Category Archives: Working class history

Lars Lih on Bolshevism


95 years after the October Revolution, the CPGB invites you to join us to look back on an event that profoundly changed human history and which continues to inspire millions across the globe.

This London Communist Forum will not merely celebrate 1917. It will also interrogate the complex and conflicted legacy of the ‘Bolshevism’ that we on the far left have inherited. This has completely distorted our understanding of the very event that inspires so many of us.

The cults of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, not to mention the anti-communist prejudice of Cold War historiography, have skewed our understanding of the nature of Bolshevism as a political movement, the strategy it was pursuing and therefore the Russian Revolution as a whole. This meeting aims to re-Bolshevise the Bolshevik Revolution.

In a world that is increasingly plunging into turmoil and crisis, enormous responsibilities and challenges fall to those of us who still uphold the need for revolutionary change. That is why it is so important to rigorously study our history, so as to learn from the lessons of 1917.

Lars T Lih is a scholar and historian based in Canada. He is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He has been at the forefront of rediscovering Russian revolutionary history, helping to scotch some of the myths about Bolshevism common to both the far left and anti-communist establishment thought. His most recent publications include a biography, Lenin (2011, Reaktion), and his ground-breaking study Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context (Haymarket 2008).

Facebook event

Location: Calthorpe Arms, 252 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1. Map

Starts: 19:30, Sunday 11 November 2012

Ends: 22:00, Sunday 11 November 2012


Did the Russian Revolution really change that much for women?

A video from one of the Northern Communist Forums that the CPGB organises in Manchester. Anne McShane looks at what the Russian Revolution changed for women and talks about some of the lessons for today.

140th anniversary of the Paris Commune: inspirational feats and heroic failure

The Paris Commune teaches us valuable lessons, writes Nick Rogers

One hundred and forty years ago the suppression of the Paris Commune was reaching its climax. On May 21 1871 the troops of the ostensibly republican regime based in Versailles entered Paris. They quickly occupied the wealthier west of the city. Nevertheless, for another week the working class and plebeian population of Paris, particularly in the north and east, resisted, as 130,000 troops systematically extinguished the hopes of the previous seven weeks, along with thousands of lives – 17,500 is the lower official estimate; some historians have calculated in the region of 35,000.

As the barricades fell, those fighters who surrendered were lined up and shot. The wounded were dispatched where they lay. Others were beaten to death with rifle butts. Women had fought heroically alongside men. Neither they nor children were spared by the forces of Versailles. The bodies – some still breathing – were dumped in shallow graves.

Even after the fall of the last barricade on May 28, the killing continued: those wearing army boots (assumed to be soldiers who had gone over to the Commune); those with watches (assumed to be communal officials); women with milk or wine bottles, who were denounced as petrol bombers.

Jean-Baptiste Millière had been elected a deputy for Paris to the reactionary assembly based in Versailles. After attempting in vain to conciliate between Versailles and Paris, he had returned to the capital but took no part in the Commune. Still he was ordered to be shot by a general who had been “revolted” by an article he wrote. Millière was “a viper that should be stamped out”.[1]
The counterrevolution was attempting to purge Paris – the city of revolution – of all political trends that posed any threat to the established order.

Thousands of survivors were to spend years in prison or brutal exile.

In ‘the civil war in France’, completed a few days after the fall of the Commune, Karl Marx quoted from an article by the Paris correspondent of the Daily News. It reported the behaviour of general Marquis de Gallifet, the head of the Versailles cavalry, after he halted a line of prisoners: “Walking down slowly and eyeing the ranks, the general stopped here and there, tapping a man on the shoulder or beckoning him out of the rear ranks. In most cases, without further parley, the individual thus selected was marched out into the centre of the road, where a small supplementary column was, thus, soon formed …

“It was not a good thing on that day to be noticeably taller, dirtier, cleaner, older or uglier than one’s neighbours. One individual in particular struck me as probably owing his speedy release from the ills of this world to his having a broken nose … A few minutes afterwards a dropping fire in our rear commenced, and continued for over a quarter of an hour. It was the execution of these summarily convicted wretches.”[2]

This was the same general Marquis de Gallifet who was appointed minister of war in the Waldeck-Rousseau government that the socialist, Alexandre Millerand, joined in 1898. It was the debate around this crisis in the international socialist movement that prompted the 1904 series of articles by Karl Kautsky which is currently appearing in the Weekly Worker, having been translated by Ben Lewis.

Kautsky was defending the Marxist republican tradition against those who suggested that the reactionary nature of the French Third Republic emerging from the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune implied that the workers’ movement should be indifferent to the constitutional form of the bourgeois state. A monarchy or a republic? How was that of concern to the workers?

Kautsky’s response is to explain why for Marxists republican agitation does not cease with the formal removal or abdication of a monarch, but continues until the conditions have been created for the working class to take power: “ie, the republic as a means of the emancipation of the proletariat”.[3]

In the first two articles Kautsky traced the history of republicanism in France, starting with the revolution of 1789 and the first republic. This week Kautsky reaches the Paris Commune of 1871 (pp8-10). For Kautsky, the Commune of some 30 years previously was the clearest example of the kind of emancipatory republic he aspired to win. In this article I want to provide a little of the background to the revolution that was the Paris Commune and ask what lessons Marxists can still draw from the experience of the Parisian working class 140 years ago.

Accidental revolution

No-one planned to carry out a revolution on March 18 1871.

A couple of days earlier Adolphe Thiers, head of the provisional government, had moved to Paris, together with the rest of his team. Elections on February 8, hastily called as a condition of the January 28 armistice with the Prussians, had produced a large majority of reactionary and monarchist deputies. The moderate and rightwing republicans who had retained power since the fall of Napoleon III’s empire on September 4 1870 – after the defeat of French forces at the hands of Prussians at Sedan and the capture of the emperor – managed to play off the factions and, with some reshuffling, continue in office.

Now – with little need of prompting from Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who was anxious to see the disarming of a hostile force – order was to be restored to the turbulent capital that in a display of patriotic republican fervour had withstood a desperate winter siege and Prussian bombardment. Effectively, under the leadership of national guard battalions that elected their officers, the people of Paris were armed. After the political and economic breakdown of the winter and the departure of many of the wealthy inhabitants of Paris, everyone understood that the people armed meant the working class and poorest citizens armed.

The cannons possessed by the national guard had become the principal point of contention. The national guard considered the cannons to be literally their own property, since they had been purchased by public subscription. The government wanted to remove them from the hands of the populace. After an earlier attempt to do so the crowd had on January 29 seized those located in the Place Wagram and transported them to the more working class northern and eastern suburbs.

Now Thiers and his cabinet wanted them back. In the early hours of the morning of March 18, the military commander of Paris organised the dispatch of army columns to the various sites where cannons were held. The most dramatic events took place on the heights of Montmartre. At this period a citadel of the working class, the hill was not yet disfigured by the marble basilica of the Sacré Coeur – built explicitly in expiation of the plebeian ‘outrages’ of the Commune.

On Montmartre and elsewhere the troops found the cannons unguarded and quickly took them under their control, but made no speedy effort to make off with them. As the local population awoke, the women were the first to react. They came onto the streets, stood in front of the troops and formed a barrier when national guardsmen arrived. The leader of the Montmartre military column, general Claude Lecomte, ordered his troops to fire on the crowd. They refused and military discipline collapsed.

Throughout Paris ‘fraternisation’ dissolved the distinction between the crowd, the national guard and government soldiers. Lecomte was seized by the national guard to protect him from the crowd and his own troops. Despite their best efforts, later in the day Lecomte was executed along with Jacques Clément-Thomas – picked out by the crowd as a leader of the repression of the June 1848 uprising.

These two deaths, along with the execution of ‘hostages’ (including the archbishop of Paris) in the final stages of the Commune’s suppression, were subsequently proclaimed by government spokesmen as evidence of the bloodlust of the communards, justifying the slaughter of scores, then hundreds and finally thousands by ‘official’ France.

On March 15 the various battalions of the national guard had elected a central committee. This was now the effective political authority in Paris and it took control of the hôtel de ville (town hall), traditionally the focus of French revolutionary actions. The red flag was raised.

A full meeting of the government at the foreign affairs ministry was swiftly abandoned, with Thiers being the first to be driven away hastily in a coach to Versailles.

The battle lines for the next 72 days were being drawn – revolutionary Paris against the forces of ‘order’ to the south-west in Versailles.

Famously, Karl Marx, speaking on behalf of the general council of the International Working Men’s Association (subsequently known as the First International) after the declaration of the September 4 republic, had advised against any uprising: “The French working class moves, therefore, under circumstances of extreme difficulty. Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. The French workmen must perform their duties as citizens … Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.”[4]

Now, however, he threw himself into support for the Commune. In an April 17 letter he scolded his correspondent, Louis Kugelmann: “World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would, on the other hand, be of a very mystical nature if ‘accident’ played no part …. The struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase with the struggle in Paris. Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained.”[5]

Extreme democracy

What did revolutionary Paris achieve in the space of the little more than two months allowed to it? From the perspective of Kautsky’s argument on republicanism, it is the political and constitutional forms it erected that are its most significant legacy. The long quote Kautsky gives us from Marx’s ‘The civil war in France’ demonstrates that it is a view he shared with Marx.

In its first week or so the central committee of the national guard was primarily concerned to establish political legitimacy by handing power to the people of Paris. It sought to hold city-wide elections. These were delayed while negotiations took place with the mayors elected for each arrondissement on November 4 1870, who had collectively been running municipal affairs. The mayors as a group were of a moderate republican temper, but eventually recognised the reality of the new power balance in Paris.

On March 26 elections took place to a Commune of 90 members, with one representative for every 20,000 electors. The election was based on universal manhood suffrage using the existing electoral register. Despite the leading role of women on March 18 there was no suggestion that they should be enfranchised. The Commune was to be the central authority (although sometimes contested, as we shall see) for the remainder of the revolution. For Marx, the key lesson of the Commune’s rule was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.[6]

The standing army was abolished: “Paris could resist only because in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a national guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men… The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.”

The police also were transformed: “the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune.”

The communal assembly itself was “responsible and revocable at short terms” and was to be “a working, not a parliamentary, body – executive and legislative at the same time”.

The roots of bourgeois careerism were cut off: “From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service at to be done at workmen’s wages.”

These principles applied equally to the legal system: “Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible and revocable.”

But Marx resisted the suggestion that this conception of governance represented the abolition, rather than the reconfiguring and transformation, of the state: “The few but important functions which still would remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by communal, and therefore strictly responsible, agents … While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.”

For the purposes of Kautsky’s and our discussion of republicanism, it is necessary to emphasise that in Marx’s view the bedrock of the form of democracy that can serve to emancipate the working class is quite simply universal suffrage: “The Commune was formed of municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town.”

