Emma Goldman: Trotsky Protests Too Much (1938)

Emma Goldman

As we approach yet another anniversary, the Bolshevik dictatorship’s suppression of the revolt by the Krondstadt naval garrison in March 1921, I thought it was an opportune time to reprint excerpts from Emma Goldman’s classic rejoinder to Leon Trotsky’s shabby justifications for the Bolsheviks’ repressive actions. Written in 1938, “Trotsky Protests Too Much” is classic Goldman. She takes to task both Trotsky and one of his apologists, John G. Wright, for their ongoing attempts to defend Trotsky’s (and the Bolshevik regime’s) violent attack on the Krondstadt sailors, and their abject failure to acknowledge the role these actions played in paving the way for Stalin’s dictatorship. I included excerpts from Emma Goldman’s book on the Bolshevik counter-revolution, My Disillusionment in Russia, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Trotsky Protests Too Much

Leon Trotsky will have it that criticism of his part in the Kronstadt tragedy is only to aid and abet his mortal enemy, Stalin. It does not occur to him that one might detest the savage in the Kremlin and his cruel regime and yet not exonerate Leon Trotsky from the crime against the sailors of Kronstadt.

In point of truth I see no marked difference between the two protagonists of the benevolent system of the dictatorship except that Leon Trotsky is no longer in power to enforce its blessings, and Josef Stalin is. No, I hold no brief for the present ruler of Russia. I must, however, point out that Stalin did not come down as a gift from heaven to the hapless Russian people. He is merely continuing the Bolshevik traditions, even if in a more relentless manner.

The process of alienating the Russian masses from the Revolution had begun almost immediately after Lenin and his party had ascended to power. Crass discrimination in rations and housing, suppression of every political right, continued persecution and arrests, early became the order of the day. True, the purges undertaken at that time did not include party members, although Communists also helped to fill the prisons and concentration camps.

A case in point is the first Labour Opposition whose rank and file were quickly eliminated and their leaders, Shlapnikov sent to the Caucasus for “a rest,” and Alexandra Kollontai placed under house arrest. But all the other political opponents, among them Mensheviki, Social Revolutionists, Anarchists, many of the Liberal intelligentsia and workers as well as peasants, were given short shrift in the cellars of the Cheka, or exiled to slow death in distant parts of Russia and Siberia. In other words, Stalin has not originated the theory or methods that have crushed the Russian Revolution and have forged new chains for the Russian people.

I admit, the dictatorship under Stalin’s rule has become monstrous. That does not, however, lessen the guilt of Leon Trotsky as one of the actors in the revolutionary drama of which Kronstadt was one of the bloodiest scenes…

What a pity that the silence of the dead sometimes speaks louder than the living voice. In point of truth the voices strangled in Kronstadt have grown in volume these seventeen years. Is it for this reason, I wonder, that Leon Trotsky resents its sound?

Leon Trotsky quotes Marx as saying, “that it is impossible to judge either parties or people by what they say about themselves.” How pathetic that he does not realise how much this applies to him! No man among the able Bolshevik writers has managed to keep himself so much in the foreground or boasted so incessantly of his share in the Russian Revolution and after as Leon Trotsky. By this criterion of his great teacher, one would have to declare all Leon Trotsky’s writing to be worthless, which would be nonsense of course.

In discrediting the motives which conditioned the Kronstadt uprising, Leon Trotsky records the following: “From different fronts I sent dozens of telegrams about the mobilisation of new ’reliable’ detachments from among the Petersburg workers and Baltic fleet sailors, but already in 1918, and in any case not later than 1919, the fronts began to complain that a new contingent of ‘Kronstadters’ were unsatisfactory, exacting, undisciplined, unreliable in battle and doing more harm than good.” Further on, on the same page, Trotsky charges that, “when conditions became very critical in hungry Petrograd the Political Bureau more than once discussed the possibility of securing an ’internal loan’ from Kronstadt where a quantity of old provisions still remained, but the delegates of the Petrograd workers answered, ‘You will never get anything from them by kindness; they speculate in cloth, coal and bread. At present in Kronstadt every kind of riff-raff has raised its head.’” How very Bolshevik that is, not only to slay one’s opponents but also to besmirch their characters. From Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky to Stalin, this method has ever been the same.

Now, I do not presume to argue what the Kronstadt sailors were in 1918 or 1919. I did not reach Russia until January 1920. From that time on until Kronstadt was “liquidated” the sailors of the Baltic fleet were held up as the glorious example of valour and unflinching courage. Time on end I was told not only by Anarchists, Mensheviks and social revolutionists, but by many Communists, that the sailors were the very backbone of the Revolution. On the 1st of May, 1920, during the celebration and the other festivities organised for the first British Labour Mission, the Kronstadt sailors presented a large clear-cut contingent, and were then pointed out as among the great heroes who had saved the Revolution from Kerensky, and Petrograd from Yudenich. During the anniversary of October the sailors were again in the front ranks, and their re-enactment of the taking of the Winter Palace was wildly acclaimed by a packed mass.

Is it possible that the leading members of the party, save Leon Trotsky, were unaware of the corruption and the demoralisation of Kronstadt, claimed by him? I do not think so. Moreover, I doubt whether Trotsky himself held this view of the Kronstadt sailors until March, 1921. His story must, therefore, be an afterthought, or is it a rationalisation to justify the senseless “liquidation” of Kronstadt?

Granted that the personnel had undergone a change, it is yet a fact that the Kronstadters in 1921 were nevertheless far from the picture Leon Trotsky and his echo have painted. In point of actual fact, the sailors met their doom only because of their deep kinship and solidarity with the Petrograd workers whose power of endurance of cold and hunger had reached the breaking point in a series of strikes in February 1921. Why have Leon Trotsky and his followers failed to mention this? Leon Trotsky knows perfectly well… that the first scene of the Kronstadt drama was staged in Petrograd on 24th February, and played not by the sailors but by the strikers. For it was on this date that the strikers had given vent to their accumulated wrath over the callous indifference of the men who had prated about the dictatorship of the proletariat which had long ago deteriorated into the merciless dictatorship of the Communist Party.

