How the downfall of the Romanovs finally came about 100 years ago
By Carolyn Harris
SMITHSONIAN.COM (republished at the US website SocialistWorker.org)
“I can’t remember a single day when I didn’t go hungry…I’ve been afraid, waking, eating and sleeping…all my life I’ve trembled-afraid I wouldn’t get another bite…all my life I’ve been in rags-all through my wretched life – and why?”- Anna, wife of a locksmith in The Lower Depths (1903), Maxim Gorky
When we think of the Russian Revolution today, the most well-known event is the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party seized power, laying the foundation for the creation of the Soviet Union. But 1917 was a year of two revolutions in Russia. First came the February Revolution, which precipitated the collapse of the ruling Romanov dynasty and introduced new possibilities for the future of the Russian state. (Note that below we use the Gregorian calendar dates, even though Russia used the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind. That’s why the revolution happened in March on the former calendar, but in the titular February on the latter.)
The eventful month brought a too-little-too-late realization on behalf of the Czar, Nicholas II, that three years of fighting in World War had depleted Russian infrastructure. Soldiers faced munitions shortages and the cities suffered through food scarcity. A particularly cold and punishing winter exacerbated the situation. On February 17, Nicholas wrote to his cousin and wartime ally, George V of the United Kingdom, “The weak state of our railways has long since preoccupied me. The rolling stock has been and remains insufficient and we can hardly repair the worn out engines and cars, because nearly all the manufactories and fabrics of the country work for the army. That’s why the question of transport of store and food becomes acute, especially in winter, when the rivers and canals are frozen.”
In his letter, Nicholas assured George that “everything is being done to ameliorate the state of things” but he seems to have hoped that the spring thaw and the eventual end to the hostilities would solve the problem.
His hopes were misplaced, however, as his problems were about to get much worse, especially with his female subjects.
In the country’s urban centers, with men on the battlefield, women took on new roles in the workforce, as they did throughout Europe during the war. Between 1914 and 1917, 250,000 more women began working outside the home for the first time. By the outbreak of the February Revolution, close to one million female workers lived in Russia’s cities, but were paid half the wages of men and endured substandard living conditions. The journalist Ariadna Tyrkova wrote, “Day by day, the war has changed attitudes about woman. It has become increasingly clear that the unseen effort of a woman and her labour often support the entire economy of a country.”
Like the French Revolution in 1789, a bread shortage in the capital precipitated unrest. After long shifts in the factories, female factory workers stood in bread lines alongside other women including domestic servants, housewives and soldiers’ widows. In these bread lines, news and rumors about planned rationing spread. When Saint Petersburg municipal authorities announced on March 4 that rationing would begin ten days later, there was widespread panic; bakeries were sacked, their windows broken and supplies stolen.
As he had throughout the previous months, Nicholas once again underestimated the extent of the unrest and again departed for military headquarters more than 400 miles away in Mogliev, which is now in Belarus, against the advice of his ministers. In the czar’s mind, leadership of the military took precedence during wartime, and he was concerned by the mass desertions occurring in the aftermath of munitions shortages and defeats at the hands of the Germans.
The next day, March 8, was the annual celebration of International Women’s Day. The weather had improved and comparatively warm 23 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and bright sunshine seemed to encourage crowds to assemble in public spaces. Since 1913, Russian revolutionary factions, including the Bolsheviks, had encouraged women to celebrate the occasion as an opportunity to build solidarity. ..At the textile factories, women went on strike and marched to the metal works to persuade the men employed there to join them.
An employee of the Nobel Engineering works recalled, “We could hear women’s voices in the lane overlooked by the windows of our department: ‘Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!’ I and several comrades rushed to the windows…Masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting ‘Come out! Stop work!’ Snowballs flew through the windows. We decided to join the demonstration.”
By the end of the day 100,000 workers went on strike, holding banners that said “Bread” and “Down with the Czar.” The number of demonstrators increased to 150,000 by the next day. The crowds were swelled by the presence of curious onlookers from all social backgrounds. Street theatres performed scenes from plays including Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which was widely viewed as an indictment of the treatment of the urban poor under czarist rule.
Nicholas and his wife, Empress Alexandra, who remained at the Alexander Palace just outside Saint Petersburg with their five children, continued to underestimate the seriousness of the discontent. Alexandra was dismissive of the protestors, writing to Nicholas at military headquarters, “The rows in town and strikes are more than provoking…It’s a hooligan movement, young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite – then the workmen preventing others from work – if it were very cold they would probably stay indoors. But this will all pass and quieten down – if the Duma would only behave itself – one does not print the worst speeches.”