Marx’s response to Mikhail Bakunin’s criticism of electoral democracy is instructive.[7] A choice example of Bakunin’s approach is the following: “By a people’s government the Marxists understand the government of the people by means of a small number of representatives elected by the people by universal suffrage. The election by the whole nation of the self-styled representatives of the people and leaders of the state – this is the last word of the Marxists as well as of the democratic school – is a lie that conceals the despotism of the governing minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it is presented as the expression of the alleged will of the people.”

The distortion of Marx’s argument is transparent. Universal suffrage is the starting point of Marx’s conception of democracy, but his discussion of the Commune two years before proves definitively that it is hardly the “last word”. In response to a question Bakunin’s poses, “The Germans number about 40 million. Will, for example, all 40 million be members of the government?”, Marx responds unashamedly: “Certainly! Since the whole thing begins with the self-government of the Commune.”

Social revolution

The social measures carried through by the Commune were modest by comparison with the constitutional forms it pioneered: ie, Marx’s conclusion that “the great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence” (p217). This was partly an inevitable consequence of the revolution’s short time-span, but it also reflected a degree of ineffectiveness on the part of the Commune, which discussed much, but decided little, and the conflicting cacophony of political trends that were represented.

During the months of the siege political organisations in Paris had multiplied, but there were also attempts to generalise political trends, such as the national committee of the 20 arrondissements, in which the Paris branch of the International was influential.

Kautsky has traced the lines of development of the main political traditions. In Paris 1870-71 it was mostly Proudhonists (dominant in the Paris branch of the International), Blanquists and straight Jacobins who vied to have their voices heard, while avowed Marxists were very thin on the ground.

A few were influenced by Marx, however – some of the Proudhonists, for instance, as a consequence of their involvement in the International. The Proudhonists, against their better judgement, given their mutualist political doctrine, had also been influenced by the rising strike wave in France – the Paris branch of the International even shared a building with the French trade union federation. Forty members of the Commune – out of the 81 who eventually took their seats – had been involved in the workers’ movement, and most of these had joined the International.

The Blanquists had less contact with Marx, since they had held back from joining the International and were only to do so when in exile in London after the defeat of the Commune (they left after the 1872 decision of the Hague congress to relocate to New York). Marx, nonetheless, considered Blanqui the only political leader who might have provided some coherence to the Commune’s military operations. But Blanqui spent the whole period of the Commune imprisoned by the Versailles authorities. He was only to be released in 1879, two years before he died.

The prominent Jacobin, Félix Pyat – who contrived to place himself at the centre of communal political events, but disappeared from the scene in late May at the approach of Versailles troops, to reappear when safely in exile – was considered by Marx to be a dangerous demagogue and charlatan from whom he had determinedly disassociated the International on several occasions during the 1860s.

So Marx is speaking of unfolding logical consequences rather than programmatic commitments when he announces in defence of the Commune: “Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators.”

The concrete social reforms of the Commune fell into three broad areas. First there was the crucial step taken to cancel rent payments for the period October 1870-April 1871. Any sums already paid were to be credited to the account of the tenant. This early measure was a direct rebuff to the national assembly, which had voted to end the moratorium on the payment of rents enacted by the provisional government of national defence and enforce the payment of arrears.

This cancellation also met the needs of many middle class inhabitants of Paris. Economic activity had ground to a halt during the siege and it had become a question of economic survival for many. Throughout February public meetings had been held in Paris on this issue and a Tenants League was formed. This one measure decisively secured broad support for the communal authorities. However, it outraged the most conservative forces in France. Take Flaubert: “The government is interfering now in matters of natural law; it is intervening in contracts between individuals.”

The Commune set up nine commissions to fulfil the role of government ministries. Only two took effective action in the field of social reforms: the commission of labour and exchange, headed by Leo Frankel, and the education commission, headed by Édouard Vaillant, who despite his Blanquist proclivities was a member of the International and knew Marx.

The commission of labour and exchange promulgated two measures relating to labour conditions – the abolition of the night work of journeymen bakers; and the abolition of fines by employers on their workers. It also passed a decree authorising trade unions to take over workshops abandoned by their owners and run them as cooperatives. Ten factories were subsequently occupied for this purpose.

The education commission took steps to increase educational provision and root out the influence of the church. For much of this it was dependent on support at local level and progress differed from arrondissement to arrondissement, depending on the level of local self-activity.

Lest we be too critical of the progress made by the Commune, it is worth bearing in mind that many civil servants and other administrators left Paris for the duration. Simply keeping existing services functioning in the face of this disruption, and in the context of foreign occupation and civil war, was in itself a major achievement.

Many observers attest to the success on this front – and also to the virtual disappearance of crime. Even those who were far from entirely sympathetic. The Observer of May 24 1871 commented that the leaders of the Commune were men who “governed well, very patiently – quite as well as an English vestry would have done.” And in August 1871 Fraser’s Magazine concluded: “The Commune was a mistake; but it did keep Paris clean and morally wholesome; it did manage its police, its schools, its hospitals strangely well.”[8]

‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’

How are Marxists to characterise the Paris Commune? It is possible to construct a rather pedantic argument around this issue. In his writings Marx never used the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in relation to the Commune.

On the other hand, Engels in his introduction to the 1891 edition of ‘The civil war in France’, addressing those German social democrats who wanted to shy away from the term, did: “Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what the dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Does this reflect a significant difference between Marx and Engels?

Well, Hal Draper has shown Marx had not used the term in any context for 20 years before the events of 1871. It was simply not Marx’s favoured term for discussing what he usually described as “the rule of the working class”. Draper also points to a contemporary newspaper report of a speech Marx gave at a banquet after the September 1871 London conference of the International. Many former members of the Commune were present, including Blanquists, against whom Draper argues Marx was more likely to discuss the dictatorship of the proletariat – in contrast to the Blanquist concept of ‘dictatorship of the conspiratorial sect’.

The report paraphrases Marx as defining the Commune as “the conquest of political power of the working classes” and saying that, before the basis of “class rule and oppression” could be removed, “a proletarian dictature would become necessary”.

August Nimtz is correct to argue that this piece of evidence does not settle the argument particularly decisively one way or the other. However, I think he is on shaky ground when he argues that, if push came to shove, Marx would rather have characterised the Commune as a “dictatorship of the people’s alliance – that is, an alliance of the proletariat and its allies – or, the working classes in its broadest sense”.[9]

No working class revolution will be made without building alliances with other social classes, but this does not affect the fundamental nature of working class rule. The point about the Paris Commune is that the working class – however politically confused the bulk of its representatives – was hegemonic.

Marx again: “The multiplicity of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected, and the multiplicity of interests which construed it in their favour, show that it was a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”[10]

This strikes me as fairly conclusive evidence of Marx’s view. What is the dictatorship of the proletariat if it is not “the political form … under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”? It is true that Marx was later to admit that “the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist nor could it have been”. I agree with Draper that this is a question of political programme versus class content (workers’ state) – although admittedly when these aspects of working class rule are out of sync we have a highly unstable political form.

More to the point, contemporary participants and observers were agreed on applying the terms ‘working class’ and ‘proletarian’ to the institutions and actions of the Commune. The bourgeois press, once again, can be instructive. The Times of March 29 1871 wrote that one of the main “streams in the bed of the insurrection … was the predominance of the proletariat over the wealthy classes, of the workman over the master, of labour over capital”.

Military disaster

The prospects for the success of the Commune were never very good. Surrounded on three sides by victorious Prussian forces that were reluctant to directly intervene (aware that an attack by foreign invaders would rally support for the Commune), but not prepared either to see the social and political forces represented by the Commune flourish. On the other, a vengeful Versailles.

The omissions and commissions of the Commune itself contributed to defeat. Primarily, the prosecution of the war effort was nothing short of disastrous. Marx thought the key error was to focus on elections in the days after March 18 rather than make an immediate attack on Versailles and eliminate the threat from that quarter. Whether the military forces of the Commune would have been capable of an organised attack so far from their home base is a moot point.

In the early days of April, angered by exploratory attacks on Paris’s defences by the forces of Versailles, a grande sortie against Versailles was launched. Versailles by this stage had been able to bring in troops from other parts of France who could be insulated from the contagion of Paris. ‘Fraternisation’ was not to be a feature of any of the later stages of the war against the Commune.

A later sympathetic description has the mood and composition of this ‘military’ expedition as more “a band of turbulent holidaymakers setting out gaily and unconcernedly for the country than a column of attack”. Fired on from a fort they assumed was in friendly hands, the majority of the column fled back to Paris. The remainder came within four miles of Versailles, but they were dispersed and hunted down. Gallifet began as he meant to go on, executing three prisoners – a form of exemplary punishment he had apparently refined against Mexican insurgents. Goustave Flourens (who had led the October 31 1870 Blanquist attack on the hôtel de ville) after surrendering was chopped to death with a sabre. Ex-soldiers on the side of the Commune were shot out of hand and the prisoners who survived were kept in appalling conditions in Versailles.

At no stage in the remaining weeks of the Commune was anyone able to form the military resources at the disposal of the Commune into any kind of coherent force. The national guard battalions were loathe to leave their home district. Forts were abandoned. Attacks initiated and then turned into retreats.

In the meantime, relations between the Commune and the central committee of the national guard (which had not dissolved itself, as many expected) deteriorated. Neither displayed evidence that they were capable of taking control of the situation.

At one stage in early May a meeting of 15 battalions of the national guard demanded that the Commune abolish the war ministry, leaving the central committee in sole charge of military affairs. If the Commune hesitated the national guard “would act in a revolutionary fashion and take over again their revolution”. In effect, a coup was being threatened.

Later when the Blanquists and Jacobins successfully persuaded the majority to set up a committee of public safety with dictatorial powers – prompting the sizeable minority who opposed this measure to walk out of the Commune – no discernable contribution was made to improving Paris’s fighting capacity.

When the decisive attack by Versailles was made, their forces entered Paris unopposed and it was virtually a day before the authorities in the hôtel de ville became aware of the severity of the situation. Under attack, the forces of the Commune retreated even more determinedly to their local district. This time around, the cannons of Montmartre were taken without a fight. Square by square, district by district, arrondissement by arrondissement, the barricades, although defended with fierce heroism by a large part of the local population, fell.

Bank of France

There was one other instrument the Commune could have used to give themselves negotiating options. The Bank of France remained in Paris throughout this period. Yet the communards treated this institution with the utmost caution and restraint. The acting governor, the Marquis de Ploeuc, cultivated relations of concerned bonhomie with the member of the Commune sent to negotiate with him, the Proudhonist, Charles Beslay.

De Ploeuc argued that a seizure of the Bank’s reserves would destabilise the currency and the French financial system and discredit the Commune in the rest of France. Beslay – true to his Proudhonist beliefs in the importance of credit for mutualist ventures – was impressed with this argument: “In financial matters, the Commune’s only principles should be order and economy.” De Ploeuc offered regular loans (a total of just under 17 million francs) so that the Commune could pay its bills.

