“A communist is a socialist in a violent hurry.” – G. W. Gough, 1926
In the recent past, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Benjamin D., who is a key member of a variety of socialist and revolutionary groups in the Madison, Wisconsin area. We had some disagreements, primarily what makes someone a “socialist”. I consider myself one because I support reform, whereas he believes he is one because he supports revolution (what I would normally call a “communist”). As neither of us wanted to deny ourselves the title of socialist, we agreed that I was a “reform socialist” and he was a “revolutionary socialist”.
What follows is a discussion of several issues related to the topic of revolution. General theory is discussed, as are Marx and Lenin. As with many conversations, Noam Chomsky appears (something my readers should come to expect by now). I hope that there is something of interest in this conversation for others. I have not modified or changed the words, although in a few instances grammar or spelling was corrected for clarity.
Discussion: August 2007
BD: So, how are you liking that book [“The Case for Socialism” by Alan Maass]? It may seem simplistic at first glance, especially with your background, but it lays out very important political principles in a way that you don’t have to be a philosophy major to understand. So, I think you said [in a prior discussion] that you think communism would be good but you don’t want a revolution to get there. Is that right? I don’t think that the ruling class would give up the power without a struggle, just like the monarchy. What do you think?
GS: I haven’t started the book yet. I’m taking a reading hiatus until the end of August. This summer, I’m studying under Professor Chomsky, so I’ve been focusing on his works this summer.
I wouldn’t call it simplistic, although I haven’t seen the actual writing yet. I think almost all books have some value to them, and I look forward to engaging the text with new ideas. My views are constantly in flux, and all things help that.
My thoughts on communism are mixed. Overall, if it’s a form of communism like pure anarchism with no oversight, I don’t want it. I like socialism in the sense that as much as possible is run by the government. Do I think the ruling class will hand power over to the rabble? Probably not, but I think piece by piece the rabble can get enough power to have a society I’d be happy with. I don’t have a problem with rich people, I just have a problem with people who ignore those who are less fortunate. If 90% of society is not rich but are living comfortably, I don’t care if the other 10% are rich as can be. Good for them.
BD: Chomsky was the second radical author I knew. Quite a writer that one, but he can be depressing to read. He is so well at describing just how screwed up the the US ruling class has made the world, but he never talks much about how to change it. I like Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” because it looks over the broad span of this country from the perspective of radicals or the oppressed and their movements.
Communism and anarchism in the sense that there is no government? I’m not sure it’s possible myself but that’s what it means to me and other revolutionary socialists.
Socialism to me is a workers’ state; a government run from the bottom up by people from their work places. Production and distribution is run democratically and profits and markets do not exist.
The ruling class won’t give anything — much less control of the global economy — without a struggle, without us taking it from them on some form. The thing about reforming the system, improvements done in a piecemeal fashion, is that they are always in jeopardy when there is no mass movement. All the gains from the 30s labor struggle and the 60s civil rights and antiwar struggles are being negated as we speak and many are already gone. This is because of the continued existence of the US ruling class and the current government structure. They continue to push harder from the right to maintain their profits and their positions. This is true internationally as well; in many countries the reforms are attempted to be rolled back because of the power structure that remains. In the case of Chile, with socialist Allende, the ruling class chose instead to fund a military coup. So the question is that should we be satisfied with limited and temporary reforms that may be denied anyway. Rosa Luxemburg wrote “Social Reform or Revolution?” on this subject, although I have never read it. I think that struggles that achieve reforms are great. They improve lives and they crystallize in the minds of people the power they do have. However, I think that a revolution is needed to get to socialism. Lenin’s “State and Revolution” is very good at looking at this process. I really recommend it.
Also, the problem I have with rich people is that I believe Marx’s Labor Theory of Value. Their wealth comes from the blood, sweat and tears of workers. Rich people can be nice — hell, George W. Bush is probably friendly — but their class position is what I have a problem with. It requires them to act to increase profits at the detriment of workers, to out-compete. In my opinion, the problem is not that some members of the ruling class are assholes, it’s that there are classes at all and that the ruling class is compelled to act that way by nature of capitalism. It’s all got to go, methinks.
GS: I don’t consider Chomsky a radical so much. An employee at my place of employment said the same thing (“that’s very left-wing material”) and I had to disagree. Zinn is good. I found the second half of “People’s History” to be boring, but I think this was more because I was younger and it was over my head. “The Zinn Reader” is amazing, and juicier reading.