Alexander Berkman’s entry in his diary of this historic day reads:

“The Trubotchny mill workers have gone on strike. In the distribution of winter clothing, they complain, the Communists received undue advantage over the non-partisans. The Government refuses to consider the grievances till the men return to work.

“Crowds of strikers gathered in the street near the mills, and soldiers were sent to disperse them. They were Kursanti, Communist youths of the military academy. There was no violence.

“Now the strikers have been joined by the men from the Admiralty shops and Calernaya docks. There is much resentment against the arrogant attitude of the Government. A street demonstration was attempted, but mounted troops suppressed it.”

It was after the report of their Committee of the real state of affairs among the workers in Petrograd that the Kronstadt sailors did in 1921 what they had done in 1917. They immediately made common cause with the workers. The part of the sailors in 1917 was hailed as the red pride and glory of the Revolution. Their identical part in 1921 was denounced to the whole world as counter-revolutionary treason. Naturally, in 1917 Kronstadt helped the Bolsheviks into the saddle. In 1921 they demanded a reckoning for the false hopes raised in the masses, and the great promise broken almost immediately the Bolsheviks had felt entrenched in their power. A heinous crime indeed. The important phase of this crime, however, is that Kronstadt did not “mutiny” out of a clear sky. The cause for it was deeply rooted in the suffering of the Russian workers; the city proletariat, as well as the peasantry.

To be sure, the former commissar assures us that “the peasants reconciled themselves to the requisition as a temporary evil,” and that “the peasants approved of the Bolsheviki, but became increasingly hostile to the ‘Communists’.” But these contentions are mere fiction, as can be demonstrated by numerous proofs – not the least of them the liquidation of the peasant soviet, headed by Maria Spiridonova, and iron and fire used to force the peasants to yield up all their produce, including their grain for their spring sowing.

In point of historic truth, the peasants hated the régime almost from the start, certainly from the moment when Lenin’s slogan, “Rob the robbers,” was turned into “Rob the peasants for the glory of the Communist Dictatorship.” That is why they were in constant ferment against the Bolshevik Dictatorship. A case in point was the uprising of the Karelian Peasants drowned in blood by the Tsarist General Slastchev-Krimsky. If the peasants were so enamoured with the Soviet regime, as Leon Trotsky would have us believe, why was it necessary to rush this terrible man to Karelia?

He had fought against the Revolution from its very beginning and had led some of the Wrangel forces in the Crimea. He was guilty of fiendish barbarities to war prisoners and infamous as a maker of pogroms. Now Slastchev-Krimsky recanted and he returned to “his Fatherland.” This arch-counter revolutionist and Jew-baiter, together with several Tsarist generals and White Guardists, was received by the Bolsheviki with military honours. No doubt it was just retribution that the anti-Semite had to salute the Jew, Trotsky, his military superior. But to the Revolution and the Russian people the triumphal return of the imperialist was an outrage.

As a reward for his newly-fledged love of the Socialist Fatherland, Slastchev-Krimsky was commissioned to quell the Karelian peasants who demanded self-determination and better conditions.

Leon Trotsky tells us that the Kronstadt sailors in 1919 would not have given up provisions by “kindness” – not that kindness had been tried at any time. In fact, this word does not exist in Bolshevik lingo. Yet here are these demoralised sailors, the riff-raff speculators, etc., siding with the city proletariat in 1921, and their first demand is for equalisation of rations. What villains these Kronstadters were, really!

Much is being made by both writers against Kronstadt of the fact that the sailors who, as we insist, did not premeditate the rebellion, but met on the 1st of March to discuss ways and means of aiding their Petrograd comrades, quickly formed themselves into a Provisional Revolutionary Committee. The answer to this is actually given by John G. Wright himself. He writes: “It is by no means excluded that the local authorities in Kronstadt bungled in their handling of the situation… . It is no secret that Kalinin and Commissar Kusmin, were none too highly esteemed by Lenin and his colleagues… . In so far as the local authorities were blind to the full extent of the danger or failed to take proper and effective measures to cope with the crisis, to that extent their blunders played a part in the unfolding events… .”

The statement that Lenin did not esteem Kalinin or Kusmin highly is unfortunately an old trick of Bolshevism to lay all blame on some bungler so that the heads may remain lily pure.

Indeed, the local authorities in Kronstadt did “bungle.” Kuzmin attacked the sailors viciously and threatened them with dire results. The sailors evidently knew what to expect from such threats. They could not but guess that if Kuzmin and Vassiliev were permitted to be at large their first step would be to remove arms and provisions from Kronstadt. This was the reason why the sailors formed their Provisional Revolutionary Committee. An additional factor, too, was the news that a committee of 30 sailors sent to Petrograd to confer with the workers had been denied the right to return to Kronstadt, that they had been arrested and placed in the Cheka.

Both writers make a mountain of a molehill of the rumours announced at the meeting of 1st March to the effect that a truckload of soldiers heavily armed were on their way to Kronstadt. Wright has evidently never lived under an air-tight dictatorship. I have. When every channel of human contact is closed, when every thought is thrown back on itself and expression stifled, then rumours rise like mushrooms from the ground and grow into terrifying dimensions. Besides, truckloads of soldiers and Chekists armed to their very teeth tearing along the streets in the day, throwing out their nets at night and dragging their human haul to the Cheka, was a frequent sight in Petrograd and Moscow during the time when I was there. In the tension of the meeting after Kuzmin’s threatening speech, it was perfectly natural for rumours to be given credence.

The news in the Paris Press about the Kronstadt uprising two weeks before it happened had been stressed in the campaign against the sailors as proof positive that they had been tools of the Imperialist gang and that rebellion had actually been hatched in Paris. It was too obvious that this yarn was used only to discredit the Kronstadters in the eyes of the workers.