Yet, had the Commune seized control of the reserves, they could have held bourgeois France to ransom. This was no doubt in Marx’s mind when he wrote to the Dutch socialist, Ferdinand Nieuwenhius, on February 22 1881: “With a small amount of sound common sense they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people – the only thing that could be reached at the time.”

The reserves were substantial: 500 million francs in cash; 11 million francs in bullion; seven million francs of jewels held on deposit; and one billion francs of assets, shares and securities. They far exceeded the Commune’s own needs and were a much bigger sum than the indemnity demands made by Bismarck.

But there was no-one to challenge Beslay. His attitude of financial probity – a feature of working class reformism ever since – was shared by the financial commission and the question of the Bank of France was never discussed in the Commune.

Communist republicanism

The historical experience of the Paris Commune teaches us a threefold lesson.

First, the key role of political leadership and programme. The Commune clearly lacked coherent political leadership. It did not even have a clear idea of what it sought to achieve. This was partly a question of political ideology, but it was also an expression of the lack of any working class party to speak of. In Paris (and in the other cities of France, where during this period several communes of only a few days’ duration were declared) there were political traditions, clubs and conspiratorial groupings. Lacking from the political firmament was any party seeking to democratically represent the interests of the whole class.

The International came closest and was subsequently blamed by the French government for the uprising. It banned the International in France and wrote to governments around Europe urging them to take the same action. But the Proudhonist majority in the French section held to a theoretical position that rejected political action (and trade unionism, for that matter). It was not ready to lead a workers’ revolution.

Second, the spontaneity of the working class is capable of great feats. What was achieved in Paris during April and May 1871 by the citizens of the city retains the capacity to inspire. Local initiatives proliferated. Right up to the last week a mood of festival prevailed. It is not the role of a political party to subsume or subdue such initiative, but to provide a focal point for directing the working class’s capacity for political and organisational creativity in an agreed direction.

Third, a workers’ revolution transforms the political and constitutional landscape or it is not a revolution. That is why communists raise democratic and republican demands. It is a lesson most of the present-day ‘revolutionary’ left has forgotten. The rediscovery of Kautsky “when he was a Marxist” can help hammer home that lesson.

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  1. S Edwards The Paris Commune 1871 Newton Abbott 1972, p341.
  2. K Marx ‘The civil war in France’ First International and after, political writings Vol 3, London 1974, p233.
  3. K Kautsky, ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ Weekly Worker April 28 2011.
  4. K Marx, ‘Second address of the general council on the Franco-Prussian war’ First International and after, political writings Vol 3, London 1974, pp185-86.
  5. K Marx Letters to Dr Kugelmann London 1936, p125.
  6. This and following quotes in this section from K Marx, ‘The civil war in France’ op cit.
  7. Discussed in H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 3, Dictatorship of the proletariat New York 1986, pp298-301.
  8. Both quotes H Collins and C Abramsky Karl Marx and the British labour movement: years of the First International London 1965, p200.
  9. AH Nimtz Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough New York 2000, p220.
  10. K Marx, ‘The civil war in France’ op cit p212.

Monarchist system must go

The working class movement must fight for republican democracy, argues Eddie Ford

Execution of Charles I in January 1649: communists want to do more than get rid of kings and queens

Apparently the marriage of William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton represents a “lovely fairy tale” – a “beautiful love story” of ideal romance and courtship. Or so Johnny Rotten, former fake anarchist turned monarchist propagandist, dribbled in the pages of The Sun when the royal couple’s engagement was officially announced.[1] The same sort of things were said about Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer – who were supposedly wafting about on cloud nine, when in reality they were miserable participants in a nightmarish charade, with the then naive Diana finding herself the victim of a cruel deception.

Yet Rotten’s pretty vacant sentiments are a far from isolated example of the bedazzled stupefaction that we are meant to sink into, like a warm bubble bath after a stressful day, when presented with anything royal. Which, needless to say, is marketed, advertised, packaged and sold to us in a totally cynical manner – the working assumption being that all of us are imbeciles, unable to remember the catalogue of disasters that have been previous royal marriages: princess Anne and captain Mark Phillips, prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson … (Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn did not go that well either.) But, of course, this time will be different: love’s dream will come true.

And now we can enjoy Kate and William – a very public story – a 60-page comic strip illustrated by Gary Erskine and Mike Collins of Marvel Comics, responsible for such characters as Spiderman, Judge Dredd, Warheads and Jack Cross. The royal couple are now transformed into virtual super-heroes in a “dramatic retelling” of their story. He, apparently, is a “chisel-featured action man” and she is “slim and beautiful”.[2] Possibly an all-time low when it comes to mindless royalist spin, but there is still time for new abominations.

It goes without saying that the media coverage has been and will continue to be merciless. They are determined to capture your heart and mind, no matter what the cost. Therefore more than 100 international broadcasters will be camping outside Buckingham Palace and other key strategic points. The BBC alone is expected to dedicate 1,000 staff to cover the wedding, whilst the US networks are sending over their biggest guns. Around two billion people across the world are expected to watch some or all of the wedding, in what will certainly be the biggest live TV audience in history. Talk about bread and circuses.

Then there is the guest list – which just about says it all. So St James Palace, the official residence of the queen (though neither she nor any other monarch has actually lived there for almost two centuries), has released many of the names of the 1,900 guests invited to attend the nuptials.[3] Elton John will be there obviously – no royal wedding would be complete without him. There are more than 40 members of foreign royal families (although Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain had to give his apologies due to the ongoing “unrest” in his country[4]). Some 200 or more are members of the government, parliament and the diplomatic corps, and approximately 80 are drawn from the various worthy charities that William Windsor supports (not all of them holding senior positions). Over 20 are representatives of the Church of England and “other faiths” – such as cardinal Cormac Murphy-Connor, the chief rabbi (Lord Sacks), Imam Mohammad Raza, the most reverend Gregorios (archbishop of the Greek Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain), Malcolm Deboo (president of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe), the venerable Bogoda Seelawimala (acting head monk of the London Buddhist Vihara), etc. Last of all, there are 60 governor-generals and Commonwealth premiers – not to mention 30 members of the defence services. In other words, the entire establishment – corporal and spiritual – will be there to celebrate, and glorify, monarchist power and privilege.

What about the plebs?

David Cameron claimed on April 25, without presenting any evidence, that some 4,000 street parties are going to be held on the big day – though, even if that is true, it would still represent a significant reduction in numbers from those held for the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana.

Though it appears that fun and frolics on April 29 are strictly confined to pro-monarchists – or at least according to Camden council. Thus the ‘Not the royal wedding’ street party organised by Republic, a group “campaigning for a democratic alternative to the monarchy”,[5] was at first prohibited on the ostensible basis that it had failed to provide a “management plan” and “consult local residents”. Obviously Cameron’s call in The Sun for “people who want to come together to celebrate with their neighbours” to just go ahead and do so (“We’ve done our bit by ripping up red tape”, so, he warned local authorities, “Don’t make problems where there are none.”[6]) was conditional on what people want to celebrate. If you are dealing with a republican fly in the ointment, dig up as much red tape and obscure bureaucratic by-laws as you can.

As for the Metropolitan police, they have promised that “any criminals attempting to disrupt” the royal wedding, whether in the “guise of protest or otherwise” (like waving republican placards, for instance?) will face a “robust” response. To this end 60 “troublemakers” have been banished from central London for the day. These “troublemakers”, we discover, consist of people who were arrested following the student protests outside Millbank Tower last year and also during the March 26 Trade Union Congress-organised ‘march for the alternative’ – that is, people arrested for protesting against the coalition government’s vicious cuts in public spending and education. Predictably enough, Muslims Against Crusades has had its application to hold a protest event at Westminster Abbey rejected.

Overall, some 5,000 officers will be deployed to ensure that the marriage of William and Kate is a “safe, secure and happy event”. Having said that, warned commander Christine Jones – the Met officer in charge of operations on April 29 – it “would be wrong” to dismiss the obviously appalling possibility that “spontaneous” or “static” protests could take place at nearby locations to Westminster Abbey, the ‘modest’ venue chosen by the royal couple as part of their effort to help shoulder the burden during these days of financial difficulty. Commander Jones called upon the British public to be the “eyes and ears” of the police on April 29, in order to ensure that it is a day of “celebration, joy and pageantry”. She is, of course, supposed to be a ‘non-political’ functionary of the state – above mere politics. Now, there is a real fairy tale.

Which brings us neatly to the truly whopping monarchist lie, repeated ad nauseam – which is, that the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton is a sublimely ‘non-political’ event which can unite the nation. True, not as good as a world war, but it will do for now. So for a few brief hours on this “happy and momentous occasion”, as Cameron put it, we can forget our petty ‘party political’ differences and disputes – especially in this gloomy age of austerity – and instead enjoy an innocent, bunting-filled street party or jolly knees-up in the local.

What utter rot. The whole absurd and befuddling spectacle of pomp-and-circumstance is a ‘wedding of mass distraction’ – promoting the historic virtues of the ruling class, and the establishment as a whole; precisely at the time when it is carrying out wholesale attacks on the working class, with plenty more to come. Even if David Cameron and his grandees had planned it in advance, the timing of the royal wedding could not have been much more fortuitous – anything that helps to dampen down resistance to the government’s scheme, even if only temporarily, is to be welcomed.

Drenched in politics

In that sense, as a partial antidote to all this infantile and mendacious nonsense about the ‘apolitical’ nature of the monarchy, we should be grateful to The Daily Telegraph’s Matthew d’Ancona for cutting the crap and unsentimentally telling things how they are. He reminds us that the royal wedding “will be positively drenched in politics” and that “this kind of ceremony carries a dauntingly heavy payload of messages and symbols about where we are as a nation”.[7] He goes on to state, quite correctly from the communist perspective, that the monarchy “occupies much more than an ornamental role in our unwritten constitution” – which means not just the spawning of a “lucrative heritage industry” and acting “intermittently” as a “soap opera with global reach”.

Useful though those things are, he writes, the real importance and “essence” of the institution “concerns power” and “its distribution” – who has it and who does not have it. Even more hard-heartedly, but entirely accurately, he points out that in the UK political system “the people are not sovereign” nor in fact is parliament – rather, “that power resides” in the “queen-in-parliament”; or, as it “shall one day be in the case of her eldest grandchild, the king-in-parliament”. Therefore, he concludes, “on such a day” as April 29 politics becomes a “branch of semiotics” – a “carnival of signs, signals and encoded messages” – and one such “magnificent” signal will be to “frame and dramatise the continued prosperity of the monarchy”: a “remarkably resilient” institution which acts as a force for continuity and stability in British politics. Therefore, steady as she sails and god bless the monarchy.

Needless to say, d’Ancona’s reasons for supporting the constitutional monarchy system – and hence the status quo as a whole – are almost precisely the reasons why communists are so adamantly opposed to it: it serves as a bedrock for the British state and British capital. For ruling class ideology, the monarchy symbolises the mythological unity of the British people – a unity that supposedly rises above all divisions, not least those of class. While in times of unrest – like a growing anti-cuts movement that pits worker against employer and state – David Cameron and Ed Miliband may continue to exchange insults across the floor of the House of Commons, these expressions of different interests are of minor importance, when compared to the underlying common interest of this imagined British family. Or so we are led to believe by establishment politicians and the mainstream media.

