The following piece was written by a CPGB-ML member in order to promote discussion on the issue of population and the environment.
Poverty is often blamed on 'overpopulation', yet much of Africa, where some of the world's poorest people live, is very sparsely populated.
Marx dismissed Malthusianism as a lampoon on the human race, but while Thomas Malthus’s cockeyed musings on surplus value and rent have disappeared from memory and no longer need to be knocked down, Malthus’s ‘Law of Population’ has taken a fresh hold on the western mind and needs to be fought again, like some new, more ferocious outbreak of mental ebola.
In Malthus’s 1798 best-selling (and, depressingly, never out of print) essay on population, ‘The Dismal Parson’ (as he was nicknamed by his opponents) asserted that the food supply always increases arithmetically, while, if ‘unchecked’ by war, famine or disease, population always increases geometrically.
From that idiotic assertion, made at the tail end of the great 18th-century agricultural revolution and just before the enormous development in agricultural machinery, which would open up the previously uncultivated prairies of the USA, Malthus concluded that working-class poverty was, is and ever will be inevitable unless the working classes stopped flooding the ‘labour market’ with their own progeny. Malthus suggested working-class celibacy or very late marriage as the cure for this ‘problem’.
Seven decades on, and enter the neo-Malthusians. Whether liberals, like John Stuart Mill and Lord Amberley, or radicals, like Richard Carlisle, Charles Bradlaugh and Bradlaugh’s sidekick the execrable Mrs Annie Besant, these followers of Malthus all agreed that working-class poverty in the midst of capitalist plenty was entirely due to the constant arrival of little baby proletarians. Instead of recommending celibacy and late marriage, however, the neo-Malthusians suggested contraception – an idea that horrified mainstream Malthusians, who thought it would weaken the moral fibre of the nation.
It is interesting to note that contraception and abortion rights are now so completely seen as women’s rights issues that their Malthusian parentage is forgotten, while ‘overpopulation’ has been reinvented by changing the rhetoric away from Malthus’s original ‘flooding the labour market’ (which sounds very BNP) to ‘using up the earth’s non-renewable resources’, which sounds all green and has become the new accepted wisdom.
Green-thinking and Malthus-thinking are one and the same. Both preach that the problem is the existence of people, not capitalism, and both are equally opposed to the socialist revolution. This is not to say that some resources we use today won’t run out, or that some are not better than others, or that it’s not a bad thing to stop pollution and plastic bags are good.
It is saying that all the problems that humans encounter can be solved by humans working together – not for individual profit, but for the collective good. As for the planet being overpopulated, most of it is empty, and the vast tracts that are currently given over to such things as tobacco farming or cash-crop flowers for Valentine’s Day could be used for growing food.
Having said that the planet is not overpopulated does not mean of course that we should all give up on birth control and have a baby every year. In agricultural societies with high infant mortality, babies coming very year was a necessity (and in the world as it is, it is still a necessity in agricultural societies). But generally, in a socialist world, we might possibly aim for a smallish population rise so that we always have more people under, say, 50 than over. Younger people are extremely important for society: they have energy, strength, new ideas and enthusiasm. Older people, on the other hand, tend to have accumulated lots of experience, which means they know stuff and are wiser.
So where does this take us? Straight to the capitalist world we live in, which has absorbed so much Malthusianism in green clothing that it blames poor people’s poverty and the capitalist system’s abuse of resources on the existence of children. So much so that today many relatively prosperous people in the richer countries have come to see the very continuation of life as being somehow ‘anti-social’.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, however. In 1913 Lenin attacked the resurgence of the pessimistic ideology of neo-Malthusianism, which portrayed having children as a negative because the conditions they were being born into in pre-revolutionary Russia were so harsh.
His article is excellent, so we have reproduced it below for the benefit of our readers.
The working class and neo-Malthusianism
by V I Lenin, 16 June 1913
At the Pirogov Doctors’ Congress much interest was aroused and a long debate was held on the question of abortions. The report was made by Lichkus, who quoted figures on the exceedingly widespread practice of destroying the foetus in present-day so-called civilised states.
In New York, 80,000 abortions were performed in one year and there are 36,000 every month in France. In St Petersburg the percentage of abortions has more than doubled in five years.
The Pirogov Doctors’ Congress adopted a resolution saying that there should never be any criminal prosecution of a mother for performing an artificial abortion and that doctors should only be prosecuted if the operation is performed for ‘purposes of gain’.
In the discussion the majority agreed that abortions should not be punishable, and the question of the so-called neo-Malthusianism (the use of contraceptives) was naturally touched upon, as was also the social side of the matter. Mr Vigdorchik, for instance, said, according to the report in Russkoye Slovo, that ‘contraceptive measures should be welcomed’ and Mr Astrakhan exclaimed, amidst thunderous applause:
“We have to convince mothers to bear children so that they can be maimed in educational establishments, so that lots can be drawn for them, so that they can be driven to suicide!’
If the report is true that this exclamation of Mr Astrakhan’s was greeted with thunderous applause, it is a fact that does not surprise me. The audience was made up of bourgeois, middle and petty bourgeois, who have the psychology of the philistine. What can you expect from them but the most banal liberalism?
From the point of view of the working class, however, it would hardly be possible to find a more apposite expression of the completely reactionary nature and the ugliness of ‘social neo-Malthusianism’ than Mr Astrakhan’s phrase cited above.
… “Bear children so that they can be maimed” … For that alone? Why not that they should fight better, more unitedly, consciously and resolutely than we are fighting against the present-day conditions of life that are maiming and ruining our generation?
