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October Revolution rally: speech by Joti Brar (CPGB-ML)

Transcribed from the rally held in Southall, London on 8 November 2008 to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the October Revolution. The video of this speech can be found at the CPGB-ML YouTube page.

I’m going to talk a little bit more from the perspective of someone of my generation: what does October mean to me, and why do I think it should matter to other people like me?

You know, I’m a pretty normal(ish) middle-class, mother of one – perfectly good job, got a house, got a family – so why is it, living in the imperialist heartlands, that I should give a monkeys about the socialist revolution, and about standing here today to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the October Revolution, something that happened thousands of miles away, 90 years ago to people very far removed from the kind of life that I’m living? [From the floor: I quite agree with you!] (Someone agrees: why do I?!)

Now, I grew up at a time of rampant anticommunism; I grew up in Thatcher’s heartlands, one of ‘Thatcher’s children’, as our generation were called. We were taught to be selfish, we were taught to believe that it’s the law of the jungle, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and that capitalism really is the ultimate expression of ‘human nature’, and that by being selfish, by thinking only of yourselves, by just fighting for you – and maybe your offspring – you are just reflecting reality, and that if society teaches you to be that way, it’s because that’s how people are.

Bourgeois ideology was truly in the ascendant when I was growing up, and there was no-one really countering this barrage of propaganda.

We had English literature lessons where we read Animal Farm and learned to repeat that Stalin was a crazy, murdering, stupid butcher and Trotsky was the true leader of the revolution. We had history lessons where we learned that Trotsky led the Red Army to victory and Stalin somehow hoodwinked and then later personally bullied the Soviet people into following him.

What was the aim of all of this? The aim was to teach us that revolution is pointless; that, no matter what your intentions, if you try to change society, it will go wrong; and to negate the real building of socialism in the Soviet Union by slandering the leader of that building. By slandering Stalin, by telling you that Stalin was an evil murderer, they basically say that everything that was achieved in the Soviet Union wasn’t achieved; it didn’t happen; it wasn’t true.

We were taught all sorts of stupid truisms that we just learned to repeat. These things become axioms because people say them often enough: ‘power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’. They’re the kind of things people say to you and they think they’ve clinched the argument; they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, but they’ve learned to say them over and over again, and whenever you talk about socialism to people, they come out with the same things: ‘It’s a nice idea in theory, it could never work in practice’; ‘It’s never been done, has it?’

And people can say ‘It’s never been done, socialism’s never been built’ because we’ve been taught all these lies about the Soviet Union and about Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet Union.

Anti-Soviet slanders are in every field of life. I did a music degree and it’s amazing how it creeps in. You wouldn’t think you could go and study music at university and several times a week get some kind of anticommunist slander, but we did.

The great music of Stravinsky and Shostakovich was produced at the barrel of Stalin’s gun! [Laughter] Somehow or other, they made great music – it would have been much better if Stalin hadn’t been there, obviously; if they’d managed to escape to the West, which was obviously what really wanted to do, everything would have been much better for them!

The fabulous child care and maternity provision provided by the Soviet Union? The children were treated like automatons! Their mothers were forced to work! The profession care was impersonal and uncaring!

All the artists, musicians, dancers, gymnasts, athletes that were produced in such amazing quality by the Soviet Union? They were coerced! They were overtrained! It’s not really human to be so good at things … [Laughter]

The victory of the Red Army over fascism? The soldiers were starving! They were forced to fight! Their best commanders had all been shot by Stalin, probably personally! [Laughter]

And to cap all of this hostility from the official sources – from the press, from the school curriculum, from the media – we grew up with a left-wing movement that was pretty much saying the same thing – denouncing and disowning Stalin and all the achievements of socialism.

People in the trade unions, people in the Labour party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Communist Party – these were the people who you came up against, who told you they were socialists; that they believed in the working class – they all agreed. When I was growing up, whichever one of these shades of ‘left’ you cared to talk to, they would all tell you: Stalin was a mass murderer, probably Mao was too, and Kim Il Sung the same; socialism has never been put into practice anywhere; Marx wouldn’t have approved of Lenin’s revolution; Lenin wouldn’t have approved of Stalin’s building of socialism.

So essentially, every step of the way, our generation – and probably several before and several after – have been demoralised; they’ve been cut off from their own heritage; cut off from the knowledge that another world is possible and that they’re capable of building it. [Applause]

They’ve been cut off from the science of revolution and from the ideology that offers them hope for a future free from war, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, degradation and disease.

