty minutes late. Joe Wilder looked at his check and discovered that a couple of hundred dollars had been deducted for “excess baggage charges.” He told Benny he wanted his check corrected.

Benny said,

    “Come on and play. We’ll talk about it later.”

Joe was adamant. He stayed backstage, and we played the last concert without him.

    […]

Joe Wilder decided to try one last time to get Benny to refund the baggage charge before he caught his plane to Stockholm. Benny said that such things were in Jay’s department, and not his concern. Joe called him a schmuck, and said,

    “If we weren’t here for the State Department, I’d jump on you and beat your brains out!”

 Muriel squawked, “How dare you speak to Mr. Goodman that way!”

 Joe had a full head of steam.

    “If it weren’t for shame,” he told Muriel, “I’d break your broom so you couldn’t fly out of here!”

 Joe told me later that he wasn’t proud of that remark, and had apologized to Muriel when he ran into her a few years later.

    “But I was really disgusted with Benny,” he said, “and I still am.”

    […]

After he returned to New York, Joe Wilder made a complaint to Local 802 about the money Benny had withheld from his salary. Officials at the local said it had happened outside their jurisdiction. They sent him to the national office of the American Federation of Musicians, where he filed charges against Benny.

The day before the hearing was scheduled, Joe got a call from a secretary at the AFM. She said,

    “Mr. Goodman is willing to forget the whole thing.”

Joe reminded her that he was the one making the complaint, and insisted on seeing it through as a matter of principle.

At the hearing Joe produced a receipt from the post office in Seattle proving he had sent home everything over his allotted forty-four pounds when Jay had first complained that his baggage was overweight. Nothing had been weighed after Seattle. Goodman and his staff had just assumed he was still overweight, and had used it as a pretext to harass him.

Benny told Joe, “In all my years in the music business, you’re the first one to take me to the union.”

    “That’s because I’m not afraid of you,” said Joe.

Joe told me he knew musicians who had been pressured into doing what Benny wanted through Benny’s influence with their other employers, especially in television. He said he wasn’t doing any work that Benny could interfere with, and he certainly didn’t ever want to be in his band again.

The AFM officers reprimanded Joe, saying he should have played the last concert and then brought his grievance to the union. They didn’t require Benny to refund his money, and Joe never got it…

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Of course Putin’s Russia is imperialist!

June 28, 2014 at 10:30 pm (AWL, imperialism, Marxism, posted by JD, Russia, stalinism, USSR)

By Dale Street (first published by Workers Liberty)

Sam Williams has written 16,000 words to claim that Russia is not imperialist, even when its tanks are rolling through other nations.

He describes the old Stalinist states “the former socialist countries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.” In those days there was “no true Soviet imperialism”, claims Williams, because “wealth was not accumulated in the form of capital, and therefore not in the form of finance capital — there was not a single kopeck of finance capital.” Any other view is down to “imperialist Western propaganda and its bought and paid-for historians.”

And Russia retains its non-imperialism even after it has unambiguously reverted to capitalism. “Has the military-feudal imperialism of pre-1917 Russia been restored?” asks Williams. No, it’s not feudal. (But it was not the feudal residues in Tsarist Russia which made Marxists of the time classify it as imperialist. It was its domination and exploitation of other nations).

“What about a modernised Russian imperialism based on the rule of monopoly capitalism and finance capital?” He rejects this argument as well: Russia is “very poor in finance capital. … (Therefore) today’s Russia is very far indeed from becoming an imperialist country.”

This is really just a re-run of Williams’s denial of Stalinist imperialism. There was no finance capital in Stalin’s USSR, and therefore no Stalinist imperialism. Today’s Russia is “very poor” in finance capital, and therefore there is no Russian imperialism.