This is the radical difference that distinguishes the psychology of the peasant, handicraftsman, intellectual, the petty bourgeois in general, from that of the proletarian. The petty bourgeois sees and feels that he is heading for ruin, that life is becoming more difficult, that the struggle for existence is ever more ruthless, and that his position and that of his family are becoming more and more hopeless. It is an indisputable fact, and the petty bourgeois protests against it.
But how does he protest?
He protests as the representative of a class that is hopelessly perishing, that despairs of its future, that is depressed and cowardly. There is nothing to be done … if only there were fewer children to suffer our torments and hard toil, our poverty and our humiliation – such is the cry of the petty bourgeois.
The class-conscious worker is far from holding this point of view. He will not allow his consciousness to be dulled by such cries no matter how sincere and heartfelt they may be. Yes, we workers and the mass of small proprietors lead a life that is filled with unbearable oppression and suffering. Things are harder for our generation than they were for our fathers. But in one respect we are luckier than our fathers. We have begun to learn and are rapidly learning to fight – and to fight not as individuals, as the best of our fathers fought, not for the slogans of bourgeois speechifiers that are alien to us in spirit, but for our slogans, the slogans of our class. We are fighting better than our fathers did. Our children will fight better than we do, and they will be victorious.
The working class is not perishing; it is growing, becoming stronger, gaining courage, consolidating itself, educating itself and becoming steeled in battle. We are pessimists as far as serfdom, capitalism and petty production are concerned, but we are ardent optimists in what concerns the working-class movement and its aims. We are already laying the foundation of a new edifice and our children will complete its construction.
That is the reason – the only reason – why we are unconditionally the enemies of neo-Malthusianism, suited only to unfeeling and egotistic petty-bourgeois couples, who whisper in scared voices: “God grant we manage somehow by ourselves. So much the better if we have no children.”
It goes without saying that this does not by any means prevent us from demanding the unconditional annulment of all laws against abortions or against the distribution of medical literature on contraceptive measures, etc. Such laws are nothing but the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. These laws do not heal the ulcers of capitalism; they merely turn them into malignant ulcers that are especially painful for the oppressed masses. Freedom for medical propaganda and the protection of the elementary democratic rights of citizens, men and women, are one thing. The social theory of neo-Malthusianism is quite another. Class-conscious workers will always conduct the most ruthless struggle against attempts to impose that reactionary and cowardly theory on the most progressive and strongest class in modern society, the class that is the best prepared for great changes.
The italics in the final paragraph are not Lenin’s, but it is well to emphasise that Lenin was not opposed to reproductive rights, he was opposed to the neo-Malthusian negativity, which under capitalism makes potential parents see children as only more unaffordable mouths to feed, while a socialist sees them as hands to work, brains to think and strength to fight.
 Letter from K Marx to J B Schweizer, 24 January 1865, K Marx and F Engels, Selected Works, Volume 2.
 T R Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.
 Nicholay Piragov (1810-1881) was a field surgeon in the Crimea. Said to be the first to use anaesthetics on the battlefield, he recruited army nurses, set up field hospitals and was a generally progressive bourgeois-liberal doctor.
 The Piragov Doctors Congress was a prestigious meeting of liberal Russian doctors working in public health and sanitation held about every two years from 1885. Lenin is referring to the twelfth congress, held in 1913, where there was a well-publicised debate on abortion. By a small majority the congress voted for decriminalisation.
 Dr Lizar Lichkus, obstetrician St Petersburg maternity hospital.
 Dr Natan Vigdorchik, ‘public health’ physician in St Petersburg.
 In tsarist Russia, lots were drawn for compulsory military service. Conditions were terrible and these were dreaded.
 There were many reported cases of conscripts committing suicide.
 ‘The working class and neo-Malthusianism’ by V I Lenin, Pravda, No 137, 16 June 1913.
A presentation to the International Communist Seminar delivered by Ranjeet Brar, on behalf of the CPGB-ML, Brussels, 17 May 2009.
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past. The tradition of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”[i]
We are born, not onto the world of our choosing, but into that bequeathed us by humanity’s collective history. And at the turn of the 21st century, that means a world mired in all the contradictions of capitalist imperialism; that is, monopoly capitalism at its highest stage – highest, meaning final, and speaking economically.
It would be equally true to say that mankind, despite all advances in technology and the possibilities they offer, has never been brought so low. Lenin was absolutely correct when he characterised finance capitalism as decadent, parasitic and moribund.
In fact, Lenin’s profound analysis of monopoly capitalism, written in 1916, during the first ‘great’ inter-imperialist conflagration, remains entirely accurate in all its principal features. It is, sadly, as fresh and redolent of today’s society as on the day it was published, and must be read and assimilated by all class-conscious workers.
The working-class movement, then, is addressing precisely the same problems as were identified a century ago. In the tumultuous intervening period, our movement has seen stunning advances and painful defeats, but the root causes that brought the working classes of all nations face to face with the question of proletarian revolution, far from ending with the Soviet counter-revolution, have become broader and more profound.
We are living in the era of the proletarian revolution, and our task is to expedite the transition.
If we are to bring the youth to communism, we must first have an idea of communism to bring to the youth. And in this regard, the theses recently adopted by the KKE at its 18th party congress are to be welcomed.[ii]
2009 is fast becoming a year synonymous with capitalist economic crisis on a scale not seen since the Wall Street crash of 1929. Giants of finance capital have collapsed, and in Britain (as in the US and many European countries), our ‘Labour’ government has responded by giving banks hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money: robbing the poor to pay the rich.