Such has been the success of this sustained propaganda campaign, that even the few socialists that did defend the Soviet Union when I was young didn’t do a very good job of it. We’ve been taught to feel so culturally alienated [from the Soviet Union] that it’s hard to bring it to life; it’s hard to believe it’s really as good as we wanted to say it was.

The repeated assertions that I talked about earlier create an atmosphere of overwhelming associations about what life in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was like: inhospitable, joyless, we think of gulags in Siberia, everything was grey, everybody was a bit of an automaton, there was no choice, there was no inspiration, there was no magic to life.

Stalin’s name is a swear word; you can’t use it, it’s synonymous with fear and loss of liberty, with the evil KGB, and with a Big Brother culture, so that even those who’d understood in theory that yes, socialism is a good thing, and think that probably what happened in the Soviet Union might have been alright, they couldn’t find the enthusiasm, they couldn’t overcome this barrage of propaganda that had been instilled into them – all this prejudice – to find out for themselves, and to actually stand up proudly and say ‘You know what? This is nonsense! This is not the truth about socialism; this is not the truth about the Soviet Union.’

But we do need to understand the significance of the Soviet Union. We need to read works of literature produced in the Soviet Union. They bring to life life under socialism like nothing else can. And we should read books about the years when socialism was being constructed in the Soviet Union. Novels like How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky, The Zhurbins, Ivan Ivanovich, or books like Soviet Democracy or The Stalin Era; books that describe the life of ordinary people at a time when the Soviet Union was going from strength to strength.

From the time of the revolution up until the time of Stalin’s death, if you read these works of literature, if you read the works of eye witnesses, [you find out that] the Soviet Union was the most incredible place to live, and the Soviet novels illustrate really beautifully how socialism can unlock the tremendous creative powers of working people, imbue them with a spirit of enthusiasm for their work and with a feeling that they really can achieve anything that they put their minds to.

We need to disseminate these works and ideas; there’s a much bigger audience for them than you might think, especially now.

At this moment now, the crisis of capitalism is really providing the best opportunity that I’ve seen in my lifetime to talk to people. Suddenly all sorts of people who wouldn’t have been able to get past the word ‘socialism’ and hear anything else that came out of your mouth – today you can talk to them about child care in the DPRK; you can talk to them about the building of socialism in the Soviet Union and they’ll listen to you; they want to hear; they’re interested in answers now.

For a long time, people here haven’t had such bad lives, and when things were getting worse for them, they believed what they were told. Comrade Brar referred to it earlier – when Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher turned around and said, ‘Well, you know, of course, we’d like to provide you with a perfect education system, perfect health care, but these systems are under strain, we just don’t have enough resources to go around; we can’t just be giving things out willy nilly; we can’t just provide houses to everybody – where will the money come from?’

Where will the money come from? That’s what we’re always told. And it’s an unanswerable question. Where will the money come from? Oh, well, ok, fair enough, there’s not enough money, so that’s just the way things are, right? And people have swallowed that.

But it’s very hard to swallow that when suddenly £500bn is found for the banks – out of nowhere, apparently! [Applause] And I think that’s been the most incredible wake-up call for everybody. While they see that their pensions, their health care, their education are all under threat, that they cannot rely on their pay packet being there next month, that they cannot rely on their house being there next year, but that actually money can be found for the things that matter to the ruling class – and suddenly you see what are the things that matter to the ruling class and what aren’t.

My generation was taught to be nihilistic and cynical, and yet, however much we’re told that that’s the normal way to be, we fight it! If human nature is to be selfish and greedy, why doesn’t being selfish and greedy make us happy? Why doesn’t it make us feel good about ourselves? Why is it that we search for some other meaning in our lives? [Chair interjects: That’s also part of human nature! Laughter]

Why is it that our grandparents look back so fondly on the second world war, a time of such hardship? They talk about the ‘war spirit’. What was the war spirit? It was the collective spirit.

The reality is that people are collective animals; we feel best when we are contributing to something that isn’t just yourselves, our own little lives in our own little boxes. We feel happiest when we are working for something that feels like it means something bigger; we feel happiest contributing to society.

But we don’t get that opportunity. We look for it; we try to find it; we try to tell ourselves that our jobs are meaningful and we feel bad if we can’t find a way to believe that.