That explains why we in the CPGB place so much emphasis on revolutionary republicanism – the fight to abolish the monarchical system, not just the actual monarch. By which we mean sweeping away the House of Lords, getting rid of the presidential prime minister and all forms of prime ministerial patronage, introducing a single-chamber parliament with proportional representation, annual elections and MPs’ salaries set at the level of a skilled worker, and so on. We also mean disestablishing the Church of England, ending the acts of union and the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by a people’s militia.

That is, republicanism forms an intrinsic part of our communist minimum programme. And it does so because such demands directly raise the question of the state itself – of how we are ruled. And by logical extension the form of working class power. After all, it is not for nothing that the overwhelming majority of the bourgeoisie see the constitutional monarchy set-up as a treasure to be defended and cynically venerated – it serves their interests admirably.

Unfortunately though, many on the left seem to regard republicanism – and the struggle for republican democracy – as a mere optional bolt-on to their worthy but abstract calls for socialism. For instance, the latest issue of Socialist Worker informs us that the “promotion of the monarchy is part of the elite reasserting its rule over the rest of us” and how the “monarchy is part of the capitalist system in this country” – only “through a revolutionary change can we see this class system, with all its absurdities, done away with”.[8]
True enough, as far as it goes. Yet nowhere does the Socialist Workers Party agitate for or even demand a democratic republic – let alone place revolutionary republicanism at the core of its literature and propaganda. In other words, the SWP’s republicanism – like so many on the left – is purely platonic. Yes, it would be a jolly nice idea, of course, but we are not going to do or say anything about it – so let’s get down to business as usual organising the next anti-cuts meeting. A crippling economism reigns on the left.

Finally, we do not put the demand for a republic in our minimum programme because we have some sort of anachronistic ‘stagist’, Menshevik vision of revolution: ie, before we put working class rule on the agenda we must get rid of the monarch. Still less because we want to ‘complete the bourgeois democratic revolution’, as some of our more stupid critics allege. Rather, we recognise the necessity of the working class becoming the most militant and consistent advocate of democracy. Fighting for a democratic republic is part and parcel of the struggle to democratise all aspects of society – from top to bottom. We are opposed to aristocracy and elitism in all its guises, whether in the workplace, trade union, school, university, parliament – or even, for that matter, amongst the left, with its confessional sects and self-perpetuating central committees.


  1. The Sun November 18 2010.
  6. The Sun April 11.
  7. The Daily Telegraph April 23.
  8. Socialist Worker April 30.

Humble petition or militant action?

There are two sides to Tolpuddle, argues Mike Macnair

Every year around this time there is a festival and march organised by the Trade Union Congress at Tolpuddle, Dorset, to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs.[1] The martyrs were six men – George Loveless and his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and his son John – who were convicted in 1834 of “administering an unlawful oath” – ie, attempting to form a branch of an agricultural labourers’ union – and sentenced to transportation to Australia. Within two years a mass campaign had secured their pardon and their release. This year’s festival is taking place over the coming weekend, July 16-18, with the march on Sunday at 2pm.

Remembering the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the long history of the struggle for legal trade unions is important to the workers’ movement in any year. This year it is particularly appropriate: recent months have seen a series of abuses of judicial power to stop strikes, and sections of the Tory-Lib Dem government and the Tory press are flying kites about yet more restrictions on strikes and on trade union political action. Workers’ right to organise, limited as it is, has been fought for and won against the opposition of the capitalist class over centuries. It should not be taken for granted.

The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is also pertinent today, because it is a story about what happened after the 1824 repeal of the Combination Acts and along with them a whole raft of medieval and more recent anti-union laws. What happened in the Tolpuddle case was – like many more recent cases – the abuse of judicial power to circumvent the parliamentary legislation by straining the interpretation of older law.

There is, however, another side of Tolpuddle. This side is about who is remembered, why and how. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were far from being the only trade unionists victimised under 19th century anti-union laws. They were not even the only trade unionists whose victimisation was in the end defeated after solidarity campaigning, whether by jury verdict, pardon or otherwise.

However, the martyrs seem distinctive in another way. The standard history represents them as a respectable group: southern rural workers, not northern urban workers; Methodists (including two lay readers), not Chartists. The TUC’s flyer for the event represents it as a “commemoration of the moral power of the working class”.[2] The underlying narrative on offer is one of the progress of trade unionism through peaceful protest and lobbying. The annual festival is thus not just a festival of trade unionism: it is a festival of Fabianism and Labourite ideology.[3]

This narrative is attractive. Unfortunately, it is false. Major concessions to the working class in this country have not come about by polite lobbying and being helpful to the employers. They have come about – in the 1820s, 1840s-50s, 1870s, after World War I and II, – because the capitalist class were put in fear of something much worse than making the concessions: of real threats to their power.

When the capitalists cease to be afraid of the working class, they cease to make concessions and begin to take them back. The Fabian-Labourite policy of legalism, lobbying and ‘realism’ has given us … Thatcher’s anti-union laws, the trade union defeats of 1980s, and Blairite ‘New Labour’ subservience to the City, with its inevitable end in today’s Con-Lib coalition and the promise of a new round of anti-union laws.

Anti-union lawyers

The last few weeks have been marked by significant kite-flying in favour of more extended anti-strike laws from a section of the Tories and their press, and by the employers’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry. The proposal being touted is to bring in a minimum threshold in strike ballots: ie, that no strike should be legal unless 40% of those eligible to vote in a strike ballot support it.[4] This proposal involves strikingly obvious double standards: if the test were applied to the formation of governments, few in the last 50 years would be considered to have a mandate at all.

Alongside this proposal is another double-standards offensive. For some time the employers have been attacking strike ballots over small technical errors. Where the margin in the vote was small, the unions have usually simply pulled the action or rerun the ballot (at, it should be noted, considerable expense).

Double standards are involved for three reasons. First, on the standard applied, the recent UK general election would be rendered void by the errors which led to some voters being disenfranchised on May 6. Secondly, under the Re Duomatic principle, companies (ie, the employers; but equally, from the point of view of real free-market individualism, associations which interfere with the market) can take decisions completely informally.[5] Thirdly, as I argued in this paper on April 8, lawyers have their own trade unions – which are not merely untouched by the anti-union laws, but positively protected and promoted by the state.[6]

In July 2009 the court of appeal in Metrobus v Unite rejected arguments that a “strict construction” (against unions) of the legislation was inconsistent with international human rights law as an interference with freedom of association. Lord Justice Kay took the opportunity to reassert that English law does not recognise a legal right to strike – merely statutory immunities from legal liability for striking, which would otherwise exist. (As counsel for Unite pointed out to the court, the International Labour Organisation has ruled that these rules so restrict the right to strike guaranteed by the ILO treaties that the UK is in breach of the treaties.)[7]

Metrobus v Unite encouraged employers’ lawyers and judges to make more aggressive use of the act. In December last year, in the first case on the cabin crew strikes, Justice Cox ruled that the union was to be held to strict standards of compliance with the rules, and that applying the test of ‘balance of convenience’ for the issue of interim injunctions meant that an injunction should be issued to stop the strike, partly because it would be inconvenient to the travelling public. In April Justice Sharpe in Network Rail v RMT extended the strict standards of compliance to require the union to take proactive measures. These decisions then formed the basis of Justice McCombe’s decision to enjoin the May round of cabin crew strikes.[8]

Unite appealed McCombe’s decision and won a 2-1 decision in the court of appeal from the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, and Lord Justice Smith. The master of the rolls, Lord Neuberger, dissented.[9] The majority judgments are highly opaque on the law applied, but seem to represent a softening of the line of Metrobus v Unite on “strict construction”. (This is perhaps part of why they are opaque: the court of appeal is supposed to be bound by its own prior decisions.) The ‘balance of convenience’ issue is not addressed at all, so that Cox’s dodgy arguments in this context stand.

BA v Unite in the court of appeal thus looks like the minimum decision necessary to avoid an immediate and public confrontation in this case where there was a large majority for strike action, while still leaving the “strict construction” and ‘balance of convenience’ arguments still available to employers. It is symptomatic that in spite of the decision British Telecom was able to use equally technical objections to persuade the Communication Workers Union’s lawyers that they would lose in court.[10]

A small, quiet voice, not reflected in the capitalist mass media, offers a minimalist alternative to this legal offensive. John McDonnell MP obtained first place on the private members bill ballot and has taken the opportunity to introduce the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill. The text is not available on the House of Commons bills website, but seems from the title likely to go no further than the small changes proposed in clauses 4-7 of the 2006 Trade Union Freedom Bill.[11]

The agenda of this bill was informed by two sources. The first was ‘realism’: the hope that something might actually get passed if it did not make ‘unrealistic’ demands. The second was the technical advice of the unions’ lawyers. The result is very minimal proposals which – if they were passed – might have the effect of rolling back the “strict construction” line to a limited extent. But in reality “Judge and co” (as Jeremy Bentham called them[12]) would find new reasons to rule for the employers; and in any case a bill which might conceivably have been passed by a Labour majority has no chance today.

In these circumstances ‘realism’ is senseless. No matter how ‘realist’ you are and how good the legal advice, a bill will not get passed. So the point of a bill, if it has one at all, is to inspire resistance to the courts. That is, as part of a campaign to expose the class bias of the judicial system, and thereby to create the conditions for broad mass solidarity behind unions and groups of workers targeted by the employers’ lawyers and judges. Such a bill should start from general principle – freedom of association. It should strike at the root – the lawyer-created ‘economic torts’, which are the backstop around which the modern anti-union laws are built.

Meanwhile, the issue of trade union support for the Labour Party through the political funds is also back on the agenda. On Tuesday July 6 The Times reported that the government was considering imposing new rules on trade union political funds, while on Thursday July 8 Sir Hayden Phillips was reported as saying that regulation of party funding was merely a matter of “political will”. Sure, it is. The Tories have consistently insisted that any ‘reform’ must cap union donations to Labour, while leaving untouched the multiplication of front subsidiary companies to evade caps on corporate donations.[13]

As I argued in my April 8 article, the judicial decisions are at the end of the day paid for by the employers through the so-called ‘free market in legal services’. But, as I also argued in a May 29 article, the reality is that under the present political regime the laws passed by parliament are likewise paid for by the employers at the end of the day (through the advertising-funded media, corporate political donations, and so on) and merely fraudulently misrepresented as the result of the will of the people.[14] In other words, the ‘old corruption’ which gave our ancestors the Combination Acts and the Tolpuddle case never went away; it has only taken different forms. It is the natural form of capitalist rule.