However, Williams’s equation of “imperialist” with “rich in finance capital” obliges him to classify Taiwan, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand as imperialist powers. Read the rest of this entry »

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Eurasianism and the ‘Russian Spring’

June 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm (anti-semitism, Cross-post, fantasy, fascism, populism, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Russia, stalinism, Stop The War, USSR)

Above: Andrew Murray addresses a recent London meeting of Eurasianists (aka  ‘Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine’)

Cross-post by Dale Street:

Apologetics, if not outright support, for the forces of political reaction and oppression have become a hallmark of sections of the socialist left in the two and a half decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The “rationale” for such an abandonment of basic socialist principles is rooted in a bogus “anti-imperialism”, according to which any force in conflict with “imperialism” (defined solely as: the USA and/or the European Union) is automatically presumed worthy of some degree or other of support.

Now the “anti-imperialist” left is well advanced in repeating the same ‘mistake’ in relation to the conflict in the south-east of Ukraine.

Obsessed with the role played (or allegedly played) by the US and the European Union, fantasising about the supposed power wielded by fascist organisations in Ukraine, it shuts its eyes to the actual politics of those playing the leading role in the Russian-separatist forces.

On this occasion the result is even more bizarre than usual: the “anti-imperialist” left ends up in a de facto alliance with a political ideology committed to imperialist expansion and containing pronounced elements of fascism.

Eurasianism first emerged as a relatively systematised set of ideas amongst White émigrés in the early 1920s. Central to those ideas was the belief that Russia represented a unique civilisation with its own traditions and path of historical development.

Russia’s future, argued the Eurasians, lay not in following in the footsteps of Europe or Asia (although it would incorporate certain elements of both). Instead, they looked forward to the eventual collapse of the west and the emergence of an expanded Russia as a leading imperial power in its own right.

Eurasianism remained the preserve of Russian diaspora intellectuals until the collapse of the Soviet Union, since when it has become a significant political movement in Russia itself.

The main traits of Eurasianism today are: a commitment to restoring the glories of imperial Russia; the expansion of Russia’s borders to incorporate the territories of the ancient kingdom of Rus; hostility to western liberal values, which it holds responsible for what it sees as the decline and degeneration of the west.

The European Union and the USA — and Jews — are regarded as responsible for the post-Soviet economic and social collapse of Russia. Stalin, on the other hand, is admired as someone who established Russia as a world power.

Eurasianism is socially conservative and singles out gay rights for particular condemnation. Although it frequently presents itself as “anti-fascist”, its “anti-fascism” is no more than a Russian-imperialist glorification of Stalin’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent occupation of Eastern Europe.

At best, Eurasianism is a form of extreme Russian nationalism. At worst, it is a specific form of fascism which has been shaped by political traditions peculiar to Russia.

And it is the politics of Eurasianism which are espoused by leading figures in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, by the websites which seek to rally support for them, and by those political forces which have taken the lead in Russia in mobilising support for them. Read the rest of this entry »

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Helen Crawford: from Suffragette to Stalinist

April 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm (Guest post, history, Roger M, scotland, stalinism, USSR)

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Guest post by Roger McCarthy

BBC Scotland has produced a programme on Helen Crawfurd which I highly recommend for as long as it is available on iplayer (2 PM on 29th April).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0418z4q/Women_with_a_Past_Series_2_Helen_Crawfurd/

Born in Glasgow in 1877 Helen had a respectable Victorian lower middle class upbringing with staunchly Tory parents, initially dreamed of becoming a missionary and married at 21 a Presbyterian minister who was old enough to be her grandfather.

However (at least as she recalls it from her autobiography written around 1950) her Christianity always had a radical and socialist bent which led her into the women’s suffrage movement – and inspired by her husband’s preaching of the text where Jesus chases the moneychangers from the temple the Sunday before a big suffragette ‘raid’ she gravitated into its most radical direct action wing.

This led the respectable minister’s wife into multiple stints in prison for throwing rocks through the Liberal education minister’s window and that of an army recruiting office, for setting off a small bomb at the Botanic Gardens and ‘inflammatory language’ and went on hunger strike three times.

After the death of her husband and the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 she was appalled by the transformation of most of her radical suffragette comrades into white feather waving militarists and threw herself into Red Clydeside’s anti-war movement – joining the Glasgow women’s rent strike campaign in 1915, confronting her former idol Christabelle Pankhurst at a recruiting rally and becoming an increasingly prominent and militant member of the Scottish ILP, the Women’s International League and the Women’s Peace Crusade winning a reputation as one of Red Clydeside’s fieriest orators.