Even those who are comparatively wealthy in our society don’t feel it. They don’t feel it because there’s constant insecurity. Even quite well off middle-class people are only a couple of pay packets away from destitution, from defaulting on the mortgage, from losing out on their pensions, from not being able to provide their children with what they need for a decent life.

And that’s in the good times! And as we see now, you can’t rely on the good times. You play the game according every way you’ve been taught and you win, you’re one of the lucky few who does everything you’re told and it works out for you – you’ve got your savings pot, you think you’ve got what you need for your pension, you’ve invested in a few properties.

But tomorrow, maybe the properties aren’t worth anything, maybe the money in the bank isn’t there any more, or it isn’t worth anything any more; maybe suddenly tomorrow you have to pay for health care you didn’t have to pay for before, or your pension’s taken away from you.

You can’t rely on anything under capitalism; there’s no such thing as security no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you accumulate. And that’s why, no matter how much people do accumulate in this society, as they’ve been taught to – accumulate to find happiness – they don’t feel happy; they don’t feel comfortable.

It’s the secret of middle-class whinging – all these well-off people who always have something to moan about! Everybody thinks if they had ten grand a year more, they’d be happy. But the people the next ten grand up, they’re not so happy either – they think they need another ten grand!

And then we compare that with the picture of life in a socialist country. Can you imagine living in a world where every job makes a contribution to building a better life for people? That in itself would be such a great motivator and inspirer! That in itself would unleash the creativity of so many people, bring out people’s natural collective spirit.

It’s very interesting to me; I recently spotted a bit of a pattern. We met a comrade from China and he was talking about life in China and achievements of the Chinese people in the last 50-60 years, and he said to me, ‘You know, we Chinese, we like to do things for ourselves; we don’t like to rely on others, we don’t like to exploit others, we like to build things ourselves – it’s just what we’re like. It’s because we’re Chinese.’

And we were watching a film about the Cuban revolution, and there was a Cuban bus driver, and the interviewer was asking him about the problems with the transport in Cuba because of the blockade, lack of petrol, lack of spare parts, and he said, ‘You know, we’re Cubans, problems are to be solved! It’s because we’re Cuban – we find solutions to our problems, we don’t moan about them, we get on with it, we fix things.’

And I bet if you’d gone to the Soviet Union, you’d have heard something very similar. North Koreans will talk about their self-reliance, their pride in being Korean and achieving things by themselves for themselves.

Now I hope our comrades from these countries won’t take it amiss when I say to them that my belief is that it’s not because they’re Korean or Chinese or Cuban that they feel this way about their people, about their country, about their lives; I think it’s because they live under socialism. [Applause]

I think a socialist society inspires them to build and to achieve; it makes them feel valued, it makes them feel part of something, it makes them feel that their work is useful. They can see the fruits of their labour in front of them and it comes back to them and to their neighbours a hundred fold.

Imagine never having to worry about paying the rent; never having to worry about health care, education provision for your children, university fees.

Imagine never having to worry about whether or not you’ll still have a job tomorrow; never having to worry about whether there’s going to be food on your table or your children’s table today or tomorrow.

Cuba’s achievements in the fields of health and education are relatively widely known now, but it’s not so well understood that it was the Soviet Union that pioneered all of that.

It was the Soviet Union that was the first to provide these kind of things – and that at a time, not only when they had just fought a very debilitating war – first the revolution, then the civil war, then the war of intervention – but when the rest of the world was going through the great depression – the mirror of the crisis we’re having now.

The rest of the world was plunged into total poverty, but the Soviet Union was going from strength to strength; they were providing facilities – first class, world class facilities – for ordinary working-class people of the kind that before then had only ever been dreamed about.

Like the Soviet Union before it, if you go to the DPRK today, something that hits people when they go there (and I’m sorry to say I never have yet, but it’s something that’s always related to me when I talk to people who have been) is that there are no advertisements on the streets. Can you imagine a life free from that bombardment of rubbish?

You don’t appreciate how much it oppresses you and weighs down on your mentality – all the time, in your face – you have to learn not to look around you; learn to walk around in your own little bubble to keep it out, blaring out at you. You’re not even free from it in a petrol station forecourt, in Sainsbury’s – they’re advertising at you non-stop, all the time.