Workers’ outrage is mounting, as shown by recent demonstrations against the G20, and by increasingly militant industrial and political actions (notably, in Europe, in Greece and France). And it is fully justified, but, in truth, not yet broad enough in its scope, for these are but exaggerations of the daily actions and normal workings of capitalism, whose entire system of wage slavery rests on the perpetual looting of the wealth created by the labouring masses.
It is abundantly clear that, as long as capitalism endures, the money borrowed by our governments today will be paid back tomorrow by means of cuts in public spending – workers’ schooling, housing, and health care will pay the bankers’ bill. Truly, their wealth is built upon our poverty, their joy upon our misery! We must insist that bankers pay for their own crisis.
Attitude of the youth
The average youth that one encounters on the street may not yet want communism, but the truth is that he is in desperate need of it. For the youth, as indeed all humanity, are beset on all sides by the problems and contradictions of capitalist economy and society in crisis. Its realities impinge upon them and limit their prospects, regardless of their consciousness of the fact.
As capitalist society becomes ever more historically outmoded, a germ of consciousness grows; the awareness that something is profoundly amiss, and needs change. It is felt keenly by the youth, who have not yet reconciled themselves to the absurd injustices they witness all around.
Poverty, homelessness, helplessness and despair. Environmental degradation and climate change. Colonial and inter-imperialist war (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc) – in which they may be called upon to fight. Famine, malnutrition and malnutrition-related disease. Unemployment, under-employment, and decreasing living standards. These are the benefits of monopoly capitalism in the 21st century. Imperialist cause and anti-social effects are inextricably linked, and the growing opposition to all these social phenomena are, at base, all elements (conscious or not) of the anti-imperialist struggle.
As no solution to these profound social problems can be offered by the capitalist political establishment, a thin gruel of diversionary sub-culture, mixed with a large measure of racism, communalism and misogyny are daily pumped to the masses, in order to divide workers, and to give us self-destructive avenues down which to vent our anger, in a manner that preserves rather than destroys the capitalist system.
And, ever present, behind the honeyed words, are the mailed fists of Anglo-American and EU imperialism: administering police beatings on the streets at home, to workers in general, but to organised and disenfranchised workers in particular; or conducting occupations, colonial wars and punitive expeditions abroad on behalf of an imperialist class desperate to enforce its domination as its economic grip weakens.
The capitalist class, whose future is in the past, clings tenaciously to power and pours scorn on all criticism; particularly on scientific Marxist criticism. Fukuyama’s thesis of capitalism as “the end of history” remains their default position.
But such triumphalism looks increasingly shaky when the crisis of overproduction becomes profound. For capitalism offers four fifths of humanity a wretched existence, and the oppressed nations and particularly the working classes feel keenly their lack of interest in maintaining a system so profoundly at odds with the needs and wishes of the vast masses of humanity.
Figure 1 – ‘The demographic divide’[iii]
DEM REP OF CONGO
Population < age 15
8.4 million (14%)
31.3 million (47%)
Population age 65+
Annual natural increase (births minus deaths)
Annual infant deaths
Life expectancy at birth
Percent of population undernourished
The youth are not always the most radical element of society, for inexperience can lead to susceptibility to false promises and demagogy, but in as much as they are overwhelmingly working class, and that their lives lie ahead of them and their future is very much jeopardised by the current political order, they are unquestionably our natural ally. The most oppressed and downtrodden populations in the world are also the youngest.
For our part, to be effective, we must find the means to connect our understanding with the vast masses of humanity, not least the youth. Otherwise, we are doomed to play the role of helpless spectators on the recurring capitalist train-wreck, rather than the instigators and shapers of humanity’s bright future.
“It is clear that the arm of criticism cannot replace the criticism of arms. Material force can only be overthrown by material force, but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses.”[iv]
Our tasks: what is to be done?
But the youth must first be drawn to the cause of their own emancipation. They require concrete explanations, understanding of the class interests that perpetuate injustices, and the means to overcome them.
The atomised youth, isolated and oppressed, need to be organised and to gain experience in fighting for meaningful change. To win the youth, just as to win other sections of the population, we need to subject the imperialist order to ruthless criticism, or, as Lenin put it, we need to aim at “the revolutionary elucidation of the whole of the present system or partial manifestations of it.”[v]
Our respective organisations must not only have the correct and uncompromising political line, but need to take every opportunity to break the capitalist monopoly on the means of communication in order to win the people to our correct reasoning, galvanise them and draw them as an organised force into political life and action!
“The social-democratic [communist][vi] ideal should not be a trade-union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; he must be able to generalise all these manifestations to produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; he must be able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to explain his socialistic convictions and his democratic demands to all, in order to explain to all and everyone the world-historic significance of the proletariat’s struggle for emancipation.”[vii]
Radicalisation of the youth
The youth in Britain are once more – at long last! – becoming radicalised, by their deteriorating employment prospects during the crisis, by the growing burden of unemployment, by their oppression at the hands of the police (especially black, Asian and muslim working-class youth), by ongoing racist discrimination against ‘minority’ communities, or by their principled opposition to imperialist wars and occupations, which in an imperialist country are as much a part of domestic political life as cuts in health and education provision.
We recently saw a wave of protests and occupations in over 20 universities, triggered by our government’s support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza (Dec 2008-Jan 2009), and – a positive development – by the imperialist propaganda machine’s blatant bias, especially the bias of that allegedly ‘impartial’ mouthpiece of British capital, the BBC.