She also acted at some point (probably in the summer or latter part of 1915) as a courier between James Connolly and his old SLP comrades in Glasgow who around this time had taken over the printing of The Workers Republic and met Connolly himself and other Republicans in Dublin.

The October Revolution threw her further to the left as the Bolshevik publication of the imperialist secret treaties removed whatever lingering illusions she may still have had about liberal democracies and she was increasingly involved with the internationalist left-wing of the ILP arguing for joining the new Communist International.

And this led this 43-year old Scottish minister’s widow to make the difficult and dangerous pilgrimage to Russia itself in summer 1920, travelling via fishing boat, cargo ship and the Arctic port of Murmansk, meeting up with John Reed in Petrograd who gave her a tour of the revolutionary sights and finally in late August (her autobiography’s chronology is frustratingly vague) arriving in Moscow – a few days too late for the Second Congress of the Comintern itself.

Here her 1950 autobiography is probably less than fully frank as while she met Lenin (which seems to have been a standard feature of a Moscow tour at this point) and Alexandra Kollontai she has nothing to say about any meetings with Zinoviev or Radek or any of the other senior Comintern functionaries who were to become unpersons in the 1930s, but who were hardly likely to have ignored a prominent figure in the ILP who they needed to press for either its accession to the Comintern or the biggest possible split over the issue at its next conference.

She does however have a lot to say about John Reed who she met again in Moscow on his return from the Baku Congress in mid-September and accompanied him and Louise Bryant to the Bolshoi theatre, a night which 30 years later inspired one of the few lyrical passages in her autobiography:

The great Bolshoi Theatre was opened as the autumn days approached and John Reed got tickets for us to attend several performances of opera and ballet… One evening I was seated in a small box near to the great centre box … which had originally been the Czar’s . In the box on my left was an American millionaire named Vanderlip whom John Reed told me had been visiting to see if he could get a concession in Kamchatka for something or other. -

On that evening the Czar’s box was occupied by a delegation of peasants who had come from some of the distant villages for some conference. An old peasant was seated in the centre chair – the Czar’s chair – and around him were the middle aged  and young peasant men and women with bright kerchiefs on their heads. I looked at the old peasant with his greying beard and saw the expression of wonder on his face as he gazed at the magnificence and beauty of the scene being enacted on the stage. Then I turned to watch the millionaire in the small box on my left and the words of Mary in the Magnificat came to my mind ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hast exalted those of low degree. Thou hast filled the hungry with good things and the rich thou hast sent empty away’. The old Russian eagle had been removed from the shield on the front of the Czar’s box and the hammer and sickle had taken its place. The men and women who were out in the fields producing the food of Russia were honoured while the American millionaire who wanted to exploit the resources  of Russia got a third rate seat. l was on top of the world.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna on Benn

March 20, 2014 at 2:14 am (AWL, labour party, MPs, posted by JD, reformism, stalinism, USSR, workers)

Marchers supporting the Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders, Glasgow, 1971

Above: Benn marching with UCS stewards, Glasgow 1971

A number of readers were upset by the piece including an Open Letter from 2005, that we published on the morning following Tony Benn’s death. I, personally, thought the Open Letter made fair and important criticisms of Benn’s politics, and the opening remarks I wrote were suitably respectful towards this major figure on the British reformist-left. One of the authors of the Open Letter, Sean Matgamna, has now writtten an obituary of Benn. It makes many of the same points, and is generally very critical of Benn’s politics and political methodology. But, once again, I’d argue that the piece is fair and also gives credit where it’s due. Benn was a serious politician and deserves to be assessed seriously. We do not subscribe to the universal, and often hypocritical, adulation of Benn that has been prevailent since his death.

Matgamna worked with Benn and others to set up the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, which for a while united most of the Labour Party left, at the start of the 1980s:

The first thing that should be said and remembered about Tony Benn, who died on Friday 14 March, is that for over four decades he backed, defended, and championed workers in conflict with their bosses or with the “boss of bosses”, the government.