In reality this advance news was like other news from Paris, Riga or Helsingfors, and which rarely, if ever, coincided with anything that had been claimed by the counter-revolutionary agents abroad. On the other hand, many events happened in Soviet Russia which would have gladdened the heart of the Entente and which they never got to know – events far more detrimental to the Russian Revolution caused by the dictatorship of the Communist Party itself. For instance, the Cheka which undermined many achievements of October and which already in 1921 had become a malignant growth on the body of the Revolution, and many other similar events which would take me too far afield to treat here.

No, the advance news in the Paris Press had no bearing whatever on the Kronstadt rebellion. In point of fact, no one in Petrograd in 1921 believed its connection, not even quite a number of Communists. As I have already stated, John G. Wright is merely an apt pupil of Leon Trotsky and therefore quite innocent of what most people within and outside of the party thought about this so-called “link.”

Future historians will no doubt appraise the Kronstadt “mutiny” in its real value. If and when they do, they will no doubt come to the conclusion that the uprising could not have come more opportunely if it had been deliberately planned.

The most dominant factor which decided the fate of Kronstadt was the N.E.P. (the New Economic Policy). Lenin, aware of the very considerable party opposition this new-fangled “revolutionary” scheme would meet, needed some impending menace to ensure the smooth and ready acceptance of the N.E.P. Kronstadt came along most conveniently. The whole crushing propaganda machine was immediately put into motion to prove that the sailors were in league with all the Imperialist powers, and all the counter-revolutionary elements to destroy the Communist State. That worked like magic. The N.E.P. was rushed through without a hitch.

Time alone will prove the frightful cost this manoeuvre has entailed. The three hundred delegates, the young Communist flower, rushed from the Party Congress to crush Kronstadt, were a mere handful of the thousands wantonly sacrificed. They went fervently believing the campaign of vilification. Those who remained alive had a rude awakening.

I have recorded a meeting with a wounded Communist in a hospital in My Disillusionment With Russia. It has lost nothing of its poignancy in the years since:

“Many of those wounded in the attack on Kronstadt had been brought to the same hospital, mostly Kursanti. I had an opportunity to speak to one of them. His physical suffering, he said, was nothing as compared with his mental agony. Too late he had realised that he had been duped by the cry of ‘counter-revolution.’ No Tsarist generals, no White Guardists in Kronstadt had led the sailors – he found only his own comrades, sailors, soldiers and workers, who had heroically fought for the Revolution.”

No one at all in his senses will see any similarity between the N.E.P. and the demand of the Kronstadt sailors for the right of free exchange of products. The N.E.P. came to reintroduce the grave evils the Russian Revolution had attempted to eradicate. The free exchange of products between the workers and the peasants, between the city and the country, embodied the very raison d’etre of the Revolution. Naturally “the Anarchists were against the N.E.P.” But free exchange, as Zinoviev had told me in 1920, “is out of our plan of centralisation.” Poor Zinoviev could not possibly imagine what a horrible ogre the centralisation of power would become.

It is the idée fixe of centralisation of the dictatorship which early began to divide the city and the village, the workers and the peasants, not, as Leon Trotsky will have it, because “the one is proletarian … . and the other petty bourgeois,” but because the dictatorship had paralysed the initiative of both the city proletariat and the peasantry.

Leon Trotsky makes it appear that the Petrograd workers quickly sensed “the petty bourgeois nature of the Kronstadt uprising and therefore refused to have anything to do with it.” He omits the most important reason for the seeming indifference of the workers of Petrograd. It is of importance, therefore, to point out that the campaign of slander, lies and calumny against the sailors began on the 2nd March, 1921. The Soviet Press fairly oozed poison against the sailors. The most despicable charges were hurled against them, and this was kept up until Kronstadt was liquidated on 17th March. In addition, Petrograd was put under martial law. Several factories were shut down and the workers thus robbed, began to hold counsel with each other. In the diary of Alexander Berkman, I find the following:

“Many arrests are taking place. Groups of strikers guarded by Chekists on the way to prison are a common sight. There is great nervous tension in the city. Elaborate precautions have been taken to protect the Government institution. Machine guns are placed on the Astoria, the living quarters of Zinoviev and other prominent Bolsheviki. Official proclamations commanding immediate return of the strikers to the factories … and warning the populace against congregating in the streets.

“The Committee of Defence has initiated a ‘clean-up of the city.’ Many workers suspected of sympathising with Kronstadt have been placed under arrest. All Petrograd sailors and part of the garrison thought to be ‘untrustworthy’ have been ordered to distant points, while the families of Kronstadt sailors living in Petrograd are held as hostages. The Committee of Defence notified Kronstadt that ‘the prisoners are kept as pledges’ for the safety of the Commissar of the Baltic Fleet, N. N. Kuzmin, the Chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet, T. Vassiliev, and other Communists. If the least harm is suffered by our comrades the hostages will pay with their lives.”

Under these iron-clad rules it was physically impossible for the workers of Petrograd to ally themselves with Kronstadt, especially as not one word of the manifestoes issued by the sailors in their paper was permitted to penetrate to the workers in Petrograd. In other words, Leon Trotsky deliberately falsifies the facts. The workers would certainly have sided with the sailors because they knew that they were not mutineers or counter-revolutionists, but that they had taken a stand with the workers as their comrades had done as long ago as 1905, and March and October, 1917. It is therefore a grossly criminal and conscious libel on the memory of the Kronstadt sailors.

In the New International on page 106, second column, Trotsky assures his readers that no one “we may say in passing, bothered in those days about the Anarchists.” That unfortunately does not tally with the incessant persecution of Anarchists which began in 1918, when Leon Trotsky liquidated the Anarchist headquarters in Moscow with machine guns. At that time the process of elimination of the Anarchists began. Even now so many years later, the concentration camps of the Soviet Government are full of the Anarchists who remained alive.