Even in docile Britain, long the home of class-collaborationist, social-democratic politics, workers are learning the methods of more radical and determined struggle, as shown by the sabotage of arms manufacturers Raytheon (during Israel’s assault on Lebanon) and EDO-ITT (during Israel’s assault on Gaza), and the occupation of the Visteon (Ford) works in Enfield.
The British anti-war movement recently adopted resolutions calling on unions to encourage members to do all in their power not to cooperate with British imperialist war crimes, as well as supporting the Smash EDO activists.[viii]
There is strong anti-war, anti-capitalist and pro-Palestinian sentiment among sections of the working population, but the Labour party’s grip over all these movements, direct and indirect, as well as over many of the ‘independent’ (even ‘communist’) political parties involved in these struggles, is an all-pervasive and crippling factor.
Social democracy’s prime aim is always and everywhere to frustrate and curtail the “propaganda of brilliant and complete ideas” and prevent the emergence “of revolutionary opposition that expose[s] the state of affairs in our country, particularly the political state of affairs, in so far as it affects the interests of the most varied strata of the population.” (Ibid)
Our task is to break the hold of social-democratic politics over these groups, to make contact with workers in struggle and to explain the relationships between their concrete grievances and imperialism, and that the proletariat’s struggle for emancipation offers the only alternative path.
Racism – the Achilles’ heel of the European proletariat
Labour is a party with a history of dividing working people by fanning the flames of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Today, it is attempting to divert workers’ attention and anger from the true cause of their misery – the capitalist system – towards immigration and ‘foreign’ workers, whom it points to as being ‘the problem’ while mouthing the fascist British National Party (BNP) slogan “British jobs for British workers”. Its hypocritical campaigns to “Vote Labour to keep the BNP out”, cannot disguise the fact that that its own racist and anti-immigrant policy has made all the running for the BNP. We must counter all this with campaigns for real working-class unity and the demand for equal rights and jobs for all workers!
In the field of education, Labour has introduced an increasingly (although ‘voluntarily’) segregated and communalised secondary schooling system. In addition to the huge number of private schools, we have catholic and Church of England, jewish and muslim, sikh and black schools. Far from ‘protecting the heritage’ of minority communities, as is the stated aim, this is a recipe for dividing the working class, of emphasising racial and religious differences, and for peddling all kinds of obscurantism.
Such a system of ‘cultural national autonomy’ was seen under the British in the north of Ireland and the declining Russian empire (among others). British imperialism’s history of fomenting communalist strife and inciting pogroms to divert revolutionary struggle is well known. We must fight for comprehensive secular and high quality education – as we would in the field of health or housing provision.
The greatest threat to peace and stability in Britain and the world is not yet the fringe BNP councillor, but the ‘mainstream’ free-market fundamentalist Gordon Brown and his entire Labour apparatus. As a first step towards real change, the British working class must give up its unrequited love for Labour.
There is no shortcut to building a disciplined, professional, tried and tested party of the proletariat that is capable of taking the initiative and advancing the true interests of the working class, drawing to it all disaffected strands of anti-capitalist resistance. Such a party must have a solid Marxist-Leninist political foundation if it is not to be thrown easily off course in the rapids of revolutionary struggle. It must cultivate and establish deep roots among the masses.
In Britain, our comrades in the CPGB-ML have set about this task in earnest. The militant youth must lend a hand in this process, also.
Urgent as our tasks are, and much as we want to expand our influence by leaps and bounds, losing sight of our revolutionary goals and concentrating instead on petty and often illusory short-term ‘advances’ has led more than one young comrade into lamentable opportunism and careerism.
As we win layers of the most conscious workers, undoubtedly our work will be enhanced by the work of new comrades, who are active in their local communities, unions, schools, youth clubs, music or drama groups, and many other political, organisational and cultural undertakings.
“We must have such circles, trade unions and organisations everywhere in as large a number as possible and with the widest variety of functions; but it would be absurd and dangerous to confuse them with the organisation of revolutionaries, to obliterate the border line between them, to dim still more the masses’ already incredibly hazy appreciation of the fact that in order to ‘serve’ the mass movement we must have people who will devote themselves exclusively to social-democratic [communist] activities, and that such people must train themselves patiently and steadfastly to be professional revolutionaries.”[ix]
It is not, in our opinion, the job of revolutionary parties, operating still in a capitalist society, to concern themselves, first and foremost, with the tasks of creating youth clubs, after-school clubs, sporting leagues, immigration advice centres, rap groups, etc (as some of our comrades and acquaintances have advocated). This is putting the cart before the horse, and diverting our precious resources from their most urgent political and organisational tasks.
Namely, “We must make it our business to stimulate in the minds of those who are dissatisfied only with conditions at the university, or only with Zemstvo [local government – but equally, the anti-war movement, housing campaigns, Palestine, trade-union struggles, state violence], etc the idea that the whole political system is worthless. We must take upon ourselves the task of organising an all-round political struggle under the leadership of our party in such a manner as to obtain all the support possible of all opposition strata for the struggle and for our party. We must train our social-democratic [communist] practical workers to become political leaders, able to guide all the manifestations of this all-round struggle, able at the right time to ‘dictate a positive programme of action’ for the restless students, the discontented Zemstvo councillors, the incensed religious sects, the offended elementary schoolteachers, etc, etc.”[x]
And further, “[we must arouse] in every section of the population that is at all politically conscious a passion for political exposure. We must not be discouraged by the fact that the voice of political exposure is today so feeble, timid and infrequent. This is not because of a wholesale submission to police despotism, but because those who are able and ready to make exposures have no tribune from which to speak, no eager and encouraging audience, they do not see anywhere among the people that force to which it would be worth while directing their complaint against the ‘omnipotent’” imperialist order.[xi]
“Give us an organisation of revolutionaries, and we shall overturn …” Britain and the world! Our prime task is to build such vanguard organisations, broad in their political vision, disciplined, professional and steadfast in carrying out their tasks.