That put him decidedly in our camp. The political ideas which he too often linked with those bedrock working-class battles detract from the great merit of Tony Benn, but do not cancel it out or render it irrelevant.

Politically, Benn’s story was a strange one. An editorial in the Times neatly summed up the shape of Benn’s long career. His was “A Life Lived Backwards”. For the first half of his long life he belonged to the Establishment, socially and in his politics. To the dissenting old radical-Liberal and right-wing Labour part of the Establishment, but the Establishment nevertheless.

Both his parents had MPs for fathers. Four generations of Benns have been MPs. Benn’s son, Hilary, has been the third generation of cabinet-minister Benns. His father was Ramsey MacDonald’s Secretary of State for India in the 1929 government.

Benn went to one of the leading “public” schools and then to Oxford University, where he climbed up onto that milestone in the careers of so many Establishment politicians, the presidency of the Oxford Union debating society. He became a pilot in the hierarchical Royal Air Force, in which pilots came from the upper classes, and in 1950, at 25, a Labour MP in a safe seat. His wife, Caroline, was rich, as was Benn himself. This sincere champion of the working class was a millionaire. 

Benn became a minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964-70 and was a minister again in the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9.

Out of office after 1970, he turned left, at the age of 45. Publicly, he shifted during the great occupation and work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyards (UCS) in 1971. The decision by Edward Heath’s Tory government to end subsidies to ailing industries meant shut-down for UCS.

In office Benn had subsidised UCS, so there was a logic and continuity in this. He marched alongside the Stalinist UCS leaders Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid at giant working-class demonstrations in Glasgow. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Stop The War Coalition and the rise of neo-Stalinism

March 5, 2014 at 8:35 pm (apologists and collaborators, capitalism, class collaboration, democracy, Europe, ex-SWP, Guest post, history, Human rights, imperialism, internationalism, John Rees, Lindsey German, Marxism, national liberation, Shachtman, socialism, stalinism, Stop The War, trotskyism, USSR)

Above: neo-Stalinists Rees, Murray and Galloway

Guest post by George Mellor

“The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflict to oblige humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society, or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obliged to become a Marxist; no one is obliged to swear by Lenin’s name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed towards this, the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends” – Leon Trotsky (1938)

Many readers will be familiar with the concept of the ‘Third Camp’ – independent working class politics that refuses to side with the main ruling class power blocs (or ‘camps’) of the world. At the outbreak of WW2 the majority of would-be revolutionary socialists (and quite a few reformists as well) supported Russia, seeing it as some form of socialist state. However a minority (the ‘Third Camp’ socialists, mainly grouped around Max Shachtman) disagreed, viewing it as imperialist – of a different type to Western imperialism, but imperialist nevertheless.

Some on the left who came out of the Third Camp tradition (and, remember, the SWP was once part of that current and over Ukraine has shown signs of returning to it) now come to the defence of capitalist Russia. In doing so these acolytes of Putin – the neo-Stalinists – use the same framework to defend Russian imperialism as their predecessors did to defend ‘Soviet’ imperialism.

The basic framework they take from the arsenal of Stalinism is the view of the world as divided into two camps: on the one hand the peace-loving countries who supported Stalin’s USSR and on the other, the enemies of peace, progress and socialism. In the period of the Popular Front (1934-39) this found Russia aligned with the bourgeois democracies of the West, but between 1939 and ’41 that policy was superseded by an alliance with Hitler and the Axis powers. The consequence of both policies (and the intellectual zig-zagging required of Comintern loyalists) was that communist politics were subordinated to Stalin’s foreign policy, effectively cauterising the revolution in the inter-war years and disorientating socialists for over a generation.

For today’s neo-Stalinist the world is divided into Western imperialism on the one hand and China, Russia and other states (like Iran and Venezuela) that broadly identify with them against the ‘West’ on the other. Their conclusion is that socialists must stand up for China, Russia, or, indeed, any state or movement (eg the Taliban) that finds itself in conflict with ‘The West’. Seeing the world through this lens has led them to support Russian imperialism against Western imperialism, turning them into Putin’s Foreign Legion.