I am not opposed to profits, but I don’t think that should be a goal or focus. I absolutely agree on worker-run government and businesses. Or at the very least, an improved profit-sharing system. The eventual removal of profit altogether would be great, but I see that as many centuries in the future, well beyond anything I will ever hope to achieve or see achieved in my lifetime.
I don’t know that the ruling class in Chile had much say in the overthrow of Allende. I don’t see it as a socialist/capitalist issue, at least not internally. The ruling class of the US might have funded it, but that’s entirely different.
I have mixed feelings on Lenin. While I admire him as an idealist and a writer, I find it difficult to admire his character when he seemed to avoid every opportunity to actually take part in the activities he advocated. But yes, his works are definitely thought-provoking.
I don’t like thinking in terms of class, because I think that’s a false dichotomy in many instances. You might see a situation as poor versus rich, but I think this just creates problems. The idea should always be cooperation and compromise, not struggle or conflict. For me, it’s not “how do I beat the other side” but “how can be both come out ahead”. A rich person can no more be blamed for wanting to stay rich and maintain their standards than a poor person can be blamed for wanting to stop them.
BD: To be radical is to be ostracized like Chomsky for speaking the truth. His arguments about Israel and the US policies in general are against the grain of the ruling class ideology, which depends on what is happening over there. Israel is taboo even on much of the established left, but Chomsky was the first person who convinced me to see it as a component of US imperialism.
Profits are the only goal under capitalist production, and are the focus of all of the decisions made by the ruling class. It is from this value, exploited from the working class, that gives them the power to dominate the daily discourse the world over. Not only is it this power that gives them the ability to control most of everything, but it is literally off the backs of the workers. I agree that workers should have more of the value that they create — that’s why I support strikes and mass movements which force that upon the bosses. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will,” like Frederick Douglass says, and as long as the ruling class is still here they erode the social gains of these movements. None of the reforms are permanent because the capitalist ruling class has the power and the incentive to do so. This factor cannot be permanently removed without removing capitalism altogether and this won’t be allowed. This is what happened in Chile and Germany.
About Lenin, what do you mean? He advocated things that worked when implemented for the most part. I don’t know what he was avoiding.
As a Marxist, I think that viewing things in terms of class interest is very informative when considering how to act. I don’t think that this creates conflicts, but rather just accurately explains ones that are there. While I think that we can connect with other classes, the ruling class has fundamentally different interests. They have a real stake in whether the US can occupy Iraq regardless of what this does to US soldiers or our tax money. They want cheap labor from Mexico and they want us to blame Mexicans for this. We should see it as an attack on our interest as a class that we should fight by organizing our class effectively. The ruling class isn’t confused about where the lines of the front are drawn. They use cops and armies to fight for their side, the government and laws are set up to allow them to dominate, and the continued exploitation of workers in general does not improve our lives. In fact, most people experienced a fall in real wages this year. It’s not easy to partner with someone who has an interest in screwing you over. I think it is more problematic to try to see the ruling class as potential allies because invariable it means compromising to their interests. I’m not really blaming people for being rich or saying they are inherently bad people. I just think that they are “no longer fit to rule” because their interests are too often contradictory with our own. This is the reality of all class societies, but just as Marx and Engels came to realize it is not effective to try to negotiate with the ruling class of their time, we must recognize the one of our time and organize to fight for a better world accordingly.
Why are you against revolution? Is it because you believe it’s not possible or because its not desirable in the sense that power will just be handed off to another corrupt bastard? Do you ascribe to a principled nonviolent philosophy? Do you think that capitalism can be reformed permanently?
GS: I don’t see speaking the truth as being radical. I think Chomsky is very moderate compared to many. I am unsure about Israel as being part of US imperialism. It’s hard to tell sometimes if we control them or if they control us.
I don’t know if capitalism can be removed. And yes, it’s quite true that reforms aren’t permanent, in the sense that nothing is permanent. There has always been a move towards progress and this move will not end. So whether the reforms stay in place or not, the overall picture shifts in the common man’s favor. Yes, there are setbacks, but the setbacks always get corrected and steps forward are taken.
My beef with Lenin is how he is seen as the father of the Russian revolution, but he was in Germany during the revolution, so he gets (and asked for) too much credit. I also think there’s a divide between Lenin the Writer and Lenin the Leader. I think many of his actual policies were not good, and were very ruthless — even as ruthless or more ruthless than Stalin in some regards. He very much tried to keep out dissent and democratic debate.
