Workers Hammer No. 195

Summer 2006


The Bolshevik school of experience

(Spartacist League Dayschool)

We reprint below remarks by comrade James Robertson from the Prometheus Research Library at the 15 April dayschool.

The issue of the 1916 uprising is a matter of before and after. If you go back to John Brown’s taking Harper’s Ferry — where he was subsequently smashed by then-Colonel Robert E Lee, chief of the Confederate armies a year later — Frederick Douglass said to John Brown, don’t do it, you can’t possibly win. That’s on the way in to something. Beforehand, something like the Paris Commune should not have been done — it would, on the basis of analysis, lead to a massacre. But after the fact, when the workers have gone out and raised their arms, you must defend this, and learn from it, but above all defend it. Lenin had a big quarrel with George Plekhanov about an uprising. He said to Plekhanov, after the fact if you announce publicly that they should not have taken up arms that makes you a criminal to the working class.

Going into the Easter uprising in Dublin, you can see that there was about everything wrong with it. Capitulation to the nationalists, isolation…. I think Connolly is quoted as saying, we cannot win this because the arms have not arrived, our connections with the countryside have not been sustained, but it’s better to go and fight. Well, if a Marxist-Leninist had a chance to talk to him then, one would say: you’re out of your mind, don’t do it. But, they did it. And it was a blow against British imperialism and against the whole capitalist world order. It must be defended fully, thoroughly, completely as an act against the oppressor.

I’d like to get to the core of my remarks, that is, why the Bolsheviks were so special. That’s crucial. In the Tsarist empire there was a multi-faceted, repetitive and massive school of experience for the working class, the like of which took place nowhere else on this planet: working in parliament, boycotting parliament, armed insurrection, going underground, dealing with the national question. Everything happened over and over. The Bolsheviks were tested, tested, tested, making every kind of mistake along the way; fighting with the boycottists, having a narrow party, having a broad party, throwing away the conditions of membership. Every kind of circumstance took place. Somebody here made the point that Lenin didn’t generalise from the particular experiences of the Bolshevik faction, which retrospectively was seen as the party after 1912, until the war came. Then, looking at the response of the different sections, above all the German section of the Second International, Lenin came to appreciate the uniquely valuable quality of the Bolsheviks’ own experience and used it as the core for the documentary programmatic basis for the founding of the Third International. And it happened that way, there was nothing special, there were not men of a special mould (to quote Stalin) in the Bolshevik Party. They just had a special kind of experience: a very broad mobilisation of the working class and a big section of the intelligentsia.

OK, “One Big Union” reminded me, there was the Winnipeg General Strike and it was smashed. Jack Mac Donald, who came to found the Canadian Communist Party, learned trade union tactics from that and they had a pretty good party up in Canada. But they never had any factionalism, so they were easily rolled up by the Stalinists. However, practically every founding leader of the Canadian Communist Party became a Trotskyist. Maurice Spector didn’t like Jack Mac Donald so Maurice Spector became a Trotskyist. Jack Mac Donald looked at where the party was going and became a Trotskyist [laughter]. Because that was what was indicated in terms of remaining faithful to the programme. But the American party reflected the diversity of its origins out of both the IWW and the Socialist Party, so there was a lot of factionalism which became institutionalised. It became an illness in the American party, but an illness that by 1928 became a great virtue, because some people were going to go over to Stalin unconditionally and others were going to look really critically at Stalin. And furthermore there was a certain amount of factional loyalty, so you had a chance to go and talk to your own people before you got expelled.

I really appreciate the talks by both Edward and Julia. I thought they were extremely powerful explanations. And they are insights gained from the heights of our experience — and this is important — the commanding heights when you can see very far because the class struggles are very large and all the fundamental questions are posed. Now we’re in an unusually deep trough, and the experiences that are immediately available to us are not very good. So we had better make very heavy reference back to the experiences of the workers movement when it could see much further: 1918 through 1921. And furthermore, there’s a quote by Lenin in January 1917. He gave a talk in Switzerland and said: “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” Now, I run into various panacea-mongers who say, what is your immediate perspective? Don’t pay so much attention to your immediate perspective, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in February! [Laughter]. What is your programme? That is the decisive question.