With the advent of the Ukraine crisis the neo-Stalinists were faced with the following problem: Russia invaded (using traditional Stalinist / Fascist methods) another county, after the people of that country overthrew the incumbent, corrupt, government. From what bourgeois – let alone socialist – principle does Russia have the right to invade an independent country? Of course there is none and so the neo-Stalinists have to invent one or two: the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) ten point statement is just such an invention.

The StWC statement provides a rationale which adds up to telling us the fact Russia has invaded a sovereign country is not as important as the new cold war (I feel a moral panic or, perhaps, political panic coming on as StWC functionaries stalk the land warning us of the dangers of ‘the new cold war’). Woven through the ‘ten points’ is the continual attempt to demonise the 1 million-plus movement which overthrew the Ukrainian government. They claim the movement is fascist / neo-con / in collusion with the European Union – in fact every bad thing one can think of. Such demonization is straight out of the Stalinist playbook, a classic example of blaming the victim. The character of the Ukraine movement has been largely shaped by its experience of greater Russia chauvinism: the idea that a pure democratic let alone socialist movement would spring fully formed out of the Euromaidan was never a possibility. For sure fascist and ultra-nationalist forces played a prominent role, and maybe even paid agents of the EU were present: the point is how should socialists relate to the million-strong movement and how can we seek to influence it? This is simply not an issue for the neo-Stalinists because they have written off the Ukrainian rebels as one reactionary mass not worth a second look.

In truth the StWC statement is neither here nor there, (a blogger at The Economist has taken apart the non sequiturs, half-truths and downright lies of the neo-Stalinists in a point by point rebuttal): it is simply a particularly crude example of the ‘campist’ world view.

For the neo-Stalinists the `hard headed’ geopolitical realties of the need to defend Russia against the ‘West’ always trumps the truth, morality, political principle and consistency: just as they support the invasion of the Ukraine and fit the facts around this, so they support the butcher Assad (crimes against humanity, mass murder, poison gas user, indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, starvation, state-sponsored terror, wholesale torture) and in that case, support for sheer barbarism.

Of course socialists are unlikely to affect events in the Ukraine, let alone Syria: however even if we can only proclaim it, we have a right – and a duty – to say we support neither Western or Russian imperialism but fight for independent working class action.

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Ukraine: for independent working class action!

February 27, 2014 at 9:49 am (class, Guest post, history, liberation, national liberation, revolution, Russia, solidarity, stalinism, USSR, workers)

Ukraine Russia Protests

Guest post by George Mellor

Events in Ukraine are shaping up to be a re-run of what happened to Eastern Europe at the end of WW11 – one hopes with a very different conclusion. Then, a struggle took place over whether these countries would be assimilated into the orbit of either Western or Soviet Imperialism. The tragedy was that betrayal by the West (at Teheran, Yalta and the ‘percentages agreement’ between Stalin and Churchill in Moscow in October 1944) allowed the GPU and the `red army’ to place their jackboot on the necks of the workers, and these countries became vassals of Stalinism for nearly 50 years.

Then (as now) the question was (and is) how to build independent working class activity, and here we can see a difference between the imperialisms of East and West: the former crushed and atomised civil society. The norms of bourgeois democracy, the rule of law, pluralism – all the building blocks on which a free and independent labour movement could exist, were extinguished. This repression was met with sporadic revolts, all branded ‘counter-revolutionary acts’ put down by the Russians providing ‘fraternal assistance’ to the local Stalinist ruling classes.

While the Eastern European states, as well as the Ukraine, obtained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all had been shaped by their experience of subjugation by Russia. For over 50 years the national question (once banished as a political question in Europe and raised by Trotsky specifically  around the Ukraine  in 1939) has shaped the body politic of these countries. Recovering from this subjugation some of these countries have fared well in nation building, others – mainly those infected by the gangster capitalism of Russia (look at the pictures of Yanukovych’s palace – the amassing by an individual of state sanctioned plunder) have not.