The Duma, the representative assembly Nicholas reluctantly granted following unrest in 1905, struggled to maintain order as the strikes and demonstrations continued. Duma chairman Mikhail Rodzianko telegraphed Nicholas at military headquarters on March 11, “The government is completely paralyzed, and totally incapable of restoring order where it has broken down…Your Majesty, without delay summon a person whom the whole country trusts, and charge him with forming a government, in which the population can have confidence.” Instead, Nicholas placed his confidence in the military reserves stationed in Saint Petersburg to restore his authority.
Though in past moments of revolutionary sentiment, the military had stood by its czar, by 1917, the armed force was demoralized and sympathetic to the demonstrators’ cause. The presence of large groups of women among the demonstrators made soldiers particularly reluctant to fire on the crowds. When the soldiers joined the demonstrators, as opposed to firing upon them, the end of the Romanov dynasty was near.
In his history of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, who joined the Bolsheviks in September 1917 and became one of the party’s most prominent figures, wrote, “A great role is played by women workers in the relations between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command, ‘Put down your bayonets; join us!’” Instead of suppressing the demonstrations, the regiments stationed in Saint Petersburg joined them, expressing their own grievances against the Czarist regime.
In exile in Switzerland, Vladimir Lenin followed events in Russia with interest but he distrusted the growing leadership role of Duma, fearing that the result of the unrest would be the replacement of one privileged elite with another, with the workers and peasants again excluded from any real influence.
The involvement of the military in demonstrations against his rule finally persuaded Nicholas to take the unrest seriously. In the early hours of March 13 , Nicholas departed military headquarters by train to address the collapse of his authority in Saint Petersburg. He would lose his throne over the course of the journey.
Castro leads his victorious troops (photo: History Archive/Rex/Shutterstock)
Pablo Velasco and Sacha Ismail examine Castro’s legacy in an article written in early 2012, largely informed by Cuba Since The revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, by Sam Farber.
The 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro and his 26 July Movement to power was a bourgeois revolution which smashed Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, but replaced it with their own Bonapartist regime.
Half driven by US hostility and half by choice, this government opted to become a Stalinist state in 1961, adopting the model of the USSR and similar states.
Farber calls this a “bureaucratic system of state collectivism”, in which society’s economic surplus “is not extracted in the form of profits from individual enterprise, nor is it realised through the market. Instead, it is obtained as a surplus product of the nation as a whole. The surplus is appropriated directly, through the state’s control of the economy”. Cuban workers and peasants received their means of subsistence in the form of largely non-monetary rations — low cost or free food, housing, education, health and other welfare facilities. However the surplus product pumped out of the direct producers is controlled and allocated by the ruling bureaucracy — “without any institutional constraints by unions or any other independent popular organisations”.
Cuba’s achievements and failures “resemble those of the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam before these countries took the capitalist road”. Part of this was Cuba’s receipt of “massive Soviet aid from the early sixties to the end of the eighties… even the most conservative estimates would place it well above Cuba’s calculated losses from US economic aggression during that period”. Between 1960 and 1990, Cuba received about 65 billion dollars of Soviet aid on very favourable terms.
The “systematic repressive nature of the Soviet-type regimes made it politically difficult to build enduring oppositions within those societies”. In Cuba there was “certainly no lack of physical brutality… particularly during the first twenty years of their rule. There were thousands of executions, and there was large-scale imprisonment, throughout the revolutionary period, of tens of thousands of people under typically very poor living conditions and physical mistreatment.”
Who rules Cuba?
The state bureaucracy that developed out of the revolution is still in power.
The state owns the means of production and the bureaucracy “owns” and controls the state. The “one-party state” is in fact a no-party state, since the bureaucracy rules directly through the myriad of state and state-sponsored “mass” organisations.
The bureaucracy has privileged access to consumer goods through special stores, separate hospitals, recreational villas, and trips abroad. The armed forces and security services have their own medical facilities. Since the two-tier economy of hard currency and pesos was legally established in 1993, more conventional inequality has been unleashed.