Actually before the Kronstadt uprising, in fact in October 1920, when Leon Trotsky again had changed his mind about Makhno, because he needed his help and his army to liquidate Wrangel, and when he consented to the Anarchist Conference in Kharkhov, several hundred Anarchists were drawn into a net and despatched to the Boutirka prison where they were kept without any charge until April 1921, when they, together with other Left politicals, were forcibly removed in the dead of night and secretly sent to various prisons and concentration camps in Russia and Siberia. But that is a page of Soviet history of its own. What is to the point in this instance is that the Anarchists must have been thought of very much, else there would have been no reason to arrest them and ship them in the old Tsarist way to distant parts of Russia and Siberia.

Leon Trotsky ridicules the demands of the sailors for Free Soviets. It was indeed naive of them to think that free Soviets can live side by side with a dictatorship. Actually the free Soviets had ceased to exist at an early stage in the Communist game, as the Trade Unions and the co-operatives. They had all been hitched to the chariot wheel of the Bolshevik State machine. I well remember Lenin telling me with great satisfaction, “Your Grand Old Man, Enrico Malatesta, is for our soviets.” I hastened to say, “You mean free soviets, Comrade Lenin. I, too, am for them.” Lenin turned our talk to something else. But I soon discovered why Free Soviets had ceased to exist in Russia.

John G. Wright will have it that there was no trouble in Petrograd until 22nd February. That is on par with his other rehash of the “historic” Party material. The unrest and dissatisfaction of the workers were already very marked when we arrived. In every industry I visited I found extreme dissatisfaction and resentment because the dictatorship of the proletariat had been turned into a devastating dictatorship of the Communist Party with its different rations and discriminations. If the discontent of the workers had not broken loose before 1921 it was only because they still clung tenaciously to the hope that when the fronts would be liquidated the promise of the Revolution would be fulfilled. It was Kronstadt which pricked the last bubble.

The sailors had dared to stand by the discontented workers. They had dared to demand that the promise of the Revolution – all Power in the Soviets – should be fulfilled. The political dictatorship had slain the dictatorship of the proletariat. That and that alone was their unforgivable offense against the holy spirit of Bolshevism.

In his article Wright has a footnote to page 49, second column, wherein he states that Victor Serge in a recent comment on Kronstadt “concedes that the Bolsheviki, once confronted with the mutiny had no other recourse except to crush it.” Victor Serge is now out of the hospitable shores of the workers’ “fatherland.” I therefore do not consider it a breach of faith when I say that if Victor Serge made this statement charged to him by John G. Wright, he is merely not telling the truth.

Victor Serge was one of the French Communist Section who was as much distressed and horrified over the impending butchery decided upon by Leon Trotsky to “shoot the sailors as pheasants” as Alexander Berkman, myself and many other revolutionists. He used to spend every free hour in our room running up and down, tearing his hair, clenching his fists in indignation and repeating that “something must be done, something must be done, to stop the frightful massacre.” When he was asked why he, as a party member, did not raise his voice in protest in the party session, his reply was that that would not help the sailors and would mark him for the Cheka and even silent disappearance.

The only excuse for Victor Serge at the time was a young wife and a small baby. But for him to state now, after seventeen years, that “the Bolsheviki once confronted with the mutiny had no other recourse except to crush it,” is, to say the least, inexcusable. Victor Serge knows as well as I do that there was no mutiny in Kronstadt, that the sailors actually did not use their arms in any shape or form until the bombardment of Kronstadt began. He also knows that neither the arrested Communist Commissars nor any other Communists were touched by the sailors. I therefore call upon Victor Serge to come out with the truth. That he was able to continue in Russia under the comradely régime of Lenin, Trotsky and all the other unfortunates who have been recently murdered, conscious of all the horrors that are going on, is his affair, but I cannot keep silent in the face of the charge against him as saying that the Bolsheviki were justified in crushing the sailors.

Leon Trotsky is sarcastic about the accusation that he had shot 1,500 sailors. No, he did not do the bloody job himself. He entrusted [Mikhail] Tukhachevsky, his lieutenant, to shoot the sailors “like pheasants” as he had threatened. Tukhachevsky carried out the order to the last degree. The numbers ran into legions, and those who remained after the ceaseless attack of Bolshevisk artillery, were placed under the care of [Pavel] Dybenko, famous for his humanity and his justice.

Tukhachevsky and Dybenko, the heroes and saviours of the dictatorship! History seems to have its own way of meting out justice.*

Emma Goldman, 1938

*An ironic comment from Emma Goldman regarding the executions of Tukhachevsky and Dybenko as traitors and counter-revolutionaries by the Stalin regime in 1937-1938. Tukhachevsky was the first of them to be arrested and executed in 1937. In a further irony, Dybenko had before his arrest and execution not only participated in the purges but had been involved in the arrest and trial of Tukhachesky, his former “comrade in arms” in the brutal suppression of the Krondstadt revolt. Needless to say, Goldman’s reference to Dybenko’s reputation for humanity and justice was completely facetious.

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Anarchism: Another Way for South Africa (Lucien van der Walt)

South Africa munic

Below I reproduce excerpts from Lucien van der Walt’s discussion at the  1st National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) Political School, September 2013, “Anarcho-Syndicalism for South African unions today?” Lucien van der Walt is co-author with Michael Schmidt of Black Flame: The revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism (2009, AK Press) and co-editor of Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940 (w. Steve Hirsch and Benedict Anderson, 2010, Brill). The entire transcript can be found hereNUMSA is the largest trade union in South Africa. An affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), NUMSA has been a radical opponent of the policies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to which both COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) are formally allied. The CNT referred to in the discussion is the anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation that played a prominent role in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. The FAI was the Iberian Anarchist Federation, also very active during the Spanish Revolution. I included excerpts from Black Flame in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

The problem with our Alliance politics

lucien van der walt

Lucien van der Walt

At the end of the day, if you are talking about what the political role of the trade union should be, the first thing you have got to start is knowing WHAT YOU WANT TO ACHIEVEAnd to know what you want to achieve you have to know WHAT’S WRONG IN A SOCIETY.

And if we look, and I think comrades have made it quite clear, South Africa is a society with a wide range of problems. And it isn’t what we expected 19 years later after the 1994 elections and breakthrough.

