Thursday, November 27, 2008

Old Home Day

In case readers need reminding, this year is the 91st anniversary
of the Russian October Revolution. Last night I attended a panel discussion with the suitably wordy left-wing title, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: Lessons for 21st Century Struggles.

Ah, nostalgia. I knew two of the three panelists from forty years ago. Ian Angus, now an eco-socialist with a website well worth checking into, represented the Socialist Project, about which I know very little, except that it's neither a "tendency" nor a think-tank. Read all about it here. Danny Goldstick was there, affable as ever, a University of Toronto philosophy professor and member for some time of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Canada. The third discussant was a young sprout
(well, relatively young, anyway) from the International Socialists, Benoit Renaud.

The crowd of a dozen-and-a-half or so included one fellow I knew forty-five years ago. Gosh, maybe I was involved in that Russian Revolution thing too. I can't remember.

I don't really know what I had been expecting. Fossils emerging from their limestone? The finer points of doctrine aired once again for a small but knowledgable audience? Some strategies for twenty-first-century social change, based upon the errors, crimes and incompetence of Stalin and his uniformly grey successors?

I was pleasantly surprised, to some degree at least. The first off the mark was Danny Goldstick, whose "mistakes were made" line is fairly typical of the Communist Party, and always has been. (To his credit, he did speak out at the time against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which cost him his Central Committee seat for a while, but he weathered that storm.) He listed all of the undoubted pressures on the nascent USSR--foreign armed intervention (including Canadian), civil war and so on--that led to the Stalinist nightmare.

It was all downhill after that: "devastating, criminal purges," World War II with the loss of 20 million Soviet citizens, nuclear blackmail and an arms race that nearly bankrupted the country. After decades of battering, the working class, said Goldstick, was discouraged from militancy, and workers "expected to have things done for them." (Or to them, he might have added.) This state of dependency allowed capitalism to be restored, he said. Massive unemployment and hunger in the 1990s was offset by oil revenues to some extent, but with the current global economic meltdown and the plummeting price of oil, we can expect widespread misery once again in what was once the USSR.

(Wait! Where are the "lessons?" I came for the lessons!)

It was a mistake, said Goldstick, to believe that there is a social system called "socialism." What we call "socialism" is transitional, intermediate, precarious and fragile. In the case of the USSR, power was taken from the workers without resistance. The Soviet Union was not a workers' democracy: workers were not in charge.

The lessons? Never take things for granted. Avoid the "utopian delusion" of social-democracy: workers, not governments, will change society. And reject rigid categorization, he said, "as I was prone to do."

The bottom line for socialists today? "Capitalism will destroy us if we don't destroy it."

Ian Angus was next. He remarked on the changes in the way Canadian socialists are going about things these days: there he was, a former Trotskyist, sitting side-by-side with a member of the Communist Party, almost unheard of back in the day. He welcomed the end of the former "sectarian silos."

Angus spent much time describing the early post-revolutionary period, one of Durkheimian effervescence (my observation, not his). What is a revolution? Quoting Trotsky, the "direct interference of the masses in historical events." People formed councils (soviets) of their own everywhere--if there was a line-up for food, a "line-up soviet" would appear.

There was a massive reorganization of property. Managers of factories were elected. The Red Army functioned as a huge school, teaching literacy and other subjects. In the countryside, peasants voted to return to a system of village commons. National minorities were recognized: the government brought in a policy of "indigenization" (now called affirmative action), and published and offered services in 44 languages.

The environment was given legal protection, with forests preserved as "monuments of nature." Endangered species were protected, and, despite the hunting culture in that part of the world, limited hunting seasons were legislated. Women's rights were enshrined in law. Homosexuality was removed from the criminal code.

It was a period of mass democracy, he said, although the Kronstadt sailors might not have agreed.

But "the old society had its revenge." Forced collectivization and periodic purges took a frightful toll. Women's rights were curtailed in 1936; homosexuality was made illegal again in 1933. A conservative caste had seized control, and it remained in power until the USSR collapsed.

Lessons? Be aware of the nature of Stalinism; but learn, also, about what the revolution at least initially achieved. A better world, Angus concluded, is possible.

