Stalinist mind at the end of its tether/ 1

Submitted by AWL on 12 April, 2004 - 10:02

"…The form of a rising can be that of a coup - like the October revolution of 1917…" Jack Conrad
"So where authentic Marxism seeks out the truth, the AWL tries to gain factional advantage and cohere its own ranks by manufacturing a system of falsification and outright lies."

Which lies? One of the difficulties in arguing with Jack Conrad/John Bridge (J-J) and Mark Fischer is that they recognise no restraints, no need at all for there to be any correlation between reality and what they say: political discussion is an autonomous, purely literary thing. Like a pattering stage performer, they say whatever they like, whatever they think will be useful. That is one of the two defining characteristics of their polemics.

The other is the extreme, hysterical violence of style and language. Here they are still entirely Stalinist.

For example, try "to gain factional advantage and cohere its own ranks" is precisely what they have done for 20 years with the argument that Saur was not a coup.

Most of The Leninist's polemics on Afghanistan over a dozen years belabour those - Workers' Power, Militant/Socialist Party, the Sparts - who, like The Leninist, supported both the PDPA regime and Russia's colonial war in Afghanistan. Their crime was that they defined the "April revolution" of 1978 as a "coup".

The idiotic insistence that Saur was not a coup has served J-J to distinguish himself from those who were in terms of their immediate politics on Afghanistan, his close co-thinkers.

In a sense it still plays that role, now that they are anti-Stalinists, vis-à-vis AWL…

The belief that the April coup was not a coup has been the sect badge of honour of the Leninist/Weekly Worker group.

For 21 years J-J has written, recycled and again recycled the same article on Afghanistan. It was originally based on a small book published in 1982 by a member of the Workers' Voice segment of the Turkish CP, Emine Engin. The quotes from Lenin, the alleged historical parallels, and all the assessments which form the skeletal structure of all J-J's pieces originate with Emine Engin.

Engin's book contained a strange error in which she quotes Frederick Engels on the "coups of Bonaparte and Bismarck". In fact, Otto von Bismarck was a faithful servant of the Prussian king, who never made a coup. Engels never wrote about such a "Bismarck coup".

He did write about the 'revolutionary' methods Bismarck used against the then independent German states in the struggle for Prussian supremacy and that, I guess, was the source of Engin's error.

It is an error which no one familiar with the writings of Marx and Engels would make. Cribbed from Engin, it has appeared again and again in J-J's writings on Afghanistan and again recently in Weekly Worker.

Of course, J-J's fundamental assessment of the modern Afghanistan question has changed radically.

He went through the 1980s believing that the Afghan 1978 coup had made a socialist revolution and that the Russian invaders of 1979 had brought help to socialism in Afghanistan. All that is gone in his latest recycling. But the arguments, quotes, historical references which he took from Engin back in 1982 are still there!

He now thinks that the USSR was a sort of slave state, but he still backs the Afghan Stalinists and the Russian invasion!

He still defends the idiotic idea that the April 1978 army-airforce coup - led politically by the Afghan Stalinist party, the PDP - was not a coup but a popular revolution. The more he changes the more he stays the same!

I will avoid repeating points made already in the survey of Emine Engin's work, except where there is something to say about J-J's "cover" of Emine Engin. I begin with some general points.

J-J's article is an attempt to reply to my article in Workers' Liberty 2/2, "Afghanistan and the Shape of the 20th Century" ("Afghanistan…"). He makes no attempt to present an alternative overview to the one I made. He concentrates on a limited number of points.

He ignores the contradiction I pointed to in my "Critical Notes on the CPGB": "It is impossible to stay on the right side of political sanity and combine the 'democratic' anti-Stalinist politics which the Weekly Worker group now says it adheres to with defence of the stalinist coup in Afghanistan and the consequent Russian war of conquest that killed one and a half million Afghans and drove six million of them - one in three - over the borders."

Instead, he launches an impassioned defence of the Afghan Stalinists and their revolution-that-never-was. It is as if he has learned nothing at all in the last 20 years! Chest beating and fulminating factional polemics (octopus polemics: spray as much ink as possible and hope it covers the holes in your political clothing!) make up much of his copy.