The remedy for it is working class organisation and solidarity. Within the framework of capitalist corruption, whether the forms are old or modern, the interests of the working class will always be subordinated at best, stamped on at worst. But through independent working class political organisation, the development of workers’ independent media and so on, we can cut across the paid-for lies of politicians, journos and lawyers. That collective political action is what Tory kite-flyers hope to destroy by new restrictions on trade union political funds.

Electoral and judicial corruption is the natural form of capitalist rule. In this sense, we still face the same underlying order that the Tolpuddle Martyrs faced. The only real enemy of this order is working class collective political action. But working class collective political action can defeat governmental and judicial corruption – just as the mass campaign won pardons for the martyrs. These are fundamental lessons of Tolpuddle which we need to remember in today’s politics.

A political struggle

As I said above, the standard Tolpuddle Story, reflected in the TUC’s literature and in the website of the Martyrs’ Museum, is one of the martyrs as representing respectable, Christian and ‘moral force’ trade unionism.[15] This image is counterposed to the much more political Chartism – and its ‘physical force’ wing – and to the more disorderly and violent ‘Captain Swing’ agricultural workers’ movement which went before it. The reality of the history is somewhat different.

Capitalism came into the world industry by industry, and brought with it anti-union laws – starting with the Confederacies of Masons Act 1425, penalising building workers’ attempts to organise to raise wages. This industry-by-industry form continued down to the 18th century.[16] At this point, however, the judges began to assert that combinations to raise wages amounted to ‘common law’ criminal conspiracy. The first printed case is that of Cambridge tailors in 1721. An act had been passed to penalise a union of London tailors, and the decision extends it beyond London; the judges claimed to rely on an earlier case, not in print, of the tubwomen (women porters) employed by the London brewers.[17] By the late 1750s judges were urging grand juries to report workers’ ‘combinations’ for prosecution.[18]

From the employers’ point of view ‘common law’ conspiracy had the disadvantages that the proceedings were dilatory, and those prosecuted might abscond and be untraceable; also it was tried by jury, and the jury might for one reason or another sympathise with the defendants. In 1799 the Tory government, acting on a suggestion by William Wilberforce, brought in the first general Combination Act, providing for summary jurisdiction before JPs, who could be trusted to take the employers’ side. It is perhaps noteworthy that Wilberforce was celebrated in 2007 as an icon of the peaceful and realistic lobbying leading to the abolition of the slave trade. This celebration attempted to glorify bourgeois ‘public opinion’ and marginalise less respectable aspects of the campaign against the slave trade.[19]

The Whig opposition opposed the 1799 bill as an invasion of the right to trial by jury, and supported a mass petitioning campaign after the act was passed. The result was a body of ‘realistic’ amendments in the new act of 1800, which seemed to make it fairer (for example, by allowing prosecution of employers for combinations to reduce wages: a merely formal possibility, given the domination of the JPs by employers).[20]

What followed was a period of extensive, violent and disorderly class struggles. It was also a period in which the working class began to identify itself as a class and its enemy as a class, and to think politically through a wide range of semi-underground ideas. Combinations for sectional trade purposes – proto-trade unions – looked like a threat to capitalists all through the 18th century. Now they began to look to the employers and government like something preferable to Jacobinism, Painism, Spenceanism and so on, and to ‘Ned Ludd’ machine-breakers, ‘intimidation’ and arson.[21]

The result in 1824 was to allow a clique of Ricardian laissez-faire theorists to secure the repeal of the acts of 1799-1800 and all the prior special acts – and even, for a brief moment, the abolition of the doctrine that combining to raise wages was a ‘common law’ conspiracy. The repeal let loose a massive strike wave, with resulting demands from employers for the re-introduction of the acts, and in 1825 the government restored ‘common law’ conspiracy and imposed some other forms of control. But the repeal came about because the forcible struggles of trade unionists down to 1824 led the parliamentary majority to conclude that the game of unmitigated standing repression was not worth the candle: the committee which brought in the 1824 act commented that the Combination Acts “had a tendency to produce mutual irritation and distrust, and to give a violent character to the combinations, and to render them highly dangerous to the peace of the community.”[22]

But repeal was not yet enough to curb the growth of various forms of working class political consciousness by canalising it into ‘respectable’ sectional trade unionism. The ideas of both combination and radical democracy were spreading into the agricultural labour force, with increased momentum through the 1820s. 1830 saw the great wave of ‘Captain Swing’ rural revolts; one of the Loveless family was arrested as a Swing rioter, though he avoided conviction, and George was a spokesmen for wage demands in 1831-32. Unions were in process of forming the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union with aims of a complete replacement of capitalism and suggestions of a general strike as means, and George Loveless was in contact with them. The danger seen by Lord Melbourne’s Whig government was that the GNCTU, with its radical aims, would spread to rural labourers. Hence local landowner-JP James Frampton, who saw the Tolpuddle union and similar groups as a revival of Swing, got the home office’s go-ahead to find some way to prosecute at Tolpuddle, in the hope of breaking this development.[23]

The repeal of the Combination Acts was an obstacle. The home office suggested use of the Seditious Meetings Act 1817, aimed at republicans, which made it an offence to hold an unlicensed meeting or lecture; the way found was the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, aimed at ‘mutineers’ (strikers) in the navy. Tolpuddle thus represents yet another case of judicial extension of legislation – in this case what would probably now be called ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation – in the interests of government and the employers. (How can you tell when a judge is lying? When he tells you in a trade union case which he has just decided against the union that he is ‘only following the statute’.)

The GNCTU failed as a trade union project in 1834, as its leadership counterposed its general aims to the immediate sectional struggles of affiliated groups, particularly the tailors. But it was strong enough to organise the mass campaign which led the government to back down over Tolpuddle. And at least partly out of its ruins grew Chartism. By 1838 George Loveless was back in Dorset organising campaigns for fair wages … and the vote.[24]

The Tolpuddle prosecution was thus an ‘aftershock’ of the repeal of the Combination Acts, as the prosecutor and the lawyers temporarily found a way to circumvent repeal by abusing other legislation. Within two years this attempt was defeated: the government backed down in the face of broad solidarity campaigning. But this campaigning was not the product of respectable lobbying on minimalist demands. On the one side, it was part of the work of a broad movement which sought a radical overthrow of the political and social order – whether this movement took the form of the GNCTU or of Chartism. On the other, the government’s back-down aimed, as the original repeal of the Combination Acts had aimed, towards domesticating and depoliticising trade unionism.

Put in fear

The repeal of the Combination Acts and the back-down over Tolpuddle came because the governments and the possessing classes were put in fear of something worse … widespread violent and disorderly class struggles, and the growth of a class-political consciousness out of which developed the GNCTU and Chartism. This narrative is not unique in the history of the British labour movement.

Chartism was defeated in 1848 by precisely targeted repression.[25] But this repression was also accompanied by (carefully separate) substantive concessions: the Factories Acts 1847 and 1850, limiting working hours.

In the 1860s, British trade unionists and leftists developed a broad campaign in solidarity with the struggle against slavery in the American civil war. Out of the campaign developed the First International. At the same time a militant campaign for extension of the suffrage, led by the Reform League, was waged.[26] The concessions this time were the Reform Act 1867, letting some better-off skilled workers vote, and the Trade Union Act 1871. As with Tolpuddle, the employers and their lawyers and judges found ways to resist the new act and two more were needed to do the job: the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875; and Employers and Workmen Act 1875.

1914-18 produced growth of the illegal shop stewards’ movement, the Clyde and Sheffield Workers’ Committees, and at the end of the war army mutinies and industrial action against the intervention in Russia. The major concession was the extension of the suffrage in 1918 to all men over the age of 21; a lot of industrial co-determination schemes were also floated, but rapidly abandoned.

1939-45 saw the revival, again, of the illegal shop stewards’ movement and illegal strikes. The Chamberlain government fell after that well known ultra-left, Ernie Bevin, went round the country making speeches threatening that the working class should take over to conduct the war effectively. After the USSR was drawn in, the Communist Party grew dramatically. By 1945 the regime was in no mood to attempt to rerun the combination of repression with concessions of the end of World War I, and the press swung behind Labour to deliver large-scale concessions.

Selective breeding

The British ruling class is thus adept at meeting militant struggles with a combination of immediate repression and – hopefully delayed – concessions. It was already using this tactic before the Combination Acts.[27] As long as the concessions can be somehow separated from the immediate demands of militants, they can be presented as (a) what the regime intended to do all along, and/or (b) the product of the peaceful, lobbying road taken by ‘responsible’ leaders.

The result is a sort of capitalist selective breeding of trade union and Labour leaders. Leon Trotsky remarked on it in Where is Britain going? (1924), drawing an analogy with pigeon-fanciers who had supposedly produced pigeons with beaks too short to break out of the shell.[28]

Another angle on the same phenomenon: the old Civil and Public Service Association (now amalgamated in PCS) published in 1980 a history of itself under the title From humble petition to militant action.[29] This may well be a fair characterisation of the history of trade unionism in the civil service. But the general history of the trade union leaderships would perhaps be better characterised by reversing it: From militant action to humble petition. The story of Tolpuddle as representing “the moral power of the working class” is a part of the process by which Labour and TUC leaders ‘educate’ workers for humble petition and against militant action.

It should be obvious today that humble petition – the Fabian-Labourite policy of legalism, lobbying and ‘realism’ – is not working. What we get is a ratchet effect against trade union freedom. Heath’s industrial relations legislation was not repealed, but replaced by Labour’s ‘realistic’ 1974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which maintained higher levels of control than pre-1971. That paved the way for Thatcher’s anti-union laws. The New Labour ‘realists’ left 98% of Thatcher’s anti-union laws in place. That paved the way for today’s judicial offensive against the unions and Tory talk of a new round of anti-union laws.

‘Realism’ today infects even the organised far left. Take, for example, the Socialist Workers Party. Its distorted version of the ‘united front policy’ demands that it unite with the right wing of the movement – on whatever platform the right wing requires. Their difference is merely on method: moderate demands, they say, but militant action. The idea is an illusion: who, apart from a few students and ex-students, will risk jail or the dole to fight for … a return to Keynesian demand management?

What is needed is to put the capitalist class in fear. That does not mean a call for a return to Ned Ludd and Captain Swing in the sense of machine-breaking, arson and ‘intimidation’ as tactics in industrial disputes. It means setting our political sights higher. We need to aim to build mass support, not for a lesser-evil or ‘realistic’, minimal reform, but for the overthrow of the corrupt capitalist state and legal order and a working class take-over of the running of society.

If we can build such a movement, we may not win the big prize it aims for. Victory is never certain. But even in defeat we would win major concessions – as the Chartists, the First Internationalist trade unionists and suffrage activists of the 1860s, and the illegal militants, leftists and communists of the war years of the 20th century, did not win the big prize, but still won major concessions.

We should remember the history of our own movement. Not in the sanitised form of respectable Fabianism and apolitical trade unionism. We should remember the struggle for working class political power, and a world without capitalism, of which Tolpuddle was a small part. And if we renew that struggle we might – with persistence and luck – win through to its goals.