In 1994, when the union-backed reform programme, the RDP, that is, the Reconstruction and Development Programme, came out a lot of people were debating, saying that “This thing is not very radical.” Now, things have shifted so far, with neo-liberalism and privatization and so on, that at this stage, if you brought out the RDP people would think it was the Second Coming. It would be highly radical compared to what we have got now, even though it is not very radical in essence.

The question then, is how do we fix those problems? The problems we face as a country and as a class? You know, the first time you make a mistake, it’s a shame but you can blame someone else. The second time you make a mistake, you’ve got no one else to blame for the mistake but yourself. And we must learn from the mistakes we make.

I think it’s important to re-assess some of the political strategies that have been taken by the big battalions of the working class movement. And to think of what other options are available…

I think we need to have an open discussion about what are the possibilities for trade unions, and to do so with a wide range of experiences in mind. What are the different things that unions can do?

Those things require us to start thinking “out of the box,” to start to question the model that we’ve got today in the big unions, the model that holds the trade union is like a single person that must get married, and married to a political party…

CNT-1mayo2010

The need for revolutionary unions

You chose to marry, and marry badly. And in this particular juncture, which the marriage with the ANC perpetuates, it’s not possible to make the deep-seated changes we need. Because the billions of rands needed for rolling out decent basic services everywhere are tied up with somebody rich and powerful, maybe white, maybe black, maybe politician, maybe businessman.

The decisions that are made are not made by working class people; those decisions are made by the rich and powerful. That is why you can see 36 billion rands spent on 2010 World Cup events here, and three years later, millions of people still have a bucket system for toilets. And the ANC and the state is a central pillar of this vicious system.

We need a fundamental change in how society is run. And to get that, I think, we need to re-evaluate what the unions can do to achieve this. And to see what the unions have got right and what the unions have got wrong. Well, you’re married to a big part of the problem. Now you need a permanent break, not marriage counselling…

When we work from the assumption that the union must always be led by a party, like a Marxist vanguard party, I think we work from the wrong assumption.

You can have unions that are more revolutionary than a party, and you can have parties that are not very revolutionary…

And just because you call yourself “revolutionary” does not make you revolutionary…

It is the objective actions that you undertake, including your political programme, that make you revolutionary…

I don’t think that in South African history you will struggle to find unions that were reactionary. But you won’t struggle either to find revolutionary actions and leadership by unions.

Which is why I said this morning that if you are looking for a way forward where are you looking? Look within. STOP LOOKING TO THE POLITICAL PARTIES AND TO THE ELECTIONS…

More revolutionary than the parties

I think you need to get out of the mind-set that unions must be allied to a political party, and that this means the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC and SA Communist Party. An Alliance that is often presented as natural and as the only way to go, but that, as Eddie Maloko was saying… is really very recent…

If we want to go back in union history further, you will struggle to find any such three-part Alliance. You will not struggle, though, to find radical unions that were not allied to the ANC, or even the SA Communist Party , but that were very revolutionary.

We might want to look at the ICU in the 1920s and the 1930s, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa, this was radical, even influenced by anarcho-syndicalism, and it wasn’t allied to political parties. The ICU unions planned to undertake land occupations. These were unions that mobilized tens of thousands of people in the countryside. These were trade unions that were seen (and you can look at the parliamentary debates from the times for this), they were seen as the threat.

As a revolutionary threat.

No one was worried about the ANC then; the ANC was a few hundred people. Late 1920s, the ICU goes to the ANC and says will you join a general strike? And the ANC says: “No thanks.”

And now we sit here in 2013, 90 years later, and you say to the ANC will you do some serious redistribution of wealth and power? And they still say: “No thanks.”

So there is a consistent record where unions and other mass working class movements have shown that ability to raise, and fight around, radical issues. And a consistency in the inability of the ANC to undertake a range of serious measures essential to the working class.

Now my very last point on this is: when we look at a disease we have to know what is causing a disease, so that we can work at what the cure is. There is something in the political system of elections that means when trade unions back parties, the parties turn against them. ALWAYS…

Workers Self Management no bosses

Working class democracy

And eventually you end up happy just because you have the… ANC and its leader in charge. Never mind the policy. Not because of any achievements. You are just happy when you are consulted about the policy that you don’t like, although the policy will go ahead, and your consultation means nothing really. Your standards keep dropping down on these things.

And that sort of sense of hope, in 1993 and 1994 where the people said the RDP was too lame, well, we now have a situation where the people think the RDP is the salvation. That’s what our COSATU policy proposals amount to anyway: just a revived RDP. That’s how far our standards have dropped. Socialism isn’t even on the agenda. No, we push for an RDP Mark 2, and we call this the Growth Path for Full Employment and think this is radical.

And in terms of method, we talk about land reform, and workers’ control, and decent work and job creation, and we look to the ruling party and the SA Communist Party and to the state, in which both the ANC and the SA Communist Party are so central.

But there’s no reason to think you are going to get any of this through this government, or any other. And not through the policy COSATU proposes.

Why don’t you just take some direct action and mass campaigns for these goals?

You are not going to get this stuff through this government. It’s a capitalist government, it’s a capitalist state. Like any state, every state, it serves a small political and economic elite.

It’s not going to do what you want, it CAN’T do that. You can put the best people in charge, they CAN’T do it. It just can’t be done.

I spoke about a car this morning. A car can’t fly. A car can’t fly, a dog can’t go “meow” and a cat can’t go “woof.”

FLOOR: Laughter…

The need for counterpower

The problem, and I think the burden of the working class, and the tragedy of the working class over the last 160 years, is that so many times IT HAS HAD POWER, OR ALMOST HAD POWER, AND IT HAS HANDED IT OVERSo many times working class people have built the mass structures that could govern society. Sometimes they have even started to govern society with this counterpower.