To live in a place where not only do you not have that, but instead you have people’s art in the streets; celebrations – statues and posters – artwork celebrating the achievements of you and your fellow people.

Ordinary people’s buildings made beautiful – turned into palaces. They have children’s palaces in Korea, and the Soviet Union did just that sort of thing, constructing the most incredible, artistic buildings where ordinary people were every day, like the underground system in Moscow; places where ordinary people go made beautiful, to uplift them, to make them feel respected, valued; to make them care about their society and feel that they in turn were cared about.

Comrade Brar’s already talked about how the Soviet Union provided for mothers and children. It’s something you can’t underestimate the impact of – and so far in advance of the rest of the world. It’s the first place where they really showed that the liberation of women is about practical things – it’s not just about allowing women to take part in jobs, but freeing them to do so: providing the best possible child care, where you feel happy to leave your children; providing huge amounts of paid maternity leave, both before and after the baby’s birth, for the optimum health of the mother and the baby. I was reading recently how as soon as they knew a woman was pregnant, they’d move her into easier physical work if she was in something that was quite taxing. The day the baby and the mother came home from the hospital, who came to see them? Not just the nurse – an obstetrician! In the house!

They really, really cared about the health of women and of children. They set up crèches, laundries, kindergartens, public dining rooms – all the services that Comrade Harpal talked about before – to free women and allow them to really take their place in society, and to give children an equal start in life.

There was recently a report published by the World Health Organisation. It talked about health inequality in the world, and the conclusion that they [the authors] came to – well, the conclusion between the lines was, we need socialism! [Laughter] – they said: people need jobs, they need decent housing, people need access to culture.

They talked about illness prevention, which of course was the core principal tenet of the Soviet medical system, and they talked about children needing an equal start from the beginning.

They talked about the importance of pre-school education; they talked about the importance of involving the whole community in that type of pre-school education – it’s not just a question of sending them off to a kindergarten for a couple of hours and bringing them back again, but a whole community really needs to take part in that.

But you need to have a community to do something like that; people need to be organised as a community in order to implement those kind of programmes. There are only socialist countries in the world today that do that – it’s only in Cuba, it’s only in the DPRK where you see those kind of programmes in action – and it was in the Soviet Union that you saw them first.

Imagine living in a world where education throughout life was the norm; where opportunities to develop your potential are provided as a matter of course to everyone, at no cost, with no penalty to your family if you decide to take them up or to have a change of career – where you don’t have to worry whether your children are going to eat if you need to retrain.

We live in a society that criminally squanders and suppresses the creative and productive potential of the vast masses of humanity. Even the best off workers often feel isolated and insecure, and the vast majority are only ever one or two pay packets away from destitution.

None of the main contradictions of imperialism can be solved without proletarian revolution. We will never have job or housing security or secure pensions as long as imperialism exists.

Our job as socialists under capitalism is to use the daily and hourly crises of imperialism to expose the system and explain to workers that as long as this system continues the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer, the crises will get deeper, the wars will become bigger and bloodier.

October showed us we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the socialist revolution, which will free us all from poverty and insecurity. [Applause]

October proved that work under socialism is transformed from meaningless drudgery into a vehicle for unlocking the potential and creativity of the working class.

And it was October that proved that while imperialism continues to oppress and plunder and drench the world in blood, there is only one thing that can usefully be done with your life, with my life, with anybody’s life, and that is to join the fight against imperialism, to join the fight for more Octobers. [Applause]

Reply to Joti’s speech, Harpal Brar

Thank you very much Joti, but you were quite wrong in saying that I’d spoke your speech earlier; it’s quite different. And to the extent that there is some repetition, then I think it’s perfectly alright. As the old Latin saying goes: Repetition is the key to learning!

You have talked of the power of advertisements. We must advertise our ideology – the more often we speak about it, the better. I hope each speaker will be able to repeat some of the things, because they are essential.

We are in a minority and we’ll never become a majority unless and until we actually continue to insist on speaking the truth, whatever the cost.

We’ve somehow been thrown back in the imperialist centres to being in a similar position to that of the early christians – you know, you’re hounded from place to place, but you’re nevertheless able to convey what they used to call ‘the lord’s message’. [Laughter] In our case, it is the message of the working class.

We are the majority. Why are we such fools that we accept the propaganda of the tiny minority that actually keeps us in subjugation? We shall not accept that as being the fate of humanity.