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  2. Above 1. (emphasis added).
  3. Cf also Bristol Radical History Group, ‘Tolpuddle and swing: the flea and the elephant’:
  4. ‘Boris Johnson bid to curb strikes is “declaration of war”’ Standard July 5:; ‘How far is Cameron prepared to push the unions’ FT Blogs July 5:; ‘A new round of anti-trade union laws?’ Len McLuskey on the Socialist Unity blog, July 8:
  5. Re Duomatic [1969] 2 chapter 365.
  6. ‘It is not enough to call for abolition of anti-union laws’:
  7. Metrobus v Unite [2009] EWCA Civ 829; this and other cases cited below are available on
  8. BA v Unite [2009] EWHC 3541 (QB); Network Rail v RMT [2010] EWHC 1084 (QB); BA v Unite [2010] EWHC 1210 (QB).
  9. BA v Unite [2010] EWCA Civ 669.
  10. ‘BT strike bid halted by legal hitch’ Channel 4 News July 6:
  11. ‘John McDonnell launches bill to restore the right to strike’, June 30:;; 2006:
  12. Eg, ‘On Humphreys’ real property code’ in J Bowring (ed) The works of Jeremy Bentham London 1843, Vol.5, p396: “Here then is a Gordian knot, which, somewhere or other, and somehow or other, Judge and co must have cut by their instrument of all-work – falsehood.”
  13. ‘Party funding deal needs political will, watchdog hears’, BBC news July 8:
  14. ‘From an instrument of deception’:
  16. There is a convenient list of statutes in James Moher, ‘From suppression to containment’ in J Rule (ed) British trade unionism: the formative years 1750-1850 Harlow 1988, chapter 4, p76; cf also JV Orth, ‘English combination acts of the 18th century’ (1987) 5 Law and History Review 175, pp180-94.
  17. R v Journeymen-Taylors of Cambridge 8 Modern 10, 88 ER 9. The tubwomen case is sometimes identified with R v Starling (1664) 1 Levinz 125, 83 ER 331 (and other reports), in order to increase the pedigree of what seems to have been a new idea. But there is nothing in Starling to suggest the involvement of tubwomen (the case concerned an agreement of London brewers to try to provoke mass opposition to the excise by creating an artificial shortage of beer and blaming it on the tax).
  18. Gentleman’s Magazine August 1758, Vol 28, pp391-92 (Lancaster, 1758, Lord Mansfield CJ); G Lamoine (ed) Charges to the grand jury 1689-1803 (RHS 1992), 405-6 (Dublin, 1763, Aston CJ); 426 (Middlesex, 1770, John Hawkins JP).
  19. On the act: Orth, above n15, 195-200. On Wilberforce and abolition:; cf. also M Macnair, ‘Abolition and working class solidarity’ Weekly Worker March 15 2007.
  20. Orth, above n15, pp200-05.
  21. EP Thompson The making of the English working class Harlow 1968; Moher, above n15, pp84-90.
  22. JV Orth, ‘The British trade union acts of 1824 and 1825’ (1976) 5 Anglo-American Law Review pp131-52 (quote at p142).
  23. R Wells, ‘Tolpuddle in the context of English agrarian labour history’ in J Rule (ed) British trade unionism: the formative years 1750-1850 Harlow 1988, chapter 5, pp118-22.
  24. TM Parssinen, A Prothero, ‘The London tailors’ strike of 1834 and the collapse of the GNCTU’ (1977), 22International Review of Social History 65-107 at pp74-75, 72; R Wells, ‘Southern Chartism’ (1991) 2 Rural History 37 at p39.
  25. J Saville 1848: the British state and the Chartist movement (Cambridge 1987).
  26. Wikipedia provides a convenient summary:
  27. I Gilmour Riot, rising and revolution (Pimlico 1993) tells the 18th century story from a Tory point of view.
  29. E Wigham From humble petition to militant action – a history of the Civil and Public Services Association 1903-1978 (CPSA, 1980).

Class consciousness rekindled

Esen Uslu reports on the massive May Day demonstration in Istanbul

For the first time since 1978 workers in Turkey celebrated May Day 2010 by marching to Taksim Square, the traditional rallying point of the militant working class. Hundreds of thousands gathered in a peaceful, legal rally after decades of bans.

Historically the attitude of various governments towards May Day demonstrations has been indicative of their own insecurity and, ironically, that applies to the soft Islamists of the AKP government. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) is undoubtedly under huge pressure and is desperately looking for allies as it attempts to resist the pro-junta right.

When the Turkish nationalist bourgeois republic was established in 1923 amid the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the nascent government was in an unenviable position. On the one hand, it was the continuation of the military and civilian bureaucracy of Ottoman rule and consequently had to bear the weight of the atrocities committed against the non-Muslim peoples of the empire: the 1915 Armenian genocide; the forced dislocation of Greek Orthodox Christians from Western Anatolia; and the subsequent mutual population exchange between Greece and Turkey.

On the other hand, the new government – located in Anatolia, not the industrial and commercial centres, such as Istanbul and Izmir – had managed to survive by allying with the Soviet Union, despite their mutual dislike. May Day in 1923 was celebrated in Istanbul with the participation of workers’ organisations, but in Ankara it was organised as an official occasion. And, as the years passed, the independent working class movement and trade unions were suppressed, and the Kurdish national struggle developed into a revolt which was brutally suppressed.

In 1924 holding May Day rallies became an offence punishable by long terms of imprisonment. And, when in 1926 Turkey adopted a new penal code based on Mussolini’s, involvement in the organisation of any independent working class event became punishable by death.

The first May Day rally following half a century of such repression was massive. Held in Istanbul in 1976, it was organised by the Revolutionary Trade Union Confederation (Disk) with the participation of all progressive people. It was an anathema for the reactionary and fascist forces.

Bloody May Day

A year later, the 1977 Istanbul May Day rally was brutally dispersed by gangs organised and armed by the intelligence arms of the state, who fired upon the 500,000 crowd. This caused tremendous panic and, as people sought to escape, the security forces in their armoured vehicle, with sirens blaring, drove into the crowd and launched stun grenades. Thirty-six people were killed – crushed under the wheels of the armoured vehicles or shot. That operation marked an important milestone, paving the way for the military junta to take power in 1980.

Despite all the odds, a similar sized crowd courageously showed their defiance by demonstrating on May Day 1978 in the same square with renewed determination. The rally was marked by the forceful demand of the illegal Communist Party of Turkey for the century-old ban on its existence to be lifted.

In early 1979 state-sponsored terrorist atrocities committed against Alevis and Kurds in Maras and other cities led to the declaration of martial law by the civilian government. Holding a May Day rally in Istanbul was prohibited. The trade unions opted to hold it instead in Izmir, which was not under martial law at the time. Despite the ban the leaders of Workers Party of Turkey (TIP) attempted to march to Taksim Square, despite the curfew in Istanbul. Dozens of militants were bundled into police vehicles.

In 1980 the trade union centre decided not to hold a single, central May Day rally, preferring to hold several rallies in provincial centres. However, the masses were already feeling the effects of the initial shock waves of the impending catastrophe and the rallies were quite small in number. Later in the year the military junta took over and banned all May Day rallies without exception.

Until 1988 no attempt was made to organise anything on May 1, but even in that year things were frustrated by the arrest of the trade union organisers. In 1989 police opened fire on small groups trying to reach Taksim Square, and one student was killed. In 1990 a similar attempt was made and one girl was paralysed after being shot by the police.

The next attempt to organise a May Day event was made in 1993 and for three years very restricted rallies were held in Istanbul in different locations. In 1996 one was organised in Kadikoy and the police again opened fire, killing three people.

Since then every year police have brutally suppressed any attempt to hold a rally in Taksim Square. The most they were prepared to permit was a commemorative gathering in a corner of the square, where a small contingent of trade union representatives were allowed to honour the martyrs of May Day 1977.

Changed climate

This year the AKP has felt the need to win public support for its proposed constitutional amendments. It is continuing to defend its corner against the nationalist-racist, reactionary, pro-junta forces, which are represented in the political arena by the fascist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), as well as the so-called ‘social democratic’ Republican People’s Party (CHP), while their covert support is found in the military and civilian bureaucracy.

However, government policy has vacillated between political gestures – the so-called ‘overtures’ to Kurds, Armenia, Alevis, Christian minorities, etc – and its reactionary instincts and inclinations. It readily adopted the repressive measures suggested by the national security council, consisting of army tops and government representatives: for example, the recent rhetoric about deporting thousands of illegal workers from Armenia has marked the end of the ‘Armenian overture’. Similarly a series of court cases against Kurdish guerrillas, who were invited back from the mountains of Iraq and allowed into the country with much fanfare last year, but are now accused of “conducting propaganda of a banned organisation”, marked the end of the ‘Kurdish overture’.

Despite the claims of the liberal press that the AKP is the only democratic force in the country that is capable of breaking with the bad old ways, the gap between the rhetoric and actions of the AKP government is widening and its false liberal credentials are being exposed by the day. It has been walking a tightrope. It is in this context that we should view its sop to the working class of declaring May Day an official holiday and allowing the trade unions to hold a joint May Day rally in Taksim Square. The police and security forces were held back.

And the trade union-organised rally won huge support. A generation of old militants who had taken part in the demonstrations in the same square in the 70s returned to commemorate their fallen comrades and show their grandchildren where they were on Bloody May Day 1977. The nostalgia of the older generation aside, the younger generation finally felt something had been achieved.

However, the demonstration showed the left in its true state – in tatters. Its fragmented parts, neither willing nor able to organise unitedly, were exposed as what they are – relics of a bygone age, each distinguished by their separate slogans of yesteryear. Their efforts to support practical working class struggles are deflected and warped.

All in all, though, May Day 2010 marks a positive step towards a new consciousness. The working class is frustrated by the impotence that fragmentation produces. It is not content with curtailed trade union and political rights graciously conceded by the ‘liberal’ AKP. It will not be bought off by the palliatives of the government and demands, instead, genuine, substantitive change.

Working class militants will continue to call for a secular and democratic republic. They will continue to uphold the national rights of the Kurds and fight for an end to discrimination against all minorities. Their task is more than ever to bring all these forces together in an organisation that looks beyond the horizons set by the bourgeoisie.

The working class of Turkey must strive for greater unity in struggle with its counterparts across the globe. It must move beyond simple economic demands, and embrace the democratic culture of the international working class in the battle for the most advanced politics and organisational structures.

In defence of Leon Trotsky

Hillel Ticktin demolishes Robert Service’s much hyped Trotsky: a biography (Harvard University Press, 2009, pp600, £25)

Bob Service’s book on Leon Trotsky has been very widely reviewed by left and right.