With respect to the youth, our task is to make contact with their spontaneously arising struggles, to broaden their political vision so they can sustain their activity, and to connect them with the wider working-class movement.
“Our task is not to champion the degrading of the revolutionary to level of an amateur, but to raise the amateurs to the level of the revolutionaries.”[xii]
Lenin’s advice to the youth: Educate yourselves in Marxism
The second congress of the RSDLP issued a resolution welcoming the growing revolutionary initiative of the student youth. It is worth revisiting.
“The Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party welcomes the growing revolutionary initiative among the student youth and calls upon all organisations of the party to give them every possible assistance in their efforts to organise. It recommends that all student groups and study circles should, firstly, make it the prime object of their activities to imbue their members with an integral and consistent socialist world outlook and give them a thorough acquaintance with Marxism, on the one hand, and with Russian Narodism and West-European opportunism, on the other, these being the principal currents among the conflicting advanced trends of today; secondly, that they should beware of those false friends of the youth who divert them from a thorough revolutionary training through recourse to empty revolutionary or idealistic phrase-mongering and philistine complaints about the harm and uselessness of sharp polemics between the revolutionary and the opposition movements [UNITY! At all costs, and at the lowest denominator – let us not discuss divisive politics!], for as a matter of fact these false friends are only spreading an unprincipled and unserious attitude towards revolutionary work; thirdly, that they should endeavour, when undertaking practical activities, to establish prior contact with the social-democratic organisations, so as to have the benefit of their advice and, as far as possible, to avoid serious mistakes at the very outset of their work.”[xiii]
Today, alongside a firm grounding in the principles of Marxism Leninism, the trends we must advise our young comrades to familiarise themselves with must surely remain the ever present west-European social-democratic opportunism (the Labour party et al), its ‘ultra-revolutionary’, phrase-mongering Trotskyite wing, and its reformist, ‘communist’, Khrushchevite-revisionist wing (today’s otzovists and liquidationists); and, perhaps, with anarchism.
It is perhaps not the most romantic and exciting undertaking to assign to young comrades, but as Engels remarked profoundly “Socialism, having become a science, must be pursued as a science, that is, it must be studied.”[xiv]
Of course, broad masses of workers and youth must be inspired and mobilised – but how, and by whom? They can only be mobilised under a consistently revolutionary and effective programme by a vanguard organisation of relatively advanced and united class-conscious workers. As Lenin so rightly pointed out, in a movement plagued by opportunism and ignorance, to advance any other aim would be the political equivalent of wishing mourners at a funeral “many happy returns of the day”.[xv]
If, a century ago, the capitalists sought to deprive working people of all education, today they seek to drown all real political education, all revolutionary knowledge and all working-class history in a sea of anti-communist and pro-capitalist lies and half truths.
In our ‘history’ classrooms, such tools as the Trotskyite ‘critique of communism from the left’ (Revolution Betrayed) and the fairytales of the semi-Trotskyite British state agent George Orwell (Animal Farm, etc), are systematically peddled to the youth, wrapped with crude bourgeois anti-communist lies. In the working-class movement, the Trotskyite parties join seamlessly with the capitalist state to push anti-communist and anti-national liberation propaganda, and we must point out that the Trotskyites sing from the imperialist hymn-sheet, while ruthlessly exposing the underlying essence of these counter-revolutionary positions.[xvi], [xvii], [xviii]
It is clear to us that such intellectually shabby slanders are merely aimed at undermining the confidence of the working class to take their destiny into their own hands and overturn the exploiting classes’ applecart.
The Gobbelsian art of propaganda has attained a high degree of perfection, and the mass media a high degree of monopolisation, under the current imperialist order, such that our most urgent task is once again – while maintaining the struggle against school cut-backs and closures – to augment the taught bourgeois syllabus with a programme of revolutionary education, both for our own party members and for the wider working class.
We must remember Lenin’s words, directed at the Tsarist autocracy, but applying with equal force to the contemporary capitalist order:
“Our minister regards the workers as gunpowder, and knowledge and education as the spark; the minister is convinced that if the spark falls into the gunpowder, the explosion will be directed first and foremost against the government. We cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of noting that in this rare instance, we totally and unconditionally agree …”
“Workers, you see how terrified our ministers are at the working people acquiring knowledge! Show everybody, then, that no power will succeed in depriving the workers of class-consciousness! Without knowledge, the workers are defenceless, with knowledge they are a force!”[xix]
[vi] ‘Social democracy’ was the term adopted by the communist movement in the days of the Second International (1889–1916).
When, at the outbreak of the first inter-imperialist war (1914–18), the majority of these national parties shamefully sided with their own imperialists, betraying proletarian internationalism, Lenin and the Bolsheviks declared social democracy to be “a stinking corpse”, whose hollow preaching of socialism in words was belied by their pro-imperialist deeds. Hence the terms ‘social-chauvinist’ and ‘social-imperialist’ were coined to describe them. In response, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) changed its name to the Communist Party.
In 1918, Lenin initiated the founding of a new, Third or Communist International, comprising the truly revolutionary trends and parties from the former social-democratic movement. It is this trend and movement which led to October 1917 and all similar proletarian advances. What Is To Be Done?, written in 1902, predated this split, hence the term ‘social democratic’ should be read ‘communist’, and not confused with the modern-day descendants of the social-imperialists of the second international type, such as the imperialist Labour party in Britain.