The political ideal of the Cuban elite has been summed up by current head of state Raúl Castro as “monolithic unity” (2009). Although there is enforced mass participation in Cuba’s polity, there is a complete absence of democratic control. Cuba has had a variety of ruling institutions, but none function democratically. The Communist Party was formed in 1965 and has only had six congresses in over 50 years. The Popular Power assemblies were not established until 1976 and allow only vetted candidates to stand on their biography, with those “elected” able only to rubber stamp decisions taken elsewhere by the bureaucrats.
Cuba does not have the kind of impersonal rule of law and citizens’ rights against the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the state which exist in some bourgeois societies. This is evident in the crimes of “social dangerousness”, and “antisocial behaviour”, and the use of imprisonment, electric shock treatment and psychiatric institutions for opponents. Fidel Castro has admitted that there have been 15-20,000 political prisoners in Cuba and Cuba currently has 531 prisoners per 100,000 people, the fifth highest rate worldwide.
What about the workers?
The idea that Cuba is ruled by its workers is laughable. In 1959, the Cuban working class “was not socialist in any meaningful sense of the term, nor did it lend its own distinctive character to the Cuban revolution”. Fidel Castro himself has admitted as much on numerous occasions.
The working class was certainly not passive during Batista’s dictatorship. Despite the shackles of the state and business-gangster trade unionism, sugar workers, rail workers and bank workers fought militant reformist struggles around pay and conditions. The 26 July Movement had its own trade unionists who did organise successful strikes on a number of occasions after the rebel leadership landed in Cuba in 1956. But the general strike they called in April 1958 was a failure and workers’ action only an adjunct to the main, guerrilla warfare strategy for taking power. Read the rest of this entry »
Russian tanks enter Budapest
At 03:00 on 4 November 1956, Russian tanks penetrated Budapest along the Pest side of the Danube in two thrusts: one up the Soroksári road from the south and the other down the Váci road from the north. Thus before a single shot was fired, the Soviets had effectively split the city in half, controlled all bridgeheads, and were shielded to the rear by the wide Danube river. Armoured units crossed into Buda and at 04:25 fired the first shots at the army barracks on Budaörsi Road. Soon after, Soviet artillery and tank fire was heard in all districts of Budapest. Operation Whirlwind combined air strikes, artillery, and the co-ordinated tank-infantry action of 17 divisions
Between 4 and 9 November, the Hungarian Army put up sporadic and disorganised resistance, with Marshal Zhukov reporting the disarming of twelve divisions, two armoured regiments, and the entire Hungarian Air Force. The Hungarian Army continued its most formidable resistance in various districts of Budapest and in and around the city of Pécs in the Mecsek Mountains, and in the industrial centre of Dunaújváros (then called Stalintown). Fighting in Budapest consisted of between ten and fifteen thousand resistance fighters, with the heaviest fighting occurring in the working-class stronghold of Csepel on the Danube River. Although some very senior officers were openly pro-Soviet, the rank and file soldiers were overwhelmingly loyal to the revolution and either fought against the invasion or deserted. The United Nations reported that there were no recorded incidents of Hungarian Army units fighting on the side of the Soviets.
At 05:20 on 4 November, Imre Nagy broadcast his final plea to the nation and the world, announcing that Soviet Forces were attacking Budapest and that the Government remained at its post. The radio station, Free Kossuth Rádió, stopped broadcasting at 08:07. An emergency Cabinet meeting was held in the Parliament but was attended by only three ministers. As Soviet troops arrived to occupy the building, a negotiated evacuation ensued, leaving Minister of State István Bibó as the last representative of the National Government remaining at his post. He wrote For Freedom and Truth, a stirring proclamation to the nation and the world.
(extracted and slightly adapted from Wikipedia).
CHRIS and BETTY BIRCH were British Communist Party members in Budapest during the uprising and the Russian invasion. Here they recall (for the Morning Star on 24 and 25 Oct 2016) the events; their eye-witness account is valuable for obvious reasons, but Shiraz Socialist wouldn’t agree with everything they say (eg that the uprising was “taken over by anti-communists”).
Sixty years ago a popular uprising in Hungary led to fighting on the streets, many deaths and huge political consequences.
It was started by communists, mainly writers and students, taken over by anti-communists and eventually ended, after 17 days, by Soviet tanks. We were there. Why did it happen? Have the lessons been learned?
We arrived in Budapest with our 19-month-old son in August 1955, and our daughter was born there in July 1956. We were part of a small international community but we had many Hungarian colleagues and friends.