I don’t believe in conflict, be it between classes or otherwise. I do think humans all have common goals and the focus should be on those goals. Every revolution in history has gone the same way — the common people rise up against the masters and the power goes to — surprise — the elites of society. So all that conflict leads to is a new situation for conflict to start over. Furthermore, I don’t see “the ruling class” as a class at all. Power isn’t simply who owns the most stuff. It’s more about who controls the debate, which could have nothing to do with money or class at all. The fundamental problem is not capitalism but language. Capitalism, if modified and tempered, is a reasonable system. Language is where people find differences from one another.
Your “us versus them” mentality is very illogical to me. They’re “not fit to rule” because they disagree with us? That’s nonsense. If things were reversed, the deposed capitalists could use the same logic against the new leaders.
I’m against revolution because a) it’s violent and therefore inherently immoral if other options are available, b) it’s not possible, because you would have to simultaneously overthrow the United States government and every other government due to the nature of import/export, and c) as I said, history shows the new leaders are always going to be the ones who think they’re better than the common man and will quickly turn their backs on the people. I’m not sure what a “principled nonviolent philosophy” is, so I don’t know if I believe in one. I accept self-defense and reasonable situations for intervention (such as shooting a rapist caught in the act or something). But violence for the sake of achieving goals beyond self-preservation I dislike and cannot justify. Isn’t this aggression the same thing we’re against the State doing? I do think capitalism can be reformed perpetually (not permanently) and changes are made all the time, more often than not for the benefit of the lower class and working class.
BD: The issue of conflict is of high importance when talking about Marxism. He describes class conflict as the fundamental driving force for historic change and also as the central dynamic that shapes the world in the here and now. This conflict is reflected in the way our system actually operates; there is a conflict of interests. Capitalists have an interest in lowering wages, breaking strikes, busting unions (however corrupt), fighting wars to control resources and markets, controlling politicians and media and destroying the environment in order to increase profits and remain competitive in the global economy. In accomplishing these things, there is actual detriment upon the working class who would benefit from having an absence of all of those things.
The ruling class definitely does exist. It’s not just owning “stuff” in the abstract sense, it’s the owning of the means of production and the social power that comes with it which distinguishes the bourgeois. It’s the control of capital: owning the factory, the power plant, the TV station and newspaper. It is the virtual monopoly on capital and currency that forces to worker to sell their labor power. It is their continuous relationship with government which then acts on their behalf. This is most definitely a class and despite its disagreements (Marx described it as a band of waring brothers) it does act for a set of interests that are not for the benefit of mankind generally but instead for very particular interests along class lines and because of its material power it is the driving force for where we are going.
The system of capitalism is the expression of this dynamic which brings with it the falling of wages and inflation and which brings a class compelled to act in ways contrary to the interests of the majority. This is why “they” are no longer fit to rule and why capitalism should be overthrown.
I think that capitalism (and the RC) is an impediment to progress in the sense that it limits development to actually improve the living conditions of many people. For example there is an interest in denying health care to people to increase profits. There is an interest in producing drugs that can be sold for profit instead of curing things that may not be as profitable. There is an interest in underfunding public services like schools and using that money on things like the war. Capitalism has played an important role in human development. It has allowed us the productive forces to satisfy our needs and more but now it is holding us back. The progress that is made under capitalism that you speak of unfortunately is not something that happens naturally or peacefully. Progress is never made without struggle, without fighting tooth and nail for every inch. All of the progress made, all the serious reforms, have only been won by organizing and fighting against the class which opposes it. The reforms from the great depression attributed to FDR were paid for with the blood of workers fighting against starvation wages in several huge strikes. In these cases the fetter of the ruling class to progress and the class conflict itself becomes obvious as they mobilize repressive bodies to defeat the workers. I don’t know if you bought a newspaper [the “Socialist Worker”] from us [the International Socialist Organization] but there’s an article about the first national strike in there [in the July 20, 2007 issue by Elizabeth Schulte]. The point is that without struggle things don’t improve. That’s why real wages have been falling for the last thirty years and why we need to organize to fight around things like health care right now. It’s also the case that we should do away with a system that requires us to bleed in the streets to get what we want.
Revolutions place into power the force which makes the revolution. If it is a military cabal then that’s what you get. If it is a mass movement with democratic leadership that is a different matter entirely. Let’s talk more about that later.