[xi] ‘Where To Begin?’ by V I Lenin, Iskra, 1901, Collected Works, Vol 4, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1961, pp21-22
Comrades and friends, since we are all here tonight to celebrate the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, it seems like a good moment to look back at the roots of Bolshevism, and the organisational principles which Comrade Lenin and the Bolsheviks espoused.
1898 Founding of the party – Economism – What Is To Be Done
The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was founded officially in 1898, but its first stumbling steps were dogged by police suppression, ideological muddle and poor organisation. Things were made worse by the influence of the Russian opportunist trend known as ‘Economism’.
In the name of standing up for the interests of the working class, the Economists insisted on limiting the class struggle to purely ‘bread-and-butter’ industrial issues. They saw Lenin’s plans for a united and centralised political party of the working class as an unnecessary and artificial intrusion upon workers’ spontaneous industrial skirmishes. Their influence helped to perpetuate ideological muddle and lax organisation.
Under these circumstances, Lenin and his comrades – we cannot yet call them Bolsheviks – used the columns of the party paper, Iskra (Spark) to wage a relentless struggle against the disorganising ideas of Economism. By this means, the ground was prepared for the ideological and organisational consolidation of the party.
A key moment in this struggle came in March 1902, with the publication of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? This work not only delivered a great blow against Economism, it also laid the foundations for the whole future Bolshevik approach to ideology and organisation.
Against the blind worship of spontaneity which characterised the Economists, Lenin asserted the vanguard role of the proletarian party. The party’s role was not to follow but to lead. And key to the development of this leadership role was the central, all-Russian party newspaper.
The purpose of the paper was not simply to comment and analyse but to organise. It was the paper’s job not only to weld the party ideologically, but also to unite local bodies within the party organisationally, as Lenin wrote that such a paper “is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, but also a collective organiser”.
These were not just very clever ideas on how to run a political newspaper, but an assertion of the indissoluble bond between the ideological and organisational make-up of the party – the unity of its theory and its practice. And the battle was not just against the Russian Economists, with their exclusive fixation on narrow trade-union struggles. Lenin makes it clear that these gentry were no more than a pale local variant of a virulent strain of opportunism which was international in scope.
There can be no better proof of the continued relevance of the organisational principles advocated by Lenin than the fact that they continue to provoke today’s opportunists just as badly as they did 100 years ago!
Lenin was clear that for the revolutionary movement to hold out, it needed a stable organisation of leaders to maintain continuity; and the bigger the movement grew, the more crucial would such an organisation be. The vanguard organisation would need to consist first and foremost of professional revolutionaries, trained in the art of outfoxing the political police. Far from limiting the scope of the movement, argued Lenin, such an approach to leadership would offer the best prospect of drawing the masses in ever greater numbers into working for the revolution.
It is legitimate for us to ask how much relevance these organisational tactics have for communists today. After all, we are not living in an autocratic state, we do not live under Tsarism, and perhaps we do not require a party leadership that has professional training in the art of combating the political police – yet.
However, as degenerate British imperialist society moves deeper into crisis, the retreat from bourgeois democratic forms is becoming daily more pronounced. Wars of national oppression abroad, erosion of civil liberties at home, cuts in public services, attacks on the pay and pensions of workers, the dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ and the spread of anti-immigrant propaganda – all these combine to create a harsher political climate for dissent of any kind.
The plunge into financial crisis and slump can be expected to intensify this process, precisely in the degree to which the bourgeoisie feel it more urgent to safeguard the exploited workers from the growth of communist influence.
This period of renewed crisis presents the proletariat with an immense historical responsibility, which it cannot hope to shoulder without the guidance and leadership of a party that has learnt to match ideological with organisational strength.
The working class may not yet require a party ‘professionally trained in the art of combating the political police’ – but we certainly do need a party that is no less professional in its approach to organisation than it is in its approach to ideology.
Second Congress of the RSDLP
In 1902, Lenin explained these organisational principles in his work, What Is To Be Done? In July 1903, the ideas advanced were tested out in political struggle at the Second Congress of the RSDLP.
Lenin and his comrades at Iskra submitted a maximum and a minimum programme for the party. The maximum programme dealt with the ultimate goal: socialist revolution and proletarian dictatorship. The minimum programme dealt with the bourgeois democratic phase of the revolution: getting rid of the Tsar, securing a democratic republic, limiting the working day and giving land to the tiller.
Mention of proletarian dictatorship ruffled some opportunist feathers, as did the prospect of an alliance with the peasantry and recognition of the right of nations to self-determination. But on all these issues, the Iskra view prevailed.
However, having failed in a direct assault on the Leninist programme, opportunism now turned its attention to the rules. Having failed to undermine the party’s ideology, opportunism now set its sights on the party’s organisation.
The opportunity for this mischief-making arose around the very basic question: what determines who is a member of the party? Martov could hardly disagree with the common-sense stipulations that party members had to stick to the party line and pay their subs. Where he got cold feet was over Lenin’s insistence that every member should submit to party discipline by working within one of the party’s organisations. The Short History of the CPSU(B) puts it in a nutshell.
“Martov regarded the party as something organisationally amorphous, whose members enrol themselves in the party and are therefore not obliged to submit to party discipline, inasmuch as they do not belong to a party organisation.” (Short History, p36)
To the untutored ear, the Martov approach to party building could sound very bold and revolutionary. Why not have done with it and say that every worker who downs tools and goes on strike demonstrates by his actions that he has the right to be in the party? But such phoney rank-and-file fervour conveniently forgets that it takes all sorts to make a strike, including non-socialists and anarchists.