Russia is of course still a major power and is intent on rebuilding its empire through the mechanism of the Eurasian Union. For sure outside of a successful workers’ revolution nations will either be drawn into the orbit of either the West or Russia . For the Ukraine – which has the potential of being an important economic power- a precondition for embracing the Eurasian Union was to the need for an autocratic state seen in the centralising of power in the President.

Yanukovych’s support for Ukraine’s integration back into  Russia’s orbit  triggered the Euromaidan, a response which would not have been out of place in 1848. A movement of over 1m who have shown great fortitude and discipline in the face of continual attacks by the riot police. Far from acting like a mob ‘the people’ have organised the control of public buildings, and refused to be bowed by their so-called leaders or their ‘saviours’ the EU. This incoherent mass from the far right through to the far left linked by the single ill-defined idea of national sovereignty and independence. The idea that this civic protest could have been shaped by anything  other than nationalism would be naïve.

Russia is then faced with a mass movement of dissent from the path it has chosen for the Ukraine. So behind the scenes they will be sowing the seeds of dissention playing on the fears of  the Russian speaking regions.

In the West most of this propaganda war is being run by the successors to Stalinism, the neo-Stalinists, echoing their predecessors’ propaganda which accompanied the assimilation of Eastern Europe into the Stalinist Empire. Then the Stalinist lie was based on a false premise that Russia was exporting socialism. Today our neo-Stalinists continue to play the role of the border guards to a capitalist Russia.

However the propaganda is the same: all living movements such as we see in Ukriane are branded fascist or reactionary. Unless one wishes to be a functionary in such a Russian dominated regime the socialist who argues such a view will only succeed in cutting themselves off from any influence on the Euromaidan.

I am sure sections – I do not know what proportion – of the Euromaidan are fascists or semi-fascists: how could this be otherwise? The job of socialists is to organise against them at the same time supporting Ukrainian right to self determination including independence from Russia, arguing for maximum democracy including the right of the CP to organise and most importantly organising independent working class action.

Between now and the election in May we can only watch how events unfold; how far Putin will be able to destabilise the situation, how far the Ukrainians are going to find real leaders and weed out the false messiahs (as the election approaches workers will be faced with more false messiahs than the Catholic Church has saints.) will in part be down to how socialists intervene. However I wonder how far workers will be open to socialist ideas when their lived experience has been that of actually existing socialism  i.e. Stalinism.

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The Graun on Britten: political idiots hail a political idiot

November 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm (apologists and collaborators, Beyond parody, Champagne Charlie, crap, grovelling, Guardian, history, jerk, middle class, music, relativism, stalinism, truth, USSR)

Today’s Graun carries an editorial about a man who wrote some fine music but who was (to be charitable) an idiot when it came to politics. Maybe because his execrable political opinions quite resemble those of many Graun journalists and (no doubt) readers, it’s an almost laughable piece of hagiography:

Benjamin Britten at 100: voice of the century

Above all, he was the writer of music that still thrills because of its toughness, beauty, originality and quality 

Imagine an English classical music composer who is so famous in his own lifetime that his name is known throughout the country, who is the first British composer to end his life as a peer of the realm, a composer from whom the BBC uniquely commissions a prime-time new opera for television, and whose every important new premiere is a national event, a recording of one of which – though it is 90 minutes long – sells 200,000 copies almost as soon as it is released, and a musician whose death leads the news bulletins and the front pages.

Next, imagine an English classical composer who is a gay man when homosexuality is still illegal, who lives and writes at an angle to the world, who can compose strikingly subversive music, who is passionately anti-war, so much so that he escapes to America as the second world war threatens, who is in many ways a man of the left, certainly an anti-fascist, certainly a believer in the dignity of labour, as well as a visitor to the Soviet Union and a lifelong supporter of civil liberties causes.

Now, imagine an English composer who in many estimations is simply the most prodigiously talented musician ever born in this country, who wrote some of the deepest and most rewarding scores of the 20th century, who set the English language to music more beautifully than anyone before or since, who almost single-handedly created an English operatic tradition and who, all his life, saw it as his responsibility to write music, not just for the academic priesthood or for the music professionals but for the common people, young and old, of his country.