On February 25 1956 Nikita Khrushchov delivered his secret speech at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which he denounced the cult of the individual and Stalin’s crimes.
Some weeks later we were sent a copy of the Observer with the full text of the speech with a letter saying that the British party had no reason to think that the speech was inaccurate.
When we tried to discuss it with a Soviet friend, we were told that it was an internal Soviet party affair and none of our bloody business.
Like hell it wasn’t! That speech had enormous repercussions all over the world.
The British party held a national congress which criticised the Soviet party for keeping the speech secret instead of allowing a public discussion of how things had gone so horridly wrong.
In October we were in Poland and went to a political cabaret. One sketch involved a woman’s joy in hearing that her shoe shop had had a delivery of shoes of different sizes and styles. The punch line was: “Poor woman. She still believes in fairy tales!”
A week later Wladyslaw Gomulka was first secretary of the Polish party and initiated “the Polish thaw.” And things were moving in Hungary too.
At least half of the students were the sons and daughters of workers and peasants who would never have seen the inside of a university in pre-war Hungary.
While they were prepared to accept regimentation in thought and isolation from the West at the start of the cold war, they were no longer willing to accept it in 1956.
They were bitter about their inability to get Western and even Polish and Yugoslav books and magazines, and doubly bitter about restrictions on travel. The compulsory study of Marxism was a sore point.
These feelings provided fertile ground for students from middle-class families and reactionary professors.
All this was made worse by the fact that students were not allowed their own organisation; they had to belong to the all-embracing Democratic Federation of Hungarian Youth.
Many young people felt that they had no part to play in society, no say in what was going on, that politics had nothing for them — much the same as many young people feel in capitalist society.
The rigid bureaucracy in Hungary was unbelievable. Our son went to a creche. If any child was even a minute late, admission was refused, his mother had to take the child home and miss a day’s work.
All Hungarian children had to learn Russian at school, and the Soviet marking system was imposed on the schools.
This rigid bureaucracy infected the Hungarian Working People’s Party, which had grown from a few thousand in 1946 to more than 800,000 in 1956.
Many of those who joined the party were jumping on the bandwagon, covering up their past or seeking to secure jobs.
They were not communists by conviction or ideology. Some were enemies of the party. They only acted on directives from above and by giving orders to those below.
In the main, party officials opposed change. They were only too ready to persecute comrades who thought for themselves. The party had been reduced almost to political impotence.
It was widely believed that the Hungarian party was run by the Soviet party, and that all major decisions were made in Moscow.
Inside the party and also outside the idea was promoted that the Soviet Union could do no wrong.
This was propagated with such lying and hypocrisy that it produced the opposite result.
A member of the social democratic party in 1946-7 was recruited to the Working People’s Party as a result of party work in her factory.
At a party school in 1948 she was told that the Soviet Union received much help from Britain and the US in the war against fascism.
The next year the story was that the Soviet Union alone had defeated fascism. And the next time it was implied that Britain and the US were really on the side of the fascists.
In yesterday’s article, we explained that many of those who joined the Hungarian Working People’s Party in the years after the second world war did so because some jobs were dependent on party membership and being a communist came with privileges.
Top communists drove around in big cars with darkened windows and had access to special shops where they could buy goods from the West.
They even had their own party hospital which was clean and modern, while most of the others were old and dirty. And it operated a caste system.
Senior comrades: private room with telephone, radio and balcony (like the one where our daughter was born); lesser comrades: room shared with three others, no radio; other comrades: a room for eight.
Whatever the facts of the matter, and we do not know them, there was widespread belief that Hungary had become a Soviet colony.
Many workers felt that they were more exploited than they had been under capitalism.
As soon as they increased production, the norm was raised so that their wages stayed the same. They felt that the products of their labour were going to the Soviet Union, and this led to a brake on all attempts to win big increases in production.
Two of the demands put forward at the start of the uprising were “Hungarian uranium deposits to be used in Hungary’s interests” and “Publish all foreign trade agreements.”
Many workers were on very low wages of 800 forints a month. These low wages may well have been because of the need for capital development but this was never adequately explained. And sacrifice has to have a limit, and this limit comes all the more quickly if the workers feel that others are living at their expense.
Party functionaries, and there seemed to be thousands of them, earned 2,000 forints a month or more.
The churches were open to all but faced restrictions and were frowned on by the regime. Most Christians retreated into the closet. One friend of ours came out as a Catholic during the uprising.