Your claims about Lenin stifling democracy I think is a product of an misunderstanding of history. You didn’t really provide any evidence, but that is fine. The democracy of Russia that existed after the czar was overthrown consisted of two elements of dual power. The quasi-representative Provisional Government which was elected nonetheless but refused further elections and was dominated by ruling class interests. It demonstrated this by insisting to continue the hugely unpopular war that virtually everyone was calling to end. The other was the Soviet or Workers Council which had sprung up in factories and consistent represented the will of the workers. It had regular elections with all of the parties. The victory of the Bolsheviks in the Soviets was a reflection of the desire of the workers to do the things that the Bolsheviks agitated for: power to the soviets, end to the war, land to the peasants. Even after that happened the Bolshevik delegates debated about actually asserting authority over the PG. Lenin was in Russia throughout this and was in constant contact when he went into exile, but he was in Russia when the PG was overthrown — not that it matters in my mind.
The lack of democracy that you refer to I assume to be the way the other parties were not represented in the new government or at various points. The rejection of the Mensheviks by the people of Russia was not undemocratic at all. They continued to support the war on behalf of the ruling class because they thought that capitalism first had to arise in Russia before socialism could. The composition of the soviets shows this. The Socialist Revolutionaries represented the peasants who were the majority of the population. It represented their class interest which was to sell their crops in a market, an interest which clashed with socialism. However, the mostly Bolshevik soldiers, many of which were peasants, returning from the front brought home to the farm news about what was going on and many people were switching to the Bolshevik corner.
Lack of democracy is what I would call the PG. They refused to call a vote to set up a new government at any point until after the revolution and only then to try to maintain control, because of the radicalization of the population. They kept pushing back the date until after the revolution had occurred. You may think that the revolution was undemocratic because more of the country supported the SRs in that vote than the Bolsheviks, but I think that the masses were on their way to more radical ideas from the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs. The timing of the revolution is important to understand. While the country seemed to be shifted towards the Bolsheviks and right wing coup led by Alexander Konovalov against Petrograd showed the risk that existed and showed the necessity for acting soon. The Bolsheviks won their mass support at this point in time and the actions of them and the workers who supported them shows that they were not a coup and instead they were proletarian revolution in the interest of workers everywhere.
Stalin was a ruthless motherfucker who killed all who dissented from him including the original revolutionaries. Comparing him to Lenin is a joke. Academic Marxism is watered down and nonthreatening, just as the ruling class would have.
GS: I will accept that there is a “ruling class” if you don’t mind my substituting the term “elites”. I think there are elites who do all the things you ascribe to the ruling class, although sometimes (such as in the media) they aren’t fully aware. The term “class” for me is misleading because it implies a certain economic bracket, which is not necessarily the case — some elites might make far less than other non-elites. The key is their position, not their income.
Capitalism is bad and the capitalists are not fit to rule because they don’t hold the majority view — this is your position? I can see this being a good point, although I don’t know that it warrants the reactionary response you have to it.
I will agree progress is gained through conflict, but not necessarily the conflict you envision. I sympathize with Hegel in that a thesis’ antithesis offers a next step in progress. But in Hegel’s view, the old step isn’t removed or overturned, but integrated and built upon. Capitalism has the benefit at this point in history of funding the research for life-saving cures, but withholds them on the grounds that they are intellectual property and can be profitable. So the goal for me would be to keep the research but increase the availability, not increase the availability but cut off all research. I think the defense of capitalism that it creates competition and better products is exaggerated, but there is a grain of truth in there.
I disagree that revolutions place in power the group leading the revolution, at least if you go so far as to say democratic revolutions lead to democratic rule. No revolution has ever had this happen to my knowledge. The American revolution, the Spanish civil war, Cuba, Russia, and every other revolution I can think of followed the same formula: use the workers as a grunt force (“cannon fodder”) and then the elites step in to rule, offering only a small handful of the promises made to the people to get them to fight. Even the best-intentioned revolutionaries quickly find their own people unfit to lead once the time comes.
You are very well-read on Russian politics and political history, and I applaud you for that. I must confess it has been some time since I had any interest in the subject matter and am a bit rusty on all the details. However, the exclusion of the Mensheviks and others from power isn’t what I meant by Lenin being undemocratic. I agree that’s a legitimate practice (much as I have no qualms with a Republican president who appoints a Republican cabinet). I meant simply that Lenin had many who dissented executed and quickly set up the secret police (the Cheka). His first few days were semi-democratic (giving the peasants land), but he quickly shifted gears towards tyranny and against the ideals of his own writing.