But the tragedy and the burden of our history as a class is that so many times we have stopped, and handed power over to leaders and to elites. And it seems every time we get there we say “oh no, hang on a minute, we need someone to tell us what to do.” Power is handed over to economic and political elites, that is, to ruling classes, which then make their own deals and line their own pockets. Here’s the cause of the illness.

We can look at our own country, our South Africa, in the 1990s. We moved from a situation in the 1980s and early 1990s where in many townships there was a large degree of community self-government through civics, and a big push for workers having a say in production through our powerful trade unions, and we moved to the CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa, 1991-1993) deal that we now complain about.

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Steps needed for a class-based solution of the National Question

Now I think that the CODESA deal that we got in 1993-1994 was a democratic break through. It was a HUGE ADVANCEa victory, and brought about real changes in the political and social situation, and important steps towards the resolution of the National Question [racial and ethnic divisions and oppression, in the South African case with a long history including apartheid].

But saying it’s a breakthrough: that’s not the same thing as saying it’s a social revolution, even if we use the terms the SA Communist Party likes, like “National Democratic Revolution,” or “NDR.” Rather, 1993/1994 helped create SPACE for a social revolution. It involved, on the one hand, major political and social reforms, but it also, on the other, involved an elite pact between the black political elite and the captains of white monopoly capital. It’s a political revolution, not a SOCIAL revolution.

A social revolution is when ordinary people take direct control in society. And we don’t have that. We have more rights, but in a highly unequal society, where the National Question is not resolved for the black, Coloured and Indian working class – although the BLACK ELITE has, on the other hand, been completely liberated.

The 1993/1994 breakthrough was real, but it was also by its nature confined to the framework of class society, with the elite becoming blacker, but the masses staying exploited and impoverished despite having more rights.

Unless we change this basic system, the National Question will never be resolved for the working class, since the material legacy of apartheid will remain, and so will the basic system of exploitation and competition… both breeding grounds for race and national conflict and populist demagogy.

Now, when we speak about NDR, you get some comrades talking about nationalization as a radical step for a radical NDR. But if we just think in terms of nationalization, we are missing a very basic thing. We talk about nationalization as a simple solution. But it only means the state is going to operate exactly the same way as the private capitalists. We talk too often about “white monopoly capital” as the core controller of the economy and therefore as the main strategic enemy. It is a strategic enemy but NOT the only one.

But ruling class power is not just in the economy, it also vested in the state. And economic power is not just in the private sector; it is also vested in the state. Yes, in the ANC-run state apparatus.

Comrades need to realize that the state is the single biggest employer in South Africa. That’s the state apparatus. The biggest land owner in South Africa is the state apparatus. The state extracts surplus value from its own workers, in its corporations like in ESKOM, in TRANSNET, in SAA, in the SABC; it has over 40% of capital assets and over 25% of land, and operates on the same logic of top-down elite rule as any corporation, as any private “monopoly capital.”

So if you want to talk about and secure a situation that puts power into the hands of ordinary working class people, it doesn’t do to move power from private monopoly capital to state monopoly capital, to replace private capitalism with state capitalism, and to do this in the name of revolution, to call something like this a “revolution.” YOU’RE JUST CHANGING THE BOSSES.

And it ALSO doesn’t do to take power from your own mass movements and then hand it over to a political party. To give that party a blank cheque and then see it visit you for votes every five years. When every five years it will come to you and ask for your help, and gives you the reasons you should help it. And then for five years more you complain all over again, until it rebrands itself, it claims it fixes up the problems. That goes nowhere.

So yes, if you want a revolution, you need a revolutionary theory.

But in thinking about this, what comrades need to do is think seriously, not think sentimentally. Don’t think sentimentally, don’t base your judgement on emotions and the past. Nothing we say or do can take away some great things that the SA Communist Party has done in the past. We can think here, for example of its work in the unions in the 1940s and 1950s, and its armed struggle. Also the ANC, before 1994, did many great things.

But that’s NOT the same thing as saying that they are always right, that they have all the answers, and that we are in a perfect situation where you can never criticize any of those structures…

Revolutionary unions anmovements, not party politics

In the 1980s the anti-apartheid struggle wasn’t fought by parties… it was fought by mass movements. There was the United Democratic Front which brought together churches, community organizations, youth organizations, unemployed movements and various political organizations. It wasn’t led by a party, even though it leaned one way. It worked alongside trade unions, like FOSATU and then later COSATU.

This was political action; this was political in profound ways. But the UDF was not the one who negotiated in the 1990s, that was the ANC, and this people’s power and this type of politics was lost.

The ANC leadership came later, from exile in the 1990s when the job of struggle was done, and said “Well, we led the struggle. Well, we have the right to make decisions.” They then closed down the UDF and they made an elite pact, they made a pact with white monopoly capital, at the same time as the important 1994 democratic breakthrough was happening.

We can talk all we like about “primary” and “secondary” enemies. But the current and ANC-headed state apparatus is ALLIED to white monopoly capital. But it’s not just a tool; it’s not just a victim. It’s an active participant. It is an ACTOR in that situation, a strategic enemy in its own right, from the view of the anarcho-syndicalists at least.

The ruling class in South Africa has got two wings: it’s got white monopoly capital based in the private sector, and it’s got the black state elite, that is the state managers who are based in the state: they are wielding the state. The state controls 45 percent of fixed capital assets in South Africa. It is a major economic player: the state is the biggest employer in South Africa, it’s the biggest land owner, and it has an army as well.

Who controls that? It’s NOT white monopoly capital, in some sort of surreptitious way. IT’S THE BLACK POLITICAL ELITEWhite monopoly capital is working in ALLIANCE with this state elite because they have the same interests. But it’s not just giving the orders.

What I am saying is: it’s not like we have the situation where we have some sell-outs in the government who (if we change) will fight white monopoly capital. What we have is a situation where the black political elite allied to the white economic elite around a common programme of neo-liberalism, and they are therefore united against the whole working class, including the black working class majority. And the ANC is embedded in this elite pact.