And in any case, the real intended beneficiaries of Martov’s ‘come all ye’ approach to party membership were not workers at all, but unreliable bourgeois intellectuals eager to parade as progressive leaders but not prepared to “join an organisation, submit to party discipline, carry out party tasks and run the accompanying risks”. (Short History, pp36-37)
Even on the Iskra side of the argument, not all were wholeheartedly behind Lenin. Thanks to some of these wavering elements, Martov’s views on party rules were for the moment tolerated, and this was a temporary setback for the party. What was established at the Second Congress, however, was a clear distinction between the Menshevik and the Bolshevik positions on both ideological and organisational questions, a distinction which proved to be of great political value to the Bolshevik cause in the struggles to come.
It was in the elections at the conclusion of this Second Congress, in which Lenin and his followers secured a majority of the votes, that the two trends within the RSDLP started to be identified as Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority).
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
In May 1904, the essence of this key struggle over organisational principles was crystallised in Lenin’s work, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.
1. Lenin insisted that what was required was a vanguard party, arguing that “To forget the distinction between the vanguard and the whole of the masses which gravitate towards it, to forget the constant duty of the vanguard to raise ever wider strata to this most advanced level, means merely to deceive oneself, to shut one’s eyes to the immensity of our tasks, and to narrow down these tasks.” (Short History, p41)
The very word ‘vanguard’ has become anathema within the reformist left, drawing knee-jerk accusations of elitism and arrogance. Yet such accusations are no more than a smokescreen to cover the left’s abdication of responsibility towards the class they purport to champion.
2. Every member had to be working for a specific organisation of the party. “If the party were not an organised detachment of the class, not a system of organisation, but a mere agglomeration of persons who declare themselves to be party members but do not belong to any party organisation and therefore are not organised, hence not obliged to obey party decisions, the party would never have a united will, it could never achieve the united action of its members, and, consequently, it would be unable to direct the struggle of the working class.” (Short History, p41)
3. The party must struggle to guide all other organisations of the working class, not hiding behind a cloak of false modesty like the Mensheviks. To belittle the leading role of the party is, in fact, to weaken and disarm the proletariat.
Comrades here present know from experience that it is not always easy to combat Labour party influence in the unions. It is tempting to declare the struggle unnecessary (because ‘eventually the crisis will in any case loosen the ties that bind organised labour to social democracy’). It is tempting to declare the struggle impossible (because ‘social democracy is so ingrained in the trade unions – why waste the effort?’). It is not so unusual even to hear both optimistic and pessimistic versions expressed in one and the same breath!
But however the issue may be fudged, the fact remains: no matter how weak we may judge communist influence to be at present within the unions, the task remains to build a party that can guide all the other organisations of the working class.
4. The party must multiply and strengthen connections with the non-party masses.
For example, this is the light in which communists should see work with the anti-war and international solidarity movements, as well as with organised labour, however grandiose the term ‘masses’ may sound at this early stage of development.
5. The party will be a party of democratic centralism, with election from below and leadership from the centre. As Lenin puts it, “Now we have become an organised party, and this implies the establishment of authority, the transformation of the power of ideas into the power of authority, the subordination of lower party bodies to higher party bodies.” (Short History, p43)
The working class is not best served by a loose association of study and agitation groups, but by a party of democratic centralism, with a central committee, regions and branches.
6. All the comrades in the party must share a common proletarian discipline, binding upon all. And it is the duty of everyone to make sure this happens. The “class-conscious worker”, says Lenin, “must learn to demand that the duties of a party member be fulfilled not only by the rank-and-filers, but by the ‘people at the top’ as well.” (Short History, p44)
In short, the Mensheviks of yesterday and today want a party as a kind of club for ‘great thinkers’, unburdened with a lot of tiresome rules binding upon all without exception.
The Bolsheviks of yesterday and today demand a party that not only seeks ideological unity but also learns to consolidate that ideological unity by the material unity of organisation of the proletariat.
Lenin rubs this home in the final paragraph of One Step Forward.
“In its struggle for power, the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labour for capital … the proletariat can become, and inevitably will become, an invincible force only when its ideological unification by the principles of Marxism is consolidated by the material unity of an organisation which will weld millions of toilers into an army of the working class.”
1905 and the Third Congress
The eruption of revolution in 1905 created a new situation for the party. The divisions over organisational questions were now supplemented by open splits over questions of political tactics.
Where the Bolsheviks insisted that the bourgeois democratic struggle against Tsarist autocracy must not be left to the gutless bourgeoisie to lead, but must be conducted in a revolutionary manner under the leadership of the advanced proletariat and its party, the Mensheviks took the position that workers should leave leadership in the hands of the liberal bourgeoisie. The revolution was not socialist, so why should the workers get involved in leading it? This left-sounding posture merely served as a cover for the Mensheviks’ own inaction.
If the party was not to betray the trust of the masses, it had to resolve these differences without delay. This required the convening of a Third Congress, but when the Bolsheviks proposed this, the Mensheviks declined, preferring to sit on their hands.
The Bolsheviks then convened the Third Congress unilaterally, in April 1905. Sooner than attend, the Mensheviks responded by calling a congress of their own. The splitters’ congress duly committed the Mensheviks to the tactics of tucking in behind the liberal bourgeoisie, whilst the Third Congress of the RSDLP took on the burden of leadership which the Mensheviks insisted upon shirking.