J-J is, like his mentor on Afghanistan Emine Engin, concerned to establish that the April 78 coup was a revolution and not a coup. He follows her closely, reproducing her quotes and arguments, to which he sometimes adds his own elaboration.

The 1916 Rising compared with the PDP coup

Like Engin, he "proves" that Saur was not a coup but a revolution by obliterating the distinction between a revolution and a coup.

Being a karaoke Leninist and not a Marxist, he rests on quotations and on an analogy derived from what Lenin wrote about the Dublin Rising of 1916. It is the same quote as Engin cites, except that J-J, unlike Engin, does not have the wit to trim it down before it jackknifes and cuts his political head off!

In a polemic defending, amongst other things, the Russian attempt to annex Afghanistan, Karaoke Jack calls Lenin to the microphone - and, not content to have Lenin speak about a putsch in the words cited by Engin above, has him defend the rights of small nations against the AWL!

Lenin, says J-J, "warned" "the Sean Matgamnas and Martin Thomases of his day, the leftist pedants and doctrinaires" against - against what? Against - he quotes Lenin - "treating the national movements of small nations with disdain". Indeed.

But it was we who defended Afghanistan against Russian annexation! You supported the Russian imperialist invaders and still, in retrospect, think you were right to support them!

The difference between Marxism and J-J's approach is strikingly obvious here. It is worth examining the issues in some detail. It will shed light on what happened in Afghanistan.

In fact, though ultimately Lenin was proved right, there was nothing self-evidently absurd in calling the Easter rising a putsch, immediately after its suppression.

Twelve hundred men and a few women, about one sixth of them members of the trade union militia, the Irish Citizen Army, seized the big buildings in the centre of Dublin, built barricades across streets and defended them, and, remaining in their static positions, held out for six days against the British Army, and the big guns of British gunboats on the river Liffey. Then they surrendered. Fifteen of the leaders were then court-martialed and shot. A 16th, Roger Casement, after an Old Bailey trial, was hanged in London 3 months later.

During the week, some of the Dublin workers seized the chance to loot shops; the Dublin crowds spat at the insurgents as they were led through the streets by their captors.

Though Connolly was the Acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, there was no specifically working class action to back the insurgents; indeed on the eve of the rising Connolly had been hard put to it to stop the union executive hauling down the tricolour from above the Union's headquarters at Liberty Hall.

Outside of Dublin there were brief skirmishes between police and a few supporters of the Rising in Wexford and Galway, nothing else.

On the eve of the Rising there was sudden chaos because the secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which organised the rising had worked entirely as conspirators behind the scenes. Even the head of the nationalist militia, the Irish Volunteers, the great Gaelic scholar, Eoin MacNeill, only learned, by accident, at the last moment, of what was planned.

He called off the Easter Sunday manoeuvres that were to be a cover for an all-Ireland Rising.

He thus faced the leaders in Dublin with the choice of either ignominious collapse, or doing what they did the following day, when they turned out in Dublin to make what they knew was only going to be a defiant gesture, which would cost many of them their lives.

Now, it so happens that my feelings about the Rising, and about the insurgents, is the same as it was when as a very small boy I listened avidly to my mother's stories about the heroes Pearse and Connolly and Casement and Cathal Brugha. My opinion of the decision to rise in Dublin on Easter Monday is the same as it was when I wrote this assessment in Socialist Worker more than 30 years ago:

"At the eleventh hour the titular head of the Volunteers called off the Easter Sunday manoeuvres, which were planned as a cover for the rising. Faced with this catastrophe, expecting to be rounded up, believing that European peace was imminent and that, through their failure to act, Ireland would miss the chance of an independent voice at the coming peace conference, the leaders in Dublin had to make their choice.

"Connolly had already indicated what his choice would be in such a situation, in 1914. He had written: 'Even an unsuccessful attempt at socialist revolution by force of arms, following the paralysis of the economic life of militarism [by a general strike], would be less disastrous to the socialist cause than the act of socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers.'

"On Easter Sunday 1916 their choice lay between one kind of defeat or another. Either a defeat in battle, that might help rouse the forces for a new struggle. Or defeat without a fight, which would bring discouragement and demoralisation in its wake as so often before in Irish history. Connolly and Pearse decided to fight. They went out to try and start the fire Connolly had written of at the outbreak of the war. For a week they defended in arms the 32 County Irish Republic, one and indivisible, which they had proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916. Before they surrendered, Dublin was in ruins.