Perhaps one of the best reviews is by Paul Le Blanc (‘Second assassination of Trotsky’ Links – International Journal of Socialist Renewal: He makes most of the points necessary in any competent overview: that the book has a scholarly apparatus, with many points that are useful and some that are new; that there is an element of sloppiness in a number of the assertions; and that Service appears to be driven by a political agenda, which is not dissimilar to that of the research institution where he did much of his work for this volume – the Hoover Institution, known for the rightwing views of its scholars.

Le Blanc deals with some of the assertions made over the radio and television: that this is the first full-scale biography of Trotsky, not written by a Trotskyist. That the Russian, Volkoganov, had written a critical biography some 10 years ago is well known, but Service excludes Russians in his written claim to authorship, though not when interviewed on Radio 4 in the UK. It is obvious nonsense and Le Blanc quotes the examples of Payne, Segal and Carmichael.

The book flows easily and keeps the attention of the reader. The reasons, however, are only partly to his credit. Trotsky: a biography is superficial. It has a scholarly form, but is not scholarly, whatever else it might be. Service makes assertion after assertion as to Trotsky’s motivations, Trotsky’s character, Trotsky’s originality, his intellectual competence (not to speak of his ability as a lover) – all without sufficient reference or argumentation.

His fundamental thesis is stated at the beginning – that Trotsky belongs, along with Hitler and Stalin, among the great killers of all time. Trotsky, Service asserts, was a violent man. Secondly, he asserts that Trotsky made a career out of politics, but was a poseur, and an arrogant, cold, would-be leader.

His own description of Trotsky’s history fails to support these theses. He shows how Trotsky turned down Lenin’s offer to be prime minister, and various other prominent roles, and only reluctantly became the commissar for war. However, the one section of the book which is without the constant snide remark and which breaks with the popular Stalinist portrayal of Trotsky, as playing no role, is the section on the civil war, where Service makes clear in some detail that Trotsky built up the Red Army and was pivotal in its eventual victory. He makes even clearer Trotsky’s bravery and his military prowess, citing his importance to the defence of Petrograd.


However, he argues that Trotsky was part of Bolshevik brutality and terrorism. He points to the fact that Trotsky did not countermand Stalin’s arbitrary executions in Petrograd. Given the bad blood between them, there is every reason to believe that Stalin might have disobeyed, as he had before, and so caused a crucial breach at a time when the Bolshevik situation was desperate. While this is only supposition, we cannot lay Stalin’s actions at Trotsky’s feet quite so simply. More serious is Service’s use of Trotsky’s defence of terrorism in Terrorism or communism.

Any scholar reading Trotsky’s chapter on terror in that book can recognise that the use of the word ‘terror’ is not the same as its use today, referring to such terrorist groups as the IRA or al Qa’eda. In the introduction to that book, Trotsky explicitly condemns terror of the latter kind. He had done so much earlier, referring to anarchist groups. Trotsky is using ‘terror’, in the relevant chapter, in the sense of the Russian word ushas, which refers to fear and horror in the first instance. He is arguing that during a period of war, particularly a brutal civil war, fear is a necessary component. He is also saying that since war is war, people are killed and executed, particularly when the regime itself is at stake, and that the whites were particularly brutal themselves.

This cannot be gainsaid. Seventy thousand Jews, alone, were killed in pogroms instigated by the whites. White terror after the Paris Commune, and after 1905 showed what the alternative was. Since then we have witnessed the extreme brutality of the right and the extreme right in many instances – of which, in the post-war period, Greece, Argentina, Chile and, in the case of the British empire, Kenya are good instances. The brutality of the right does not justify the left doing the same and one may hope that it will never happen again. That does not deal with the question, however.

The question that Trotsky posed was whether a war can be conducted as a socialist war, in which enthusiasm replaces hierarchy, and fear and persuasion takes the place of imprisonment and execution. To ask the question is to get the answer. Within capitalism, war is war and socialists can only modify its nature to a very limited degree. At that time, World War I was conducted under the tried and tested rules, which involved shooting deserters, instilling fear into subordinates and into the enemy. Trotsky accepted these rules as the only ones likely to be successful. No-one calls this terrorism, though later generations might well do so.

In short, Bob Service has regurgitated the standard critique of Trotsky, which he has every right to do, but without the necessary scholarly discussion of the issue. Whatever one thinks of the issue itself, Service has totally failed to substantiate his argument that Trotsky was in the same league as Stalin and Hitler. Trotsky did not directly or indirectly order the killing of masses of people, although he did sanction executions and imprisonment. Had he or the Bolsheviks been of that mind, they would have lost the civil war itself.

Historical periods when millions were killed, as under Stalin, were not induced just by one mad man, however brutal and powerful, but by the instability and irrationality of the system itself. Seven million died in the civil war, but one cannot attribute any substantial number to Trotsky himself, though one can point out that without external intervention a fraction of that number would have died.

The Bolsheviks won the civil war, to a considerable extent due to Trotsky’s conduct of it, but the destruction, the massive loss of revolutionary personnel, combined with the exhaustion and inevitable disillusionment, effectively provided the basis of the subsequent Stalinist counterrevolution. The first stages of moving to socialism will always be difficult, but the conduct of a war using capitalist forms of hierarchy both for the army and for the population, in war communism, could only demoralise the population. This is why the left oppositions of the time – the military and workers’ oppositions – were so militant in demanding change.

Ever since the issue has remained open. It is hard to see that Lenin and Trotsky were wrong in that the alternative would have been a repetition of the Paris Commune with its attendant horrific destruction by the right. They took a chance and changed the world. The success of the Russian Revolution, with all its defects, altered the world forever, and it entered a long-drawn-out and bloody transition process. Service, of course, cannot see this, as his book is a pedestrian plod, bereft of ideas, but replete with snide remarks.


At one level, this book is Hamlet without the prince. It tries to go through Trotsky’s life on a number of planes, most particularly his personal life. There is even a chapter on his sexual affairs, including a intimate quote from a letter from Trotsky to his wife on that subject. As with every other aspect of Trotsky, Service discovers him to be self-centred in love too. While this might be salacious and draw people to read the book, it is irrelevant to understanding the man.

This is partly because Trotsky was above all an intellectual, who made crucial contributions to Marxism and to thought in general; partly also because Trotsky became the living embodiment of the Russian Revolution itself. Yet if Trotsky argued this or that or undertook a particular action, Service always manages to find an obnoxious interpretation. If he had done the reverse and always cast Trotsky’s actions in a positive light, he could be accused of being an acolyte or a hagiographer. The point is that any scholar worth his salt would look at all sides and interpretations in order to consider reality. Clearly, however, that is not the purpose of the book.

In this connection, Service discovers that Trotsky was not an intellectual – or at least he was not in the least original and so there is no need to discuss his ideas, as there are none to discuss. If Service were himself a better educated intellectual, there could be debate, but he quite evidently understands as much about Marxism as Winston Churchill or Count Bismarck. Marxism is not easy to grasp, particularly at the present time, and for someone who rejects the whole theory it is probably impossible to understand its analytical power. It follows that such a person could not appreciate the development of Marxist thought. Unfortunately Service tries to tackle the issue by talking of Trotsky, philosophy and Sidney Hook, and of James Burnham and Max Shachtman, without giving the substance of the debate, or apparently being aware that Trotsky had written on Marxist philosophy a number of times in his life prior to this affair.

However, Marxism is above all a mode of political-economic analysis, used as a means of understanding the world, the better to change it. In this light, Trotsky’s contributions were seminal. Amazingly, Service reduces the concept and theory of permanent revolution to the simplistic idea that the workers would take power in Russia. In fact, Marx had argued, after 1848, that the revolution became permanent only when the working class took power. The working class, as Marx put it, were in capitalism but not of capitalism. (One should note that Marx and Trotsky are talking about the collectivity, the class, and not the individual workers.) As a result, there is a permanent and persistent force destabilising the society, the result of which might lead to different kinds of upheavals and to different classes trying to take power, but only when the working class takes power does the society stabilise itself. This is arguing both that the political economic structure of the society is leading to revolution and that the working class is demanding revolution.

Trotsky took this concept and applied it to a part of the world subject to capitalism but without the political forms of capitalism and argued that there was no longer a possibility that there be any other successful upheavals, or attempts at revolution, other than those of the working class. The bourgeoisie were no longer prepared to fight for their own demands. Marx and Engels had got halfway there when they spoke of the German bourgeoisie no longer having a stomach for a fight. The bourgeoisie were afraid that they would let loose the tiger of socialist revolution and consequently they preferred to keep what privileges they had.

At one level, the background of the personnel who took power in the name of the working class was irrelevant (ie, they could be soldiers, or of peasant extraction), as long as they acted in the interests of the class. Similarly, in the English Revolution the class origin of the individuals in the Long Parliament was irrelevant to the class forces that they represented. Trotsky was right against Lenin’s conception before 1917, because Lenin underestimated the necessary cowardice of the bourgeoisie and the short-termism of the peasantry. Trotsky’s understanding undercut the issues, because permanent revolution was not an empiricist notion, but an inherent drive built into the structure of capitalism, which Trotsky had harnessed to the concept of a declining capitalism. The latter was something Lenin made his own, though only by 1917. It was, therefore, not surprising that Lenin agreed with Trotsky against his earlier self.

Permanent revolution applies to the period after 1917-22, in that Trotsky makes two important theoretical innovations. He argues that the social democratic betrayal of 1918-19 opened up a new period of transition between capitalism and socialism. He compares the present to the times of Machiavelli. Secondly, he argues that there had been a counterrevolution in the Soviet Union under Stalin, with a new social group taking power. Underlying it all, the dynamic of a new society pushing its way forward through the medium of the working class remains. The rejection of the exploited goes underground when it cannot express itself openly, and finds new ways of undermining the system. We are therefore living in a period of ever-present revolution, the world over. For Trotsky the revolution had to be systemic and therefore global – he was arguing that the revolution in permanence was itself global.

Others have pointed to Trotsky’s conception of fascism as an important contribution to the understanding of the phenomenon. It is obvious that he was right to demand a united front – unlike the Stalinists, who actually united with Nazis in governing more than one German local state. His theory of fascism was directly contrary to that of Stalinism, which saw fascism/Nazism as the rule of the bourgeoisie by force. Instead he pointed out that it was the rule of the petty bourgeoisie – which the ruling class accepted for a time, though they did not like it. (The lives of two prominent German capitalists, Thyssen and Krupp, supports this thesis. Thyssen supported Hitler, but opposed his policies and escaped from Nazi Germany, only to end up in a concentration camp. Krupp opposed Hitler until he came to power.)

Trotsky’s discussion of fascism is immediately relevant today, in that it makes clear that without Stalinism and a classic petty bourgeoisie it cannot repeat itself. Authoritarianism is another matter. The theory also points to the irrationalism of a capitalism in transition and in decline. This is fundamental to any understanding of the epoch as a whole. Trotsky developed a particular understanding of capitalism and connected it with a theory of long waves. I have discussed this in my book on Trotsky’s ideas, but Service has no inkling of any of it.