Was Stalin a tyrant? Yes, of course. And he was hardly democratic. Nor was he “a stand up sort of guy”. But I don’t know if he was necessarily a ruthless man relative to Lenin. The problem I have with the whole “Lenin good” and “Stalin bad” dichotomy is the placement of blame. You’ll have people who say “Stalin killed like 12 million of his own people” (sometimes even listed in history books as high as 20 or even 60 million, though I find this rather exaggerated). But this number often includes the soldiers and peasants who died in WWII (not directly Stalin’s fault) and those who died from famine. The famine deaths are largely natural, and the policies that made the matter worse can be traced to Lenin’s land reforms, making him partially responsible as well. And Lenin ruled for maybe 3 years, whereas Stalin had over 30 years. If Lenin is responsible for more than 1/10 the number of deaths that Stalin is, he’s as bad or worse. Stalin can probably be directly blamed for 800,000 deaths (the political prisoners executed), which is really high. But can Lenin be blamed for 80,000 deaths? It’s not impossible, again tracing much of the economic hardships to his policies.
A Cheka newspaper reads:
“Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and [Bolshevik leader Moisei] Uritsky … let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible…” And they followed through on this.
The official records report Cheka executions from 1918-1920 as nearly 13,000. Scholars suspect the real figure could have been closer to 250,000 or 500,000 (because rarely were the victims actually brought in to justice). Lenin knew about this and it continued until the end of his reign.
“The Cheka is reported to have practiced torture. Victims were skinned alive, scalped, “crowned” with barbed wire, impaled, crucified, hanged, stoned to death, tied to planks and pushed slowly into furnaces or tanks of boiling water, and rolled around naked in internally nail-studded barrels. Chekists poured water on naked prisoners in the winter-bound streets until they became living ice statues. Others beheaded their victims by twisting their necks until their heads could be torn off. The Chinese Cheka detachments stationed in Kiev reportedly would attach an iron tube to the torso of a bound victim and insert a rat into the other end which was then closed off with wire netting. The tube was then held over a flame until the rat began gnawing through the victim’s guts in an effort to escape.” (This account is taken from Wikipedia, compiled from the works of historians Lincoln, Figes, and Melgounov…)
BD: The ruling class and class position generally is not determined by income. It is what Marx described as “the social relations to the means of production.” Your class position is determined by what you do relative to the means of production. If you produce your own food for yourself with agriculture you are a peasant. If you own a small storefront you are petty bourgeoisie. If you own and control large amounts of capital and you exploit the labor for profit and you reinvest you are big bourgeoisie. If you sell your labor to survive you are a member of the working class. Under this distinction a movie star or a sports player who sells their labor could make more than a capitalist. The distinction is as you said: “the key is position not income.”
The ruling class that I’m referring to does act in its own interests as a class. Generally this class acts in ways that are contradictory to the interests of the workers they exploit. For example, they are not going out of their way to get their workers higher wages or for them to join successful unions. While these changes are in the interest of workers the are against the interest of the capitalist class. Because of the power of the ruling class they do many other things that are not in the interest of the general population. They continue to build and use coal burning plants despite the horrendous pollution that comes with it because it is profitable and available. They contaminate drinking water with hazardous chemicals for the same reason — because it is cheaper. They use factory farms with growth hormones for food production despite the links to health problems. They limit the production of life saving drugs with intellectual property rights so as to ensure their profits. They control governments and declare wars to protect their interest as a class regardless of the interests of the people who have to fight. They are no longer fit to rule because what they are doing is damaging to the human condition and it limits our potential in addition to being in the interest of a minority. Capitalists fighting to maintain this system and their dominate position within it are reactionary. What I am calling for is revolutionary progress.