"They died before British Army firing squads, together with other leaders of the Rising, after summary Court Martial. Connolly, grievously wounded, was court-martialed in bed and shot propped up in a chair.

"They did indeed light the fire of revolt which Connolly had spoken of, but it was not to be controlled by men of their persuasion nor to lead to their goal."

Even so, I think, there was a great deal of the putsch about it. Lenin doesn't deny that.

He insists on seeing the Rising in the context of the long history of Irish nationalism and in the perspective of his own conviction that "social revolution is inconceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petit-bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious, proletarian and semi-proletarian masses, against landlord, church, monarchical, national and other oppression - to imagine that means repudiating social revolution" [Lenin: The Irish Rebellion of 1916, July, 1916].

Lenin's concern was to cite the 1916 rising as objective data in support of his belief that imperialism and the imperialist war would call forth movements for national liberation. Vindication of that view is what concerns Lenin in his polemics on the Easter Rising.

Karl Radek, together with such Bolsheviks as Nikolai Bukharin, Yuri Pyatakov and Evgenia Bosch opposed Lenin on this issue. Trotsky's policies on self-determination were identical with Lenin's.

The "left" Bolsheviks, whom Lenin called "Imperialist Economists", argued that democratic questions such as national self determination could have no meaning in the era of imperialism and world war. They were an important current. (Their views momentarily became Bolshevik policy just after the February Revolution. Had Lenin not defeated them then, the consequences for the proletarian revolution of the Bolsheviks having such a policy for the nations oppressed within the Tsar's "prison house of nations", would have been catastrophic.)

Lenin expects national revolts as a consequence of the inter-imperialist war and seizes on the 1916 rising with both hands as objective evidence. He was right, that the rising was and would be part of a developing chain of events. Thus it proved to be.

But in fact things might have turned out differently. When the British started to shoot the leaders of the rising there was a shift of sympathy towards them. Yet it was not alone the Rising that made for the decisive shift in Irish politics in the 32 months between April 1916 and the general election at the end of 1918, in which the old Home Rule party was all but annihilated. The second, republican, Sinn Fein (the first Sinn Fein had been monarchist), gained 73% of Irish seats in the Westminster Parliament (for 48% of the votes cast).

The decisive shift came from the attempt of the British government to impose conscription.

Without that the shift would probably have been much smaller. The Home Rule Party would probably have survived (it survived in the six counties until 1970, when its forces merged into the SDLP), Sinn Fein would have been much weaker.

It is one of the myths of the Stalinists that Lenin supported the 1916 rising. No he did not. It is clear from what he writes that his ardent sympathy is with them, but how he saw them is expressed in the passage above. There is no question that he endorsed their tactics. He never, then or later, commented on James Connolly's role in the rising.

The Comintern's 1920 theses on working class alliances with "revolutionary nationalists" in countries where such people existed, is both an endorsement and a severe implicit criticism of Connolly, who dissolved the Citizen Army into the National Army on the eve of the rising.

Lenin got it right about 1916 because it did, as he expected, prove to be part of a burgeoning movement.

And what has this got to do with Afghanistan and the Stalinists' Saur coup? Lenin was writing about 1,200 republicans and socialists, amateur soldiers, who pitted themselves in arms against the mightiest empire the world had ever known, in the second city of the imperial centre. As Lenin insists on pointing out, they were connected through common aspiration and common identity with a long tradition of mass Irish nationalism.

Their deed helped prepare the forces that seized the chance when the British tried to force conscription through.

And Afghanistan? It was a take-over of power by a section of the professional military forces. There was no mass support for what the PDPA, the political leadership of the officers who commanded the coup-making forces, wanted to do.

The coup-makers pitted themselves against the overwhelming majority of the Afghan peoples, attempting to conquer and subjugate them, using the methods of bloodiest class rule, and, soon, allied themselves with foreign invaders who conducted a war like the Nazis conducted against, say, the Yugoslavs or the Russians, the French conducted in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam - a war of colonial conquest by way of the mass murder of vast numbers of people.

The PDPA that did that had nothing in common with the Dublin insurgents! Nothing at all. I will return to the question below.

Part 2

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