Benjamin Britten, who was born in Lowestoft 100 years ago, was not just some of those multifarious things. He was all of them. And he was much more besides – including a wonderful pianist, the founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, and arguably the 20th century composer who is best served by his own extensive legacy in the recording studio. He was also, as many have written, a difficult and troubled man – even at times a troubling one.

Above all, he was the writer of music that still thrills because of its toughness, beauty, originality and quality. In his 1964 Aspen lecture, Britten said: “I do not write for posterity.” In fact, he did. In his lecture he said he wanted his music to be useful – a noble aim for an artist. He said he did not write for pressure groups, snobs or critics. He wrote, he said, as a member of society. His job was to write music that would inspire, comfort, touch, entertain and “even educate” his fellows. Britten spoke – and composed – as a serious man of his serious time. Impressively, much of that endures. If we seem today to have let some of Britten’s ideals slip, that may say more about our shortcomings as a culture than about Britten’s greatness and achievement, then and now.

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Bearing in mind that “visitor to the Soviet Union” is  Grauniad-speak for “willfully blind apologist for mass-murder”, just how many non-sequiturs can you spot in the following:

“…passionately anti-war, so much so that he escapes to America as the second world war threatens, who is in many ways a man of the left, certainly an anti-fascist, certainly a believer in the dignity of labour, as well as a visitor to the Soviet Union and a lifelong supporter of civil liberties causes”
..?

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Syria: no-win for us or the ruling class … or the Syrian people

August 27, 2013 at 5:46 pm (conspiracy theories, hell, Human rights, Jim D, Middle East, murder, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Syria, terror, UN, United States, USSR, war)

Ben Jennings 27.08.2013

Cartoon from the Guardian

The international ruling classes are clearly in a quandary over Syria. But so is the serious left (the word “serious” meaning discounting Assad-supporters and hypocritical fake-Westphalians who’ve been looking forward to western intervention for the past two years and more, just so’s they can have something to protest about).

Shiraz Socialist does not oppose foreign intervention in principle, especially when a country is descending into sectarian mass-murder. Also, the use of chemical weapons should be recognised as a “red line” and, if possible, the perpetrators punished.

The problem with regard to Syria is not any “principled” objection to “outside” intervention, but the fact that the opposition seems to be a bunch of sectarian Islamists who are already attacking Kurds, Allowites, Christians, Shias and others.

The best result  now would be a cease-fire arrived at by a conference brokered and enforced on the ground by the UN, Arab League or, indeed, NATO. Frankly, that’s not very likely.

It looks like Labour are going to opposes unilateral military action http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/08/douglas-alexander-warns-cameron-vote-must-be-held-syria-and-labour-could-oppose-gov

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The left in general, perhapd due to the bank holiday, has yet to react. There are a few voices though – Owen jones opposes military action but, against all the evidence, appears to doubt that  the Assad regieme launched the chemical attack. He calls on the international court to bring charges and for UN peace talks: “There’s no question that those who use chemical weapons must be  arraigned in an international court. But a UN-brokered peace process  involving all the local and regional players remains the only solution.” http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/for-the-syrians-sakes-and-for-our-own-we-must-not-intervene-8784220.html

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The wretched Lindsey German and ‘Stop the War’ are entirely predictable. They call it a proxy war but conveniently only mention the Western and Saudi arming of the rebels, not Russia or Iran who have been sending arms and troops to aid Assad.  They call for peace talks, but really they’re in support of Assad: http://www.stopwar.org.uk/news/attack-in-syria-no-pretext-for-intervention

Others (eg: Galloway) are spreading conspiracy theories about who did the gassing: Mossad, Al Quida, the FSA, Turkish intelligence, Saudi Intelligence-  take your pick.
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Assad supporter John Wight at the Socialist Unity blog thinks it’s all of them conspiring to take out Assad because he is part of the “Axis of Resistance”:
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http://socialistunity.com/allegations-of-chemical-weapons-use-by-syrian-government-forces-dont-stack-up/
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A few voices of sanity, solidarity and common decency:
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* Coatsey
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* Louis Proyect
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* The AWL

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