I am not as familiar with Hegel but I believe I see how Marx derived his ideas from Hegel. Marx believed in a dialectical materialist view of history. Basically this means that the historic change is a product of contradictory class forces which constantly shift in strength relative to one another and at various points in history transform society into something qualitatively new from the ashes of the old. This balance of contradictory forces in monarchistic societies created capitalism from elements that existed before it. The thing that drove the change and what made the new society different is that a new class force with different interests became the ruling class. This happened because it grew in strength relative to the old order, usurped power from the old, and proceeded to rule the new society in line with its interests as a class. So the monarchy was overthrown by a new class rising in power whose interests contradicted the old order. The new society that was created reflected the new ruling classes, free trade and a state that represented the new ruling class and protected their interests. Hegel is right in that the new society is built upon the old, but Marx is right in that for this to occur historically the old ruling class has to be overthrown. Capitalism has created means of production so powerful that we can cover everyone’s needs. It has developed technology so amazing that we can communicate around the world in seconds and cure many conditions that have plague us for eons. Overthrowing capitalism would not mean destroying all that capitalism has created. It means we would change the social relations of control of the economy by taking it from the capitalists. This would leave intact the economic structures but would change the way decisions about production and distribution are made. Socialism, democratic control of the economy by workers would mean that things were done that benefit that class. This would both maintain research and increase access because the compulsive drive for profits created by the capitalist system of production is gone. So, in a nutshell, what we want is an overthrow of the current ruling class and a transformation of capitalism into socialism.
GS: I am familiar with dialectical materialism, as discussed by Hegel and Marx. I’m actually rather a fan of it (although I still think Hegel overall is lacking due to his idea of an all-inclusive system). I don’t know that I agree with the idea that each new phase requires the previous rulers to be overthrown. In the case of Marx’s historical views from agrarian society to capitalism, he doesn’t really suggest that. Until recently, I think it’s safe to say that economic forces and political forces were not one and the same. Furthermore, in real life, as I already mentioned, the new rulers are often as undemocratic as the old. I cannot think of any instances where this isn’t true.
I think all of the concerns you address regarding pollution and health issues can be easily fixed through legal reforms. We have improved this in the past (e.g. banning lead paint), and continue to do so. There’s no need for revolution of any kind, even in a symbolic sense.
When you speak of “ruling class”, I accept this as the same as when I say “elites”. You are right that the ruling class is not so much defined by income, but that is what makes the term seem awkward for me. I understand “class” can simply mean “group”, but contrasting “ruling class” with “working class” implies to me an economic undertone, which really isn’t the issue at all. It’s a power issue. I would suggest “elites” and “common people” or “rabble” or “unpeople” as a more apt term. But I guess it really just comes down to personal preference.
BD: The character of revolutions are an important thing to consider. The issue of power is what I will focus on. Who has power over society at the present; real power, not power over a few people. It is attached to control of money and the ruling class has got it. In the early days of the USA it was not much different in principle. The owning class desired economic independence from England. The founding fathers were the the early American elite and their power existed throughout the the war for independence. The dynamic of power throughout the war allowed them to maintain it afterwards. In Cuba the power dynamic of the revolution was such that a small group exercised military operations and seized control on behalf of the majority in theory. But because the resulting government was not democratic in any extent it didn’t result in the type of world that I am looking for. Let’s look at two more examples that I hope will clarify what I mean and why it is possible. In the midst of the Great Depression, capital continued to exert downward pressure on wages to increase profits in order to compete. At that time people were literally starving to death in Hoovervilles because there was no government services at all to protect them. Anyway the pressure built up over years exploded in mass strikes at different places across. The mass strikes of the 1930s help to portray the character of a large democratic movement. In the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 there was a showdown between labor and capital. It began with an exploding unionizing drive started by socialists in Minneapolis which then went on strike after their legally protected union was not recognized by the companies. It culminated with a general strike that shut down the city. “Each step of the way, the union’s 75 member strike committee-made up of rank and file drivers-ran the struggle democratically, through nightly mass meetings with all striking workers and publishing a daily strike newspaper with a circulation that reached 10,000. The strikers organized their own hospital and kitchen out of the garage that served as the strike headquarters, treating the injured and feed up to ten thousand workers per day.” [ed: I don’t know what Ben is quoting here.] This decision-making body reflected the will of the workers involved and the elected leaders were accountable and immediately recallable. This was the most successful way for the workers to fight and they were not manipulated to think otherwise. When some group of labor bureaucrats tried to dampen the movement on behalf of capital they were thrown out on their asses. The leaders were smart and many were or became socialists because the ideas made sense. It was because of the power dynamic that the leaders actually reflected the interests of workers and it was because of this they were successful in their strike. The Russian Revolution was a strike of millions that ran in much the same way. With delegates from different factories sent to represent the interest of the workers in a national committee. This is a democratic revolution and the history really shows it. Lenin had to convince the delegates that the time was right for the revolution; if the masses of workers did not want it, then it would not have happened.