Criticism of the regime was punished. Workers were under threat of losing their jobs if they failed to turn out for May Day parades.
Our Scottish friend Charlie Coutts visited Szeged with a young student as interpreter. She told him about the lack of freedom in her studies, and Charlie mentioned this to an official of the youth organisation. Charlie later learned that she had been arrested and was in prison.
The Khrushchov speech was never published in Hungary. Daily Worker reports on the rehabilitation of Laszlo Rajk, the leading Hungarian communist and minister of the interior who was executed after one of Matyas Rakosi’s show trials, were suppressed.
One could buy capitalist newspapers in Poland but not in Hungary. Naturally these things affected intellectuals much more than the working class, but the latter also felt that they had no power to decide anything.
By and large the trade unions fulfilled their role with regard to health, holidays etc, but the workers were not involved in factory management.
They felt they were there to carry out the party’s plans and directives without any say in those plans.
This is why the demand for workers’ councils was so strongly voiced during the uprising.
The press was a travesty of what one would have expected the press in a so-called people’s democracy to be.
If you had read the party paper Szabad Nep, you had read all the other newspapers as far as any important matter was concerned.
And it went further than that. A Hungarian journalist wrote an article on the need to abolish the death penalty, quoting the point of view of the British party.
No paper or magazine dared to publish it because the Hungarian party had not pronounced on the issue. This kind of thing even extended to articles on sport.
After the 1947 elections there were 150 members of the eight opposition parties in parliament, who had together polled 1,995,419 votes.
By the time of the 1949 elections none of these parties still existed. There had ben no edict banning them. They had simply disappeared. Political differences were often settled by the use of the security police. In fact the lack of democracy in the state, in the factories, in the party, in all aspects of society lay at the heart of the Hungarian problem.
A week after the end of the fighting, Janos Kadar, the Hungarian party’s new general secretary, told a meeting of party activists in Budapest: “The whole idea of socialism is now compromised in Hungary. The masses of workers now say: ‘We are not interested in socialism or capitalism. We just want to live better’.”
Socialism without democracy, without the full involvement of the people, is like an egg without a yolk. It has a fragile shell that is easily broken.
JD recommends some reading and resources:
Other recommended reading:
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On October 23, a large group of unarmed students gathered outside the Budapest radio station and demanded that their 17-point programme of democratic demands be broadcast. After the police opened fire the government dominated by Erno Gero, a Kremlin stooge, called on the Soviet leadership to send in troops.
On October 24, Russian tanks and artillery fired on demonstrators in Budapest killing and wounding hundreds of men, women and children. It was this which sparked the armed resistance.
This response was published in November 1956 by the the British “orthodox” Trotskyists. The fact that in all likelihood it was written by the proven political gangster, thug and rapist Gerry Healy does not detract from its value, or from the essential truths it contains (in the face of persisting Stalinist lies about the uprising being “fascist”). The “orthodox” Trotskyist view of the world is reflected in the article’s repeated and excessive insistence upon denouncing “world imperialism and its agents” and warning against “capitalist elements” supposedly “in the ranks” of the Hungarian revolutionaries – indeed, even urging Hungarian Communist Party members (the majority of whom supported the revolution) to “stay in the Communist Party and fight it out.”
STALIN IS DEAD BUT STALINISM LIVES
That is the message spelt out in letters of blood by the Hungarian people.
The labour movement of the world is rightly shocked at the brutality and ruthlessness of the Soviet armed forces. But this fact must not permit us to be taken off guard for one moment by world imperialism and its agents. Stalinist rule has always been associated with persecution and murder, both inside and outside the Soviet Union. Eden and Eisenhower have never protested when revolutionary opponents of the regime have been smashed. They helped to whitewash and justify the Moscow trials through the book and film Mission to Moscow written by American ex-ambassador Joseph E. Davies. Both the British and American governments refused asylum to the great revolutionary Leon Trotsky when he was being hounded from one country to another by Stalin’s GPU.
If these gentlemen shed tears for Hungary today it is not for the workers and peasants who have borne the brunt of the fight against Stalinism but for their fascist and landlord friends.
What happened in Hungary, as we shall see, was a revolution for national independence and democratic rights. Connected with this was a series of demands passed by the trade unions.
1. Workers’ councils in every factory to establish workers’ management and radically transform the system of state central planning and directing.