It’s not a situation of a few bad apples; it’s a situation of a tree that bears bad fruit. And you can give that tree fertilizer, like by voting, it just gets bigger…

And when the apples (the politicians) from that tree (the state) are picked, they can’t understand why people go out and complain about how they taste. They think there must be something wrong with the consumers. And I mean here the working class public. They can’t see what’s rotten. If I give you a rotten apple and the apple complains, who is to blame?

If I give you a rotten apple do we expect the apple to say “Hey ,why does this guy not like me, what’s wrong with him? Is he a counterrevolutionary?” No, no, no.

There is something wrong in that situation…

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Taking the state seriouslyOutside and against it

[Anarcho-syndicalism] takes the state very seriously. It doesn’t see the state as a “thing” out there, where you can just elect a few people and they will just change the system.

Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism says that it is not the politicians who change the state. RATHER, IT IS THE STATE THAT CHANGES THE POLITICIANSIt is not the politicians who change the state; it is the state that changes the politicians.

Who would have thought in 1990 that Nelson Mandela would be the president when the ANC and the country’s state adopted the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR) in 1996? Who could have even imagined that?

We have to explain that scientifically. Marxist comrades keep talking about “material conditions.” But the NDR strategy ends up with idealist approaches.

Well look, you put someone in charge of the state, a capitalist state, they have to keep capitalism going. Those are “material conditions.” And they are not doing it for free either. Cyril Ramaphosa was a heroic leader of workers in the 1987 miners’ strike, and now where is he? He is a billionaire who owns mining shares, including at Lonmin, where the Marikana massacre took place a year ago. And evidence shows he called on police to “deal” with those Marikana workers. A changed man!

You don’t change the system by changing a few people; you change the situation by putting in another system.

States cannot be wielded by the working class.

You don’t just keep changing the ingredients in a soup and think it’s not soup. You’ve got to cook to a totally different recipe. As I was saying this morning, comrades, if a car doesn’t fly, a car does not fly. You can paint it purple and it still wouldn’t fly. You can call it the new model, it won’t fly. The state, and this is the thing to think about from the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, is something which cannot be wielded by the working class. It CANNOT be wielded by the working class.

Either you elect a reformist party, and that party ends up, over time, being co-opted into the ruling class, like the ANC, or a revolutionary party, like the Russian Bolsheviks, seizes state power.

But such a revolutionary party doesn’t just seize power from capital; it also seizes power FROM THE WORKING CLASSAnd you can find… that your socialist party can, in fact, be the biggest enemy of the working class that you can get.

When you look at the situation of the Soviet Union, the heartland of Marxism-Leninism, comrades call that “socialism,” people call that “socialism.”

Well, comrades, that was a country with mass murder perpetrated by a Communist Party. That was a country with forced labour camps, with a pass law system and with no free trade unions. Why do you think the working class overthrew that system from 1989-1991? Why do you think a Communist Party can’t get elected these days anywhere in Eastern Europe? Because people have had a Communist Party in power. They’re fine, they’re covered, they’re DONE with such parties…

The Soviet Union against the workers

Now where, where is this “vanguard” there? Where is the proof that you can only take power through a Marxist vanguard party?

No, the proof is something else entirely.

It’s not that if you’ve got a vanguard, the working class is guaranteed power. Very often the vanguard takes the power from the working class. Again, the parties are NOT the solution.

We can talk about the Soviet Union, and we can talk about the working class, as if the Soviet Union represented as state for and by the working class… But what stops the “vanguard” party taking power from the working class? What stops the party taking power from the working class?

In the Soviet Union: this is exactly what happened. A Marxist party took power. It banned all the other parties. It crushed independent trade unions. A party of less than 1 million people in a country of 160 million established itself as the sole dictator. Within that party itself, even factions were banned.

You want to know where this tradition of destructive argument – where everyone is labelled an “agent” or a “counterrevolutionary” or a “traitor” for saying what the leaders don’t like, that we see today in the ANC, COSATU and the SA Communist Party – comes from? It comes straight from those Soviet experiences.

These traditions of political thuggery we see?

It comes from those experiences. This was the first of the Marxist governments, and it treated anyone with a different view as an enemy of the “revolution.” And the “revolution” was defined not by the mass of the people, but by a small cabal of leaders who said “we are the revolution, and if you are against us, you are counterrevolution.” Those are the traditions that we are stuck with, and struggling with…

This is not to say that Communist Parties worldwide didn’t play heroic roles. Communist Parties often did play heroic roles. It’s not to say that people in Communist Parties were doing it with a hidden motive. It’s just to say that certain methods of changing society create new problems. If your method of changing society is to seize state power, you will end up with rule by an elite, maybe a new elite, but an elite.

And if your method of thinking is “we are the vanguard, everybody else is a counterrevolutionary,” you will end up with a dictatorship against everybody else if you ever get state power.

And if your method of politics is like that even in your own organizations, so that factions are illegal or driven out, you will be an organization that doesn’t tolerate any debate. That doesn’t tolerate democracy. An organization that cannot be compatible with working-class democracy, because it does not tolerate ANY democracy. Again, the parties are NOT the solution.

So what I am really getting at with all of this is: we can’t just look at these things outside history and talk as if Marxism and Leninism came up with this perfect model, and a perfect set of solutions, as if there weren’t a third of the world run by Marxist-Leninist parties. Marxist-Leninist parties took power…

It wasn’t the working class that took power. You can go to China now, it’s under Communist Party rule: go ask those workers if they have trade unions. Go ask them. They don’t.

So, now, I agree that you need to deal with the fact of political unevenness in the working class, and need to overcome the fractures in the class. But a vanguard Communist Party; it’s not the only way to solve these issues, or even the best way. Of course Communist Parties can play an important role; radical political organizations can play an important role, and they don’t even have to be political parties: in the CNT, anarchists organized a Bakuninist political organization, the Anarchist Federation of Iberia (FAI), to promote anarchism/syndicalism.