Marx really did come to the conclusion that revolution was necessary. I wonder what readings of Marx you covered. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was not a slow process of reforms. It was a dialectic shift of the balance of power toward the Bourgeoisie and a period of mass rebellion. In short, the king was overthrown and those who had unaccountable power in the form of control of production and money used it and rebuilt it on principles that jived with them. Also, I disagree about economic power having just recently become political power. I think that when money was first created as a unit of exchange in ancient Greece and other places, people who collected large amounts of it had their interests served by their representative governments. The Monarchy was a pool of economic power handed down through a line of heritage. Capitalism varies from that but it was the defeat of an existing ruling class that gave rise to a new one, both with material economic power as their base of strength. What I think is needed is that this material base, this economic power such be controlled democratically by the people who run it be that is the only way that ensures they will get what they want. Otherwise they have to hope and push reluctant and corrupt politicians in an unbalanced contest with the ruling class in order to get what they want. It ends up causing a lot of harm and it is not effective in the least. Seriously, in order for people to get the New Deal reforms they had to nearly die of starvation and revolt on a scale large enough to freak out the capitalists. It’s the unwritten history and we should embrace it. A better world is possible.
Not only did the reforms that improved lives only come from struggle, but when this struggle is not going on the reforms are taken away. As long as the economic power is concentrated in a few hands and there is no struggle we have very little political power any reforms passed will only pass with the acceptance of the ruling class and we can not leave it up to them because there is a conflict of interest. A law that actually gives us real health care reform, instead of a corporate giveaway pseudo care plan like the one being proposed, will only be achieved if the ruling class thinks they have no choice. Otherwise it will be some arrangement to reduce the cost to Capital and not what we really need.
The situation in Russia in 1917 was dire. Russia was only starting to industrialize, yet it was thrust into the middle of the largest war the earth had seen. It was getting its ass kicked. Between 900,000 and 2,500,000 Russians were killed. At least 1,500,000 Russians and possibly up to more than 5 million Russians were wounded. Not only that but the common folk were suffering immense poverty. Women spent 40 hours a week waiting in line for bread handouts and they were working for very low wages. The Russian revolution was a countrywide general strike. The first one in February 1917 drove the czar from power and replaced him with a dual government. One was a provisional government that was filled with the parties that continued to support the ruling class. There were no elections in it until after the October revolution, so its composition did not change to reflect the interests of the people of Russia. The second form of government was the workers councils elected delegates off the shop floor much as workers did in the Minneapolis Strike 17 years [sic]. This body was much more representative of the interests of the workers so when they radicalized seeing that the other parties claiming to be socialists were not doing what they wanted the workers became and elected the Bolsheviks to power. When Lenin convinced the congress of soviet delegates of the necessity of revolution it was with the support of the millions strong working class. Russia exited the war, ran the economy by soviet delegates, and sanctioned the land seizures by peasants as everyone wanted. So what went wrong? Well, first of all Russia was ostracized by the rest of the world. The international elite blockaded and invaded Russia in an attempt to kill the revolution that had occurred lest stories of its success reach the international working class and they develop their own ideas of liberation. Eighteen nations including the United States sent forces or sponsored the White Armies who fought the Red Army of Russia in a civil war. After several brutal years the Red Army won but with tremendous cost.
The Russian economy and working class was destroyed and the peasants began to deny food to the cities mostly because they had a different class interest. They wanted to sell their food on the market. The original plan was that the workers could produce machines for the peasants in exchange for food but again, Russian economy gone. Some peasants had joined the white armies or were anti-Bolshevik anarchists and were hostile to the workers. So basically it degraded into a struggle to survive. The people that died during this time, regardless of how, can’t be compared to the people that died during Stalin’s reign. With Lenin it was a civil war, a devastated and isolated economy, and a bitter struggle to survive that caused the deaths. Under Stalin it was the consolidation of power by killing of challengers to the newly developed ruling class bureaucracy. While Lenin was in power it was on behalf of the working class with the continuous intention of worldwide socialist revolution and with Stalin it on behalf of a new class and no longer for revolution. Apples and oranges.
GS: Ben, although I find the Russian revolution very interesting, I think it strays very far from the core of the discussion, so I won’t really pursue it further. You may be right that Stalin and Lenin are apples and oranges, but I think it’s important to examine the crimes of both men in context. Lenin is all too often given a pass, and Stalin is all too often seen as a demon.