2. Wages to be raised immediately by 10 to 15 per cent and a ceiling (about £106 a month) fixed for the highest salaries.
3. To abolish production norms except in factories where the workers or workers’ councils wish to keep them.
4. The 4 per cent bachelor and childless family tax to be abolished; the lowest retirement pensions to be increased; child allowances to be raised with special reference to the needs of large families.
5. Speed up house-building with the state, co-operatives and other organisations launching a powerful social movement to mass produce houses.
6. Negotiate with the governments of the Soviet Union and other countries in order to establish economic relations that will ensure mutual advantages by adhering to the principle of equality.
(Daily Worker, October 27).
The backbone of this movement was the demand for the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary.
The imperialists were against this type of revolution. On the same day, October 27, the New York Times -mouthpiece of American big business-declared: ‘The view prevailing among United States officials, it appeared, was that “evolution” towards freedom in Eastern Europe would be better for all concerned than “revolution”, though nobody was saying this publicly.’ The New York Times again returned to this theme the next day, October 28, when it declared that the problem of western imperialism is ‘how to encourage the nationalist and libertarian spirit in the satellites without flaming it into a large scale revolt.’ As if not to be outdone by the New York Times the London Daily Worker, echoing Moscow, declared on October 25: ‘Only false friends resort to the gun. . . .’ Five days previously (October 22), John Foster Dulles speaking in Washington defended the legality of the presence of Soviet troops in Poland under the Warsaw agreement.
‘From the standpoint of international law and violation of treaties,’ he said, ‘I do not think you can claim that it would be a violation of a treaty.’ Mr. Dulles was fully aware at the time he made that statement that a revolution was under way in Hungary and Hungary was also a party to the Warsaw agreement.
Hot on the heels of Mr. Dulles came R. Palme Dutt of the British Communist Party.
‘The Soviet armed forces,’ he wrote, ‘were legally in Hungary by agreement under the Warsaw Pact.’ (Daily Worker,’November 10.) In a cable from Washington by its correspondent Philip Deane, the London Observer, November 11, 1956, reports that: ‘High Administration sources say that the United States has tried to let the Russians know, without being provocative, that Berlin and Austria will be defended by American forces. Hungary, meanwhile, has been officially and finally abandoned to its fate.’ And Basil Davidson, one of the last journalists to leave Hungary, reports that of the American financed propaganda station Free Europe Radio one revolutionary said: ‘I wish I could shut its ugly mouth. It lied to us just as the Russians lied to us.’ Neither the Soviet bureaucrats nor the imperialists and their representatives Palme Dutt and Foster Dulles care two hoots about the working people of Hungary. They were both, for different reasons, opposed to the revolution, and in each case supported their own particular agents and not the movement of the Hungarian people as a whole.
HOW THE REVOLUTION BEGAN
On October 23, a large group of unarmed students gathered outside the Budapest radio station and demanded that their 17-point programme of democratic demands be broadcast. After the police opened fire the government dominated by Erno Gero, a notorious Kremlin hack, promptly called for Soviet troops.
On Wednesday, October 24, Russian tanks and artillery fired on demonstrators in Budapest killing and wounding hundreds of men, women and children. It was these actions which sparked off the revolutionary armed resistance. During the next day, October 25, armed rebellion broke out. Workers on Csepel island in the Danube took up weapons against the security forces. Radio Budapest announced this as a rebellion of the working people: Absolutely no mention was made at that time that this was the work of armed gangs and the counter revolution. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.
The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.
The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.
To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.
French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.
I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”
Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.
The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.
This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).
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.
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.
This Facebook site seems to be a good source of contemporaneous information on the revolutionary events in Ukraine:
Euro-Maidan As It Is
2,313 likes · 702 talking about this
Having watched, pondered and re-watched Paxman’s interview with comedian Russell Brand on last night’s Newsnight, I’m still not sure what to make of it. My initial response was that Brand is a pretentious, incoherent idiot, spouting a lot of pseudo-revolutionary hot air and half-digested anarchistic platitudes. But several people I’ve spoken to today told me they were impressed by him. So I’ve watched it again and have to admit that, after a facetious start, he becomes more sympathetic as he gets angrier. But I still think he’s a prat – and a banal prat at that – and wonder what the hell the New Statesman is playing at, hiring him as a guest editor this week.
Judge for yourself…
…and feel free to let us know what you think.
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