But so can unions. So can unions. I don’t see any reason why a union like NUMSA can’t go out and form alliances with other sections of the working class. Can’t be present in service delivery protests. I don’t see why not. I don’t see why NUMSA can’t run political education for non-NUMSA members. I don’t see why not. I don’t see why a renewed COSATU that takes a new approach can’t provide the foundation, can’t provide a pole of attraction, for a new oppositional anti-capitalist, democratic bottom-up socialist movement.

And what I am getting at is, with this we need to rethink how we pose these things. The parties are NOT the solution, but part of the problem the working class faces.

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Confusions on the state

Meanwhile, our SA Communist Party comrades are getting confused. They talk as if the state is a neutral entity which is only SOMETIMES against the working class. And then they also talk about Marxism and Leninism but that says something totally different, that the capitalist state, is anti-working class; that is what Lenin himself said. And then they try to put these two contradictory political things together: being in an alliance with a capitalist ANC which uses the capitalist state, and then also calling themselves Marxist-Leninists.

They want to have the cake and eat the cake at the same time. If you agree with Marxism-Leninism, this is a capitalist state and no amount of changing the people at the top will make any difference. But then you get told: “No, vote for the ANC, that’s the way.” This makes no sense.

But the problem is even bigger; it’s a problem in Marxist theory itself. Marxist materialism says the economic “base” determines the political “superstructure.” Marxist materialism says the “superstructure” includes the state. But then Marxism often says something illogical: use the state to change society. The revolutionary strategy boils down to setting up a so-called “workers’ state,” a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” to change the base, a state to abolish capitalism. This is no different in essence from trying to use a capitalist state to change society; in both cases, the idea is that the state is the motor of change.

Now isn’t it illogical in Marx’s own terms to say we can capture the state and change the “base”? If the “base” determines the “superstructure” and it is a capitalist base, you cannot change that base using the state. That’s a really idealistic approach; the anarchist Bakunin was not an idealist like this. He saw this contradiction. So, you certainly can’t use a capitalist state to bring about socialism if you accept the theoretical basics of Marxism itself. But that’s what Marxist political strategy demands! And that’s what the whole NDR idea involves too.

A more sensible approach may be this: if you study anarcho-syndicalism, it’s argued that the state is allied to capital and it can’t break that alliance. It is an unbreakable marriage. They have a common interest. The state needs the capitalist to pay taxes; the capitalists need the state to shoot people, crudely speaking.

Okay, now, if this is the case how do you move forward? And this is where I am going to start pulling this input together.

A strategy for a bottom-up anarcho-syndicalist socialist transition

The working class needs a theory and it needs to translate that into a strategy for DEEP CHANGE.

You need a strategy and you need tactics… Well, to have a strategy you have got to have a vision where you want to go. To have a vision of where you want to go, you have to know what is wrong in society. And you have to look at specific societies closely.

Fundamentally what anarcho-syndicalism argues is that what is wrong with society is that a small elite runs society. But it’s not just an economic elite, it is also a POLITICAL elite. So as long as an elite runs society it will run society by the elite, for the elite and the state leadership will be of the elite.

And this is part of a whole society, based on exploitation and domination, on top-down power relations, in inequality, inequity, exploitation and suffering, a society where the National Question cannot be fully answered…

The anarchists insisted that all relations of oppression, by gender, by race, by class, by nation, come to an end. That includes the oppression meted out by the capitalists and politicians against the working class. But it also means resolving the National Question in a progressive, working-class way, and it also means fighting for complete gender equality, including in our own movements, and aiming at getting rid of all elites, black or white…

For the anarchists, the only way out of this endless circle of “vote for that party, vote for this party, vote for that party and never get anywhere” is if you actually remove that system.

Where you can create a democracy that is bottom-up, based on workers’ collectives, the socialization of production, that is based on an educated population that understands its rights and understands how to run things, that is based on human need before profit, that gets rid of the commodity form entirely, that gets rid of the market but also does not replace it with a central plan and a central dictatorship, but with bottom-up plans…

Well, there is nothing idealistic here, we are talking about a working class democracy, about a free socialist society, the aim and vision of anarcho-syndicalists. Now, if you want that world you have to build a type of movement that does two things. An anarchist/syndicalist movement, first that builds COUNTER POWER in the working class, that builds institutions in the working class that can govern society.

Not institutions that hand power over to politicians, but working class institutions that will THEMSELVES take power – first and foremost revolutionary trade unions. But also organizations in other sectors, including working-class communities.

Organizations that are the EMBRYO of the new society, organizations that BUILD TOMORROW TODAYwithin the shell of the old society. Organizations that resist ruling class power now, with working class counterpower, that build to eventually themselves directly REPLACE ruling class power with working class power.

So: counter power. A CNT- or NUMSA-type union is key here.

Secondly, you need a REVOLUTIONARY COUNTERCULTURE which is a radical mass consciousness. It’s a mass consciousness that understands what is wrong in society and how to fix it.

A consciousness that tells people we are in a class-divided society. You can vote for Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance, you can vote for Jacob Zuma of the ANC. But those are just different wings of the same upper class. That the solution isn’t that empty choice, it is to build something else, new.

A position that says society needs to be based on grassroots democracy, on a democratically planned participatory economy, based on distribution according to need, based on common property, and without a state elite and without a business elite.

And to get that society, to reiterate, for anarchists, for anarcho-syndicalists, for Bakuninists, you need to build counter power: the organizational forms that prefigure the new society. Those are the seeds of the new society.

And the ideological forms that need to become hegemonic within the working class: those are the ideological forms of the new world in the making, that is revolutionary counter-culture.

The aim is not the rule of a political party that is supposedly revolutionary, but a revolutionary WORKING CLASSwith revolutionary ideas promoted by FAI-type and CNT-type structures, that the working class can directly implement, through its organizations.

Now the TACTICS to build such a project are a separate matter. I have laid out a strategy, I have laid out an aim and I have laid out an analysis. The tactics, what you would need to do in a given situation – that is not a simple thing of just sucking it out of your thumb. You would need to think very concretely how you would build such a project. You would need to think about how you lay the basis for a CNT and FAI in South Africa…

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