A side note (you don’t need to address this): I didn’t mean to imply Marx didn’t believe in revolution. He absolutely believed in revolution, and we both know this is the key difference between Marx and myself. I simply meant that his theory of history and the dialectic as he understands it don’t really show political revolution. You say there is an overthrow of the king, and in some ways this is true. But more often than not, the king simply took a different role, and was hardly removed completely. His distancing from the economy did very little to distance him from the politics. (Even under modern capitalism, kings could co-exist, sometimes even still running or having some authority over the Treasury.)
Given that the economy and communications are worldwide and interconnected, do you see global revolution — not simply national revolution — as realistic?
BD: This is a question that must be considered by revolutionary socialists. We believe that the only way we can successfully overthrow capitalism is by being rid of it world wide. So how does our modern world affect that objective is the question. Firstly, I think that the current pace of communications and transportation are in our favor. In the days of the Third International and the Bolsheviks large meetings had to be attended in person by train route and communications were done through letters and telegraph, today the modern technology allows much swifter, and more frequent and consistent results. Now we can fly or drive to political meetings of scale and some meetings can be done through conference calls. We can have a national correspondence way more regularly than was possible before, very useful and necessary for a Leninist organization. Our economy is now interconnected, too. What does this mean? It means that lines of production are connected from less developed to more developed countries. We have raw materials taken from one place, transported to another to be refined and processed into component parts and then are assembled somewhere else. These conveyor belts are increasing operated by large conglomerates of capital. This effectively means that greater portions of workers are under the influence of single entities. This translates into political and economic motivations (if recognized) for solidarity internationally. A strike could be devastatingly effect if it involved workers in several sections of the chain and we will help this in any way we can because it will also raise the living standards. Compared to the situation the last time around I think that we have a greater ability and a great necessity to have a revolution.
GS: As there is no historical precedent to my knowledge of a revolution producing a benevolent leader, how does one ensure the new boss isn’t just the same as the old boss (to paraphrase The Who)?
BD: The idea of a benevolent leader being responsible for change was one that Marx experimented with and rejected. He supported some particularly liberal king [ed: the precise king is unknown to me] and was then disappointed when improvements didn’t happen. He then came to the conclusion after seeing the workers organize the Paris Commune of 1871 that the only way to ensure that the masses had their interests met was for revolution to be the self emancipation of the working class by that class. The organization of an strike committee and the workers state before the civil war in Russia and the Paris Commune are physical representations from which this idea is derived. An organization like this is impervious to attempts to usurp power because of its structure. It is run democratically from the ground up by militant and class conscious members of the working class. They are the most engaged and politically active people ever imaginable. It would be like the leader of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty deciding not to express solidarity with [Texas death row inmate] Kenneth Foster — it simply would not fly. The only exception is that an extreme amount of repression and purging and other things as in the US labor movement or by being militarily crushed as in Russia and Paris. These movements did not fail because the new boss was the same; the workers would physically not allow it, but because the workers themselves were defeated in one way or another. It is not a forgone conclusion that this happens and the history shows that the fault was with objective circumstances. It has also been shown by these movements of by and for the working class are possible and I feel that history has also shown that only with struggle of this sort is there are real possibility for progress.
GS: Are there any current academics, intellectuals, journalists or political leaders worth following today?
BD: The most important thinkers and writers of today are those who are involved in the physical act of building movements for justice. They are writing and interpreting everything with the intention of deriving or expressing some useful bit of information that can assist in the building of these movements, and in the case of socialists, with the aim of building a revolutionary socialist party. There are differences of opinion between groups but I find that I agree with much of the material generated by our membership and our elected editorial board in publications like Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. This literature has always been useful in interpreting the world and has never ceased to be while trying to change it. I recommend checking out their sites online where they have most recent articles and also expansive archives on a plethora of subjects.
Finally, Marx said this, “The history of all hitherto existing society us the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed, stood in in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” [from The Communist Manifesto] This analysis is correct in describing human history up to today and yet we are still in the same circumstance. Marx saw revolution as a part of the cycle of human social development in a way. Only this time the material forces, the nature of the classes today are such that a revolution by the worlds majority, by the working class, can remove the class system in its entirety allowing a world with greater potential for human development that ever before possible. The thing that we have to worry about is being able to organize it with the workers of the world, the movement to get there and what happens next.