From Socialist Review, No. 8, December 1978–January 1979.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Pure Revolution: Anti-Bolshevik Communism
Merlin Press £3
The revolutionary crisis that gripped European the wake of the Russian revolution and the first world war led to a complete shake-up and realignment of the working class movement. The pre-war division between the social democrats ‘marxists’ and the syndicalists/anarchists was replaced by the division between the now openly reformist social democrats in the Second International and the revolutionary communists in the Third International.
Many syndicalists and semi-anarchists who, as Trotsky put it ‘really wanted to tear the bourgeoisie’s head off, and were attracted by the revolutionary audacity of the Bolsheviks and above all by the soviet system of workers’ councils, sought to join the Third International. One of the products of this period was a movement of extreme leftist, or ‘ultra-left’ communists who attempted a kind of fusion of Marxism and syndicalism which received the name ‘council communism’.
Fired with revolutionary enthusiasm, and disgusted by the chauvinism, opportunism and outright counter-revolution of social democracy, the council communists demanded a direct onslaught by the proletariat on capitalism. No compromises, alliances, temporary retreats or tactical manoeuvres could be tolerated. Parliament was obsolete, so communists should have nothing to do with it, trade unions had become agents of capitalism, so the answer was to break up the unions and build new organisations.
Lenin saw clearly that such tactics would isolate the communists from the mass of workers who retained illusions in Parliament, the unions and social democracy and make it impossible to win over a majority of the working class, and issued a firm but comradely rebuttal in Left-Wing Communism; and Infantile Disorder.
Faced with this criticism and its endorsement of the Comintern, some of the council Communists denounced Bolshevism as a new opportunism and attempted to build new organisations of their own, notably the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD).
Paul Mattick, a revolutionary youth at the time is heir to this tradition. The council communists as a presence in the working-class movement did not survive the early 1920s, but Mattick, with rare consistency, has attempted to cling to and develop their positions ever since. This collection of essays, written over the last forty years, is the record of this project.
In Mattick’s view, social democracy, Bolshevism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, fascism, are all merely aspects of a developing state capitalism. Indeed the whole history of the labour movement and the working class’s struggle up to now is seen as little more than an accessory to the process of capital accumulation and concentration.
Lenin’s theory of the party is equated with Stalinism on the basis of Lenin’s position in 1902, with no regard for the changes in the theory that took place in 1905 and after, and no regard for the seething democratic reality of the Bolshevik party in 1917. The problem of counter-revolution in 1917, because it does not fit Mattick’s scheme, is simply wished away without evidence or argument.
The Communist International was Lenin’s bid for world power. Lenin and Trotsky’s condemnation of German Communist Party’s hopelessly adventurist March Action in 1921 is depicted as opposition to the German revolution as such, when Mattick must know that the March Action was a disaster for the German working class and revolutionary movement, and it was exclusively on this basis that Lenin and Trotsky criticised it.
Socialism in one country was ‘not a perversion of the Leninist standpoint’ but a ‘direct consequence’ of Lenin’s policy. Stalin was ‘the best disciple of Lenin’ in his attitude to German fascism. The controversies between Stalinists and Trotskyists are ‘superficial and often silly’. One could go on almost indefinitely for at times. Mattick descends to the level of polemic we have come to associate with American cold war hacks.
However it is neither ignorance nor malice that motivates Mattick to these absurdities but a fundamentally false theory. Mattick’s marxism is in fact a deep and through going economism. One hesitates to make this charge (which has been so abused and misused in recent years) but, in this case, it is justified.
In the first place he regards the workers’ movement and the revolution as overwhelmingly an economic struggle with only the most marginal political element. Secondly he relies exclusively on the catastrophic and total collapse of capitalism not only to provide the context of revolution, but to produce the revolution and determine its course. Thirdly he sees in history only the direct reflection of economic development.
This is why, having grasped the fact of a global tendency towards state capitalism he treats everything, including Bolshevism and workers’ revolution, as a manifestation of this, and is unable to see that the reality of state capitalism in Russia could be established only on the basis of the political defeat of Bolshevism and that revolution.
This is why, generalising from the objective economic unity of interests of the working class, he is unable to see the uneven development of the consciousness of the class which necessitates the creation of the revolutionary party.
This is why Mattick is at his best when dealing with abstract economic theory and at this worst with a concrete historical situation, for concrete reality is never pure economics. This is why he can allow of no political strategy for the working class.
In fact Mattick’s economism dominates his whole conception of the revolutionary process. Proceeding from the contradiction of interest between labour and capital he conceives of the revolution as a pure confrontation of these two forces with all complicating factors such as peasants, national oppression rigidly excluded. But as Lenin said ‘Those who expect a pure revolution will never live to see it’. Nor, we may add, are their ideas likely to be an effective guide to action in preparing the impure, but real, revolution of the future.
Last updated: 4.3.2013