It is curious that Bob Service should stoop to character assassination of the most trivial kind. He raises questions of morality in relation to Trotsky’s relationship to his own family members. Thus he asks what kind of man would desert his wife and children in Siberia in order to escape, and then find another partner. He brings in the question of his Jewishness, his relationship to his father, etc – all of which are merely raised, leaving the reader wondering.

The problem here is that neither he nor we actually know much about these issues. If Trotsky’s father was a revolutionary and taught his son how to organise, theorise or live underground, it would be important, but there is no evidence of anything of that kind. We are told that Trotsky played down his father’s social position. The introduction of simplistic psychology into historical narrative is always unfortunate, but Service insists on discovering Trotsky personal faults, arrogance, stubborn belief in his own opinion, etc, as if they are undoubted, continuous and necessary traits of the character.

If Trotsky really was that arrogant it would have quickly ensured the defeat of the Red Army. What is arrogance? He was genuinely the most intellectually and organisationally capable of the Bolshevik leaders – Service makes this clear. Trotsky might well have been contemptuous of those with inflated opinions of themselves. Without a thorough study of his personality by sociologists and psychologists, it is pointless making such a remark, unless the author is intent on a process of systematic denigration.

It is a characteristic of bourgeois scholars that they see the left-right struggle in the 20s in terms of a direct fight, no holds barred, between Stalin and Trotsky. Service tries to argue that Trotsky was no politician and so was an inevitable loser. In fact, Trotsky yielded without any real fight. He was head of the army, he had the backing of Lenin and the Komsomol supported him. The genuine old Bolsheviks supported him. He could have taken power without much trouble. However, he argued that it had to be done democratically through the party and he lost in that arena. Since we know that the voting was falsified, and in any case Stalin had specially opened the party to a wide range of people, with little understanding of the issues, this made no sense.

Trotsky did not lose in any kind of battle: he never fought. He consciously decided that he should not take power in the circumstances. He justified it with the argument that Stalin was made, in what he became, by those who selected him, and he, Trotsky, would have been the same. So, when offered power by Antonov Ovseenko, chief commissar of the army, he rejected it. This issue is very poorly discussed by all scholars, to be fair to Service. However, he takes it up as proof that Trotsky was not a politician.

In American business parlance, part of present-day slang used by historians, Trotsky was a loser. But that is not how Trotsky or any Marxist would look at it. Trotsky did not want power for its own sake: he was a soldier of the revolution and, if it meant that he had to fight as part of an opposition to maintain the revolution, that is what had to be done. He accepted his fate. So much for arrogance.

In my view, with the hindsight of history, Trotsky was wrong. He ought to have taken power. Service, like Trotsky himself, thinks he would have been another Stalin, but that is impossible, if one understands the dynamic of the Soviet Union of the time. With the support that he had, Trotsky would have been able to maintain power for a sufficient time to alter the nature of the regime away from what it was becoming. If Trotsky had taken power, Nazism would not have succeeded, there would have been no world war, the purges would not have taken place, and it is possible that there would have been a revolution or a series of revolutions in Europe and Asia.

Even if no other revolution would have succeeded, and Trotsky would have died as Soviet ruler in 1953, world history would have been very different and almost certainly more advanced than at present. However, no-one could have imagined the utter barbarism to which the world was subjected from then onwards. It was the direct consequence of the Russian Revolution and its subsequent counterrevolution under Stalin. Trotsky clearly hoped that the Soviet left and the Soviet working class would take power and dismiss Stalin.

Unfortunately, Trotsky was not sufficiently arrogant in understanding that he had become the personification of the Russian Revolution itself and his dismissal symbolised the end of the revolution, but in the most objectively and subjectively debased and confusing way possible. The Soviet Union under Stalin was neither socialist nor capitalist, nor yet a transition to socialism. As a result, it was unviable, but like Frankenstein’s monster it had no parent and no future. Its rulers behaved like mad people, caught in a mass of twisted tape in which they became ever more enmeshed. Cutting through the tape – short cuts, in other words – were constantly being tried and invariably made things worse.


Trotsky did not expect the USSR to last so long nor that it would come to an end so easily, so messily and so unsuccessfully. He did say that it could not last in its Stalinist form. He did not understand the nature of the Soviet Union that came into being in the 30s, but then nobody did or probably could have done so. He was always behind the curve of its degeneration. That, again, is understandable, in that he was an optimist, like all revolutionaries. Service tries to make these points but he gets lost in his own need to run Trotsky down.

It is unfortunate that some in the Trotskyist movement have taken his words as dogma. Trotsky was not himself dogmatic, for he is not clear whether the USSR was planned, says that the nature of the USSR is undetermined, and concedes that a social as well as a political revolution is required. Trotsky himself should not be lumbered with the simple formula that planning plus nationalisation makes for a workers’ state, which has then to be critically defended. Service, however, appears as an upside-down dogmatic Trotskyist, as he tries to portray Trotsky as simply insisting on the concept of a workers’ state, and always wanting to defend the USSR.

Trotsky’s initial analysis of Stalinism has stood the test of time – as the seizure of power by the social layer controlling the bureaucracy. That gave them control of the surplus product. Marx, of course, talked of the form of the extraction of the surplus product being crucial. Trotsky was pointing to it, but he did not go any further. Once he lost his historic role, he was no longer in touch with history itself, and his pronouncements reflected that fact. Service, however, misunderstands Trotsky’s analysis and tries to argue that he adopted a Menshevik analysis of the USSR, in order to claim that he was unoriginal. This is simply not true. The standard Menshevik interpretation of the USSR was that it was state capitalist. The Mensheviks could not adopt Trotsky’s position, as that would have meant they were wrong not to have supported the October revolution.

Robert Service, James D White, Ian Thatcher, Geoffrey Swain and various others over time have accused Trotsky of condemning socialism in one country, while practising it. The superficiality of such statements makes one wonder whether it is worth arguing the contrary case. Stalinists, of which Service is not one, have always argued that Lenin wanted to build socialism in the Soviet Union. However, there is no evidence of this, except such as Stalin forged or misinterpreted. The very act of taking power in one part of the world (the Soviet Union was not one country) did imply that the Bolsheviks were establishing a base, and like all bases it had to be built up, fortified, made liveable, etc. Treaties had to be entered into. That has nothing to do with socialism. In so far as such a base was helping the establishment of socialism over the world, even if it got wiped out and was rebuilt, one could talk in loose terms of building socialism. That is not the same thing as saying that socialism was being established in the USSR.

It is ridiculous to argue that the act of rebuilding the ruined Soviet Union in itself constituted a process of building socialism. Obviously the Bolsheviks could not rebuild it as a simple capitalist country either, and that was the tragedy, which facilitated Stalin’s rise to power and Stalinism. It is worth noting that Trotsky explicitly criticised Preobrazhensky, the economic theorist of the left opposition and his close ally until he capitulated, for wobbling somewhat towards the concept of socialism in one country. Preobrazhensky repudiated this, showing the technical impossibility of economic reconstruction without aid. Trotsky, however, was criticising the new economics, but he could just as well have made the remarks of Preobrazhensky’s fantasy of a Soviet Union which is successful alone but then reaches the limits of socialism in one country and takes on the world.

It is not surprising that those who do not understand Marxism also do not understand the meaning of socialism itself. Since both capitalism and socialism are global systems, only a global change is possible. It can begin anywhere, but it cannot sustain itself in any part of the world until socialism has established itself as an historically superior social system.

A superficial historian or writer will take words used at face value, without comparing them to conflicting statements, often made at the same time. This, indeed, is a major fault of this book, in that Service does not look for more than one source when using controversial quotes, and he does not try to dig deeper than that quote. As we know, individuals can say any number of things, or act in a series of ways, but it is the job of the historian to determine what idea or form of action lies at the core of their operation or their being, or if there is none.


Trotsky saved Victor Chernov from the crowd in July 1917, but Service tells us that he only did it to avoid the left being victimised, and implicitly not because he was a decent human being. How does he know that? Could Trotsky really have been so calculating; and for that matter so convincing at the time, without including some common humanity in his speech?

There is almost no paragraph devoid of an undocumented snide remark, reflecting the author’s sustained anti-Trotsky animus. This book probably is unique in producing more personal criticisms of Trotsky than any other. Few of them make much sense, however. As indicated above, we are told that Trotsky decided on the career of a politician. Today when the word ‘politician’ conjures up images of corruption, betrayal of principles, men and women with views for all seasons, etc, it is an insult. However, no Marxist would ever see their devotion to the cause as a career. Politicians do have careers, but it is not a career to be a professional revolutionary, which condemns you to a life of perpetual begging, uncertainty and permanent insecurity. Clearly from the Service perspective Trotsky was an unsuccessful politician in that he lost to Stalin. He was a loser.

Service goes through the years of opposition to Stalin, but he does not seem to understand the nature of that opposition. He sees it as some form of semi-democratic debate. He does not ask why Trotsky bothered with it, since it was so much of a charade. If Trotsky took to reading books during meetings, why did he attend the meetings? Clearly Trotsky hoped that if he hung on, things would change for the better. He may have hoped against hope. The discussions among the left opposition of the time, in the secrecy of private walks or perhaps at home do not exist, but we do know that some at least were less optimistic and saw that the October revolution had suffered a defeat which, together with the betrayal of the social democrats, had opened up decades before socialism could advance again. Trotsky could not have been unaware of this viewpoint.

With hindsight we know that the situation was more critical for civilisation than anybody could have imagined, but no-one could have foreseen the future terrors of Stalinism and Nazism. The only criticism one could make of Trotsky is that he was not sufficiently ‘arrogant’. He was the embodiment of the October revolution – not just as an historical figure, but as a living human being who had internalised its experience and acquired the necessary understanding – some might say wisdom – that went with it. He was honest and sincere through and through, and could never have been bought off, as Stalin was.

He ought to have trusted himself to have taken on the responsibilities thrown at him, first by Lenin as prime minister and then again by Lenin in his ‘testament’, or shortly before he died. The problem of the revolution was that there was no-one to compare with Lenin and Trotsky intellectually, organisationally and in all-round capability, so that Trotsky had no-one else to force his hand, once Lenin was dead. He underestimated Stalin and Stalinism, thinking that Bukharin and the bourgeoisie were the main enemy. While the ultimate opponent was the bourgeoisie, he turned out to be wrong about Bukharin as the primary opponent, partly because of Stalin himself, whose social base formed very quickly.

Trotsky sacrificed his life, all his manifold talents and abilities, to the cause of humanity. He made mistakes and misjudgements, as everyone must do, but humanity had made a giant leap forward at the time of the revolution. Even though we have been partially thrown back, the potential remains and capitalism continues to be fatally injured.

Revolutionaries are made; they are not born. Trotsky and Lenin acquired their understanding and their ability to help the revolutionary tide through involvement in the working class movement. Equally, when the tide moves out, the old leaders are left adrift, and they must necessarily lose some of their old surefootedness. But only a misanthrope will charge them with this or that misstep.