Red stars and dead Russians
One hundred years ago, a red star was rising. The spectre haunting Europe that Marx and Engels talked of in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 was about to come true with a vengeance. The October revolution would spark revolutions around Europe, mostly obviously in Italy (1919-1920) and Germany (1918-1923). Soviets (workers’ councils) sprung up in Vienna, Limerick and Budapest in these years as well. The October revolution was pretty bloodless. Indeed, more were killed and more damage done re-enacting the storming of the Winter Palace to arrest the Kerensky Provisional Government for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 filming of the adaptation of John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World book on the October revolution than happened in October 1917.
The October revolution was to be the only successful revolution where workers took power – even if that success was turned into something quite different by Stalin from the late 1920s onwards. But it is important to hold on to the fact that for a short period of time, the alternative that many arguments make the case for did exist. It was – and remains – the only successful example of a new, post-capitalist society being made.
To celebrate and commemorate such a momentous event, we have decided to get in early with our contribution. Our cover uses the rather ill-tempered retort of ‘what can we learn from dead Russians?’ as the hook. So with Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin as the leading examples, John Foster looks at the impact upon Scotland of the October revolution, William Bonnar the roots of the revolution, and Dave Sherry and Pat Kelly look at its achievements and legacy. Meanwhile, Stephen Collins considers a lesser known, dead Russian, Maxim Gorki, with regard to an attempt to make culture reflect the lives of the majority of citizens. This is called social realism and is not to be confused with socialist realism which Stalin initiated as state policy in 1934.
Inspired by the October revolution, Scotland has made its own small contribution to the socialist creed with the likes of John Maclean, Harry McShane, Mary Barbour, Willie Gallacher, Helen Crawfurd, Jimmy Maxton and the like. Their ilk grappled with the issues of fomenting revolution in an advanced capitalist economy far before independence became a live issue.
We hope the collections of articles will help facilitate a discussion about what a revolution is, what it would look like today, why do they happen, will it be brought about by a party or a social movement, can it survive in a single country and why revolution is still necessary for not just workers but also for humanity and the planet we inhabit. To discuss those issues inevitably brings one to also discuss what is meant by ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’. Without delving any further, we can say at least there are two distinct types of conceptions of socialism – one from above by parliament, and one from below by workers. The former approximates to social democracy, the latter to socialist revolution.
In a strangely ironic sense, the death of Fidel Castro fits well into the theme of this edition on the impact and legacy of the Russian revolution. Guerrilla war, not a working class revolt as per the classic interpretation of how socialism comes about, brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. But it was a war against US imperialism and its puppet, Batista. Castro was part of a middle class nationalist resistance and it was a measure of weakness of the Batista regime that Castro’s tiny forces were able to bring it down. Reforms were introduced but so was a new authoritarian-inclined state. It was the US blockade that drove Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union, with the Cuban Communist Party not established until 1965. Undoubted advances in living standards, education and health care have been made but persecution of minorities existed and a well-to-do state ruling class emerged. Free markets reforms have been introduced under the rule of his brother, Raul.
The New Year has begun as the old one ended – with challenging conditions for the left at the Scottish, British, European and international levels. This edition covers a number of these aspects but most obviously focusses upon the forthcoming local council elections in May. These elections present the SNP with the opportunity to deliver upon the ‘one party state’ that many have accused it of running – the parts being the Holyrood, Westminster and European parliaments. Glasgow will be a key battleground as the Labour council there continues to attack the conditions of its own workforce. In a series of articles, Dave Watson, Willie Sullivan and Phil McGarry examine a number of the salient issues. Dave Watson shows how councils could rethink local democracy in order to stop the centralisation carried out by Holyrood, Willie Sullivan asks us to re-imagine local government and Phil McGarry develops a set of priorities to tackle immediate challenges. We shall consider further aspects of local government head of the May elections in the next issue.
It seems Brexit has paralysed politics in Britain, with everyone waiting to see what the Tories will do and what kind deal they will seek and be able to get. Post-Brexit politics have become something of a phoney war and a diversion from fighting fights against austerity and neo-liberalism. Although this has been true of Scotland too, Scotland still has its own distinctive trajectory. Amongst these was the SNP Scottish Government’s first budget under the new fiscal settlement with Westminster. Did the Scottish Government blink first? It would seem so as there were few found to comment that there would be more genuinely new and increased sums of money for public services and no examples of wealth redistribution or no tax rises for the rich (with the additional rowing back on use of school money from rich areas for poor areas). This led the Poverty Alliance to question why the SNP wants power its will not use and will not use to reduce poverty, with its director, Peter Kelly, saying: ‘It is disappointing that the Scottish Government have decided not to make full use of the tax powers at their disposal’. Just as there was no Brexit bounce for the independence cause, such a budget does little either – unless people can see past the SNP to understand that there is a radical independent form of independence. It remains to be seen if the relaunch of the Scottish Independence Convention this month has a role to play here.
Notwithstanding electoral success in the local elections in May, 2016 may be looked back as the year in which the wheels did really start to fall on the SNP bandwagon. On health, education and transport, the SNP is weak and on Brexit its strategy of saying much but doing very little other than releasing umpteen press releases is beginning to grow a bit wearisome. Its political management and strategy is now being exposed as being unable to paper over its programmatic cracks.
With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader last year, the British road to socialism remains a serious option. But all, as we know, is not well here in terms of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Documents released by Momentum – the group associated with the campaigns to elect and re-elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader – for its National Committee meeting on 3 December 2016 show the conundrum it faces. It has a total of 165,157 members and supporters. Of these, it has 145,865 supporters and 20,736 members. Yet of these only 60,316 are Labour Party members with just 17,555 being both Momentum and Labour Party members. So when the Corbynistas attempt to mobilise against the right within Labour, they are rather less fulsome in numbers and influence than we might have thought they’d be. This might explain why the Corbynistas lost out to the right at the November London Labour Party and Labour National Policy Forum meetings. In other words, they are not present and fighting for the delegate positions to determine policy matters in such forums. Without winning here, the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party will not be isolated and marginalised.
But looked at in another way, the low level of Momentum supporters who are also Labour members suggests two things. The first is that the level of support for Corbyn is not as deep seated as it might at first seem. Thus, those that are Momentum supporters are likely to be largely comprised of those that were registered Labour supporters (so potentially allowing a vote in the election to re-elect Corbyn but nothing more in terms of participating within Labour). Whilst it would be inappropriate to suggest that they are merely ‘armchair socialists’ or ‘clicktivists’, because they may well be involved in many actual, physical campaigns and activities, it is probably the case that they do not see the Labour Party as the beginning and end of their political activities. There are equal numbers of pros and cons to this perspective.
The second is that the Labour Party may not constitute the most inviting environment in which to play out their politics. Rules and regulations established by existing members and regimes condition the parameters of what can be done. It may be much easier to remain active within the forums and milieus in which they already are. All this means that the Corbynistas will be compelled to play the long game – not just in terms of the next election being in 2020 unless the numbers in parliament allow for the calling of a snap election by overturning the fixed term for parliaments, but also in terms of the gradually gaining supremacy within the Labour Party. This issue by far outshadows Dugdale’s promotion of a federal system, essentially further devolution including employment law, for post-Brexit Britain because it is not a confederal conception.
One final back to Brexit comment – the forthcoming general secretaryship election in the Unite union will hopefully kick start a much needed, productive debate on the free movement of labour within Europe because globalisation is often being confused with internationalism. Free movement has benefitted capital far more than labour so what is the alternative in order that the hand of labour can be strengthened?