Finally Benoit Renaud: and he began with basic principles. 1: Be relevant. 2: Be a tribune of the oppressed. 3: Be organized.

With respect to (1), when Lenin alighted from his train in St. Petersburg, he did not whip up the crowds with slogans like "Down with alienation from the means of production! Down with commodity fetishism!" Instead he spoke directly to the people's concerns at the time: "Land, bread and peace." Principle (2) means speaking up against all forms of oppression--security certificates, Islamophobia, rendition and so on. Principle (3) means building as big an organization as possible, coordinated internationally.

Renaud called for the re-building of the Left, and spoke perhaps a little over-optimistically of new parties already arising from the remnants of previous ones. He noted the wide-based popular movements for social justice and the environment, and suggested that the initial success of the 1917 revolution could inspire new activists.

Question period, and I was first up.
With the benefit of nearly a century of history to go by, I asked, what do you think of democratic centralism?

A very long discussion followed, and more questions along the same lines, and it was at this point that I began to be impressed. Angus and Renaud were strongly critical. Indeed, Angus spoke best on this, referring to "toy bolshevik parties," one of which he once belonged to, while Renaud talked of levels of discipline that were completely unnecessary, but whose rigours somehow made those who submitted to them more "revolutionary."

Goldstick, on the other hand, had some time for the notion. He contrasted democratic centralism with the Conservative party, whose recent policy resolutions weren't even binding, he said, on the party leader. (Suddenly I became even more strongly opposed to the concept!) Someone pointed out that it was relatively easy to move from "democratic" to "centralism," but much harder to move back.

I managed to get a second question in: what organizing principles should socialists adopt today? I wanted to hear a denunciation of vanguardism, but that wasn't explicitly forthcoming. However, two of the panelists spoke of their hard-won "humility," and admitted that the way forward, organizationally, is not at all clear. Indeed, Angus said that his most difficult lesson to learn was that there is not one organizational model that fits every circumstance--no two revolutions, as he put it, are alike.

Which in a way is where I came in. I was glad to discover that I am not alone in having no real sense of how we should organize ourselves to bring about social change. To hear these seasoned left-wingers talk the same way was oddly reassuring. There was a refreshing candour in the way two of them (not members of parties) presented themselves, with respect to their own previous dogmatism and their current state of uncertainty. No blueprints, no one-size-fits-all revolutionary schemes.

But all, in my view, was still not well.

While I have no doubt that a number of experiments in mass democracy took place in the aftermath of 1917, Lenin himself, in my view, was less than democratic in his impulses:

We are not utopians, we do not “dream” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and 'foremen and accountants'.

The subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat.

Well, hold on a minute: which is it? An armed vanguard or the proletariat? And that, of course, is the nub of the problem.

Where are the mechanisms that would make the government of the day accountable to the people? The CPUSSR was convinced (as the above quotation makes clear in its conflation of "vanguard" and "proletariat") that it spoke for the people. But--isn't this obvious?--only the people can speak for the people. Anyone genuinely representing "the people" does so by
permission, not by analytical ability, knowledge, and sheer commitment to the cause. Democracy we need, not philosopher-kings who know what's best, and what we really want if we could just clear away all that false consciousness.

In other words, Lenin himself does not escape censure for what eventually transpired. Stalinism was an accident waiting to happen, just as the lack of functioning democratic union procedures permitted the rule of a Jimmy Hoffa or a Jackie Presser or a Hal Banks, in tandem, of course, with vicious intimidation to keep the proles in line.

Nor was I entirely satisfied by the tendency of some speakers to rummage around in Marx and other classical writers to find some scrap of text that had been missed on the first pass, some warning that, if heeded, might have prevented tragedy. I exaggerate, but only slightly. We shall not find where the October Revolution went off the rails in the pages of Marx, but in a pitiless review of the very structure of party and government at the time, with their centralizing, statist, bureaucratic tendencies that inevitably nipped popular democracy in the bud.

In other words, we need to leave far more of the Soviet project behind than the speakers seemed willing to. But, as noted, I was encouraged to see the shedding of old dogmatisms, the confessions of uncertainty, the tentative discussions of how to move forward. All we need now are the people. :)

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