When the Moscow proletariat began the armed uprising of December 1905, it was no accident that, out of a fighting organisation of about 1,000 combatants, over half were Bolsheviks.
It was not until 1912 that Menshevism was finally so discredited within the party that the Bolsheviks could finally release the party from the sapping influence of their opportunism and indiscipline. However, the lessons learned in those struggles proved invaluable to Bolshevism in the trials that lay ahead, both in making revolution and in defending proletarian dictatorship.
In that crucial year of 1905, when what some had belittled as ‘just’ organisational disagreements erupted into fundamental disagreement as to the whole character of the revolutionary development and the role to be played in it by the proletariat, another influential figure on the revolutionary left was to be found energetically taking the wrong side.
Insofar as he consented to being organised by anybody between 1903 and 1917 (the year which saw him jump ship into the Bolshevik ranks), Leon Trotsky was identified with the Mensheviks. So it was that, whilst the Bolsheviks were leading the Moscow proletariat in revolt in 1905, Trotsky and his fellow-Mensheviks, Khrustalev and Parvus, were using their ascendancy within the St Petersburg Soviet to obstruct plans for the uprising, refusing to arm the workers or bring them into contact with the soldiers of the St Petersburg garrison.
Trotsky and 1917
In fact, one way to gauge the organisational maturity of Bolshevism in finally leading the masses to seize the power in October 1917 is by negative reference to the shallowness of Trotsky’s ‘Lessons of October’. Such is the very revealing approach adopted by Comrade Stalin in his 1924 work, ‘The October Revolution and the tactics of the Russian Bolsheviks’.
Though Trotsky finally joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, it is clear from his analysis of the events of that world-shaking year (in his ‘Lessons of October’) just how poorly he grasped the complex character of Bolshevik leadership.
Having himself, for all those years, resisted being organised within the discipline of a communist party – feeling more at home in the world of cabals, factions and conspiracies – he now proved incapable of understanding how such a party could take on the task of organising the vast revolutionary masses of mother Russia.
Leadership, for Trotsky, was either a question of dazzling an audience with brilliant words, or of issuing military-style orders to the obedient ranks.
Comrade Stalin poured scorn on Trotsky’s ‘explanation’ of Bolshevik tactics as they evolved between April and October 1917. Trotsky talked as if, right from the word go, the Bolsheviks had a ready-made political army – as if it were only a question of conducting a few reconnaissance missions before sending in the masses to bring home the revolutionary victory.
“If one were to listen to Trotsky, one would think that there were only two periods in the history of the preparation for October: the period of reconnaissance and the period of uprising, and that all else comes from the evil one. What was the April demonstration of 1917? ‘The April demonstration, which went more to the ‘Left’ than it should have, was a reconnoitring sortie for the purpose of probing the disposition of the masses and the relations between them and the majority in the Soviets.’ And what was the July demonstration of 1917? In Trotsky’s opinion, ‘this, too, was in fact another, more extensive, reconnaissance at a new and higher phase of the movement.’ Needless to say, the June demonstration of 1917, which was organised at the demand of our party, should, according to Trotsky’s idea, all the more be termed a ‘reconnaissance’.
“This would seem to imply that as early as March 1917 the Bolsheviks had ready a political army of workers and peasants, and that if they did not bring this army into action for an uprising in April, or in June, or in July, but engaged merely in ‘reconnaissance’, it was because, and only because, ‘the information obtained from the reconnaissance’ at the time was unfavourable.
“Needless to say, this oversimplified notion of the political tactics of our party is nothing but a confusion of ordinary military tactics with the revolutionary tactics of the Bolsheviks.
“Actually, all these demonstrations were primarily the result of the spontaneous pressure of the masses, the result of the fact that the indignation of the masses against the war had boiled over and sought an outlet in the streets.
“Actually, the task of the party at that time was to shape and to guide the spontaneously arising demonstrations of the masses along the line of the revolutionary slogans of the Bolsheviks.
“Actually, the Bolsheviks had no political army ready in March 1917, nor could they have had one. The Bolsheviks built up such an army (and had finally built it up by October 1917) only in the course of the struggle and conflicts of the classes between April and October 1917, through the April demonstration, the June and July demonstrations, the elections to the district and city Dumas, the struggle against the Kornilov revolt, and the winning over of the Soviets. A political army is not like a military army. A military command begins a war with an army ready to hand, whereas the party has to create its army in the course of the struggle itself, in the course of class conflicts, as the masses themselves become convinced through their own experience of the correctness of the party’s slogans and policy.”
Comrades and friends, how much less is that ‘political army’ of the revolution ‘ready to hand’ in Britain today – to the dismay of all the would-be drill-sergeants of the revisionist and Trotskyite ‘left’? Where is it to be found?
Let us leave it up to these gentry to search for their ready-made army in the dwindling ranks of the imperialist Labour party. We will do better to recall those prophetic words of Lenin, way back in 1904, in One Step Forward.
“In its struggle for power, the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labour for capital … the proletariat can become, and inevitably will become, an invincible force only when its ideological unification by the principles of Marxism is consolidated by the material unity of an organisation which will weld millions of toilers into an army of the working class.”
There can be no better way to celebrate the proletarian revolution of October 1917 than to study for ourselves the real lessons of October, the heroism of the revolutionary masses and the revolutionary maturity of the Bolshevik party that led them.
The firmer these lessons are grasped, the surer can we be that our celebration of Bolshevik history tonight is but a foretaste of the communist future for which we struggle.
Long live October 1917!