The International Socialists and the Russian Revolution
Date:May 1975
Organisation:British and Irish Communist Organisation
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

12th January 2009

I’m very grateful to Ken MacLeod  for scanning (all 28 pages!) the following for the Left Archive. The document provides an analysis dating from 1975 by BICO of the International Socialists. As Ken notes:

In the 1970s and 1980s the back room of Collet’s in Gray’s Inn Road, London sold literature from any and every leftist group. I probably came across this pamphlet in 1977. I opened it out of idle curiosity and was hooked. On the train back to Hayes I read it from cover to cover with shocked fascination. Re-reading it thirty-odd years later, the shock has faded but the fascination remains. I think it’s still worth reading. This pamphlet was, going by the inimitable style, written by Brendan Clifford. The B&ICO is usually identified with the Two Nations theory, and their articles and pamphlets on Communist history and on the problems facing the British Labour movement in the 1970s have been somewhat overlooked. They were always interesting to read, even if you disagreed with them. They sold very well from that back room in Collet’s.

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  • By: Ken Macleod Tue, 13 Jan 2009 09:45:45

    Irish Mark P, if I’d thought the pamphlet consisted of Incoherent smears in the service of mass murder I’d never have bothered scanning it. I’d be interested to see your justification for ‘incoherent’ and ‘smears’. As for ‘mass murder’, ask any anarchist what they think of Lenin and Trotsky.

    As far as I can see, it’s perfectly possible to agree with the case made in the pamphlet without being a Stalinist, or a socialist of any sort. And for what it’s worth, I think the first section of the pamphlet is stingingly accurate, about Trotsky and about the Trotskyist movement.

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  • By: Garibaldy Tue, 13 Jan 2009 10:06:20

    Well said Ken.

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  • By: Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen Linken - eine Auswahl « Entdinglichung Tue, 13 Jan 2009 11:38:28

    […] British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO): The International Socialists and the Russian Revolution (1975) * Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist Leninist) (CPI(ML)): Worker & Unemployed News, […]

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  • By: anarchaeologist Tue, 13 Jan 2009 12:30:48

    I was also struck by the opening critique of Trotsky et al but not terribly surprised as it’s all out there anyway. Although it’s seldom acknowledged these days, there’s obviously some common ground shared by anarchists and other non-Leninists when ‘mass murder’ is raised as an issue. I can’t agree with Irish Mark P on his ‘incoherent smears’ although I’d admit that other BICO material is by no means free of this sort of thing. In a strange sort of way, a lot of the material I’ve seen from BICO is timeless, insofar as it’s of its time. I’ve yet to be convinced though that the whole thing isn’t some sort of elaborate joke. As WbS has pointed out above, most of the BICO output is indeed quite readable, even up to the present day, although obviously its present output should not be considered for its amusement value alone, whatever about some of the earlier texts.

    The obvious interest in things BICO/Aubane demonstrated by posters on this site is heartening, but perhaps the overall impression gained is that the group has been afforded an importance that they’ve never really had. I cite a comrade in an Austrian university with an interest in things Irish and leftie (who should perhaps know better), who was convinced that these guys were serious players and worthy of more engaging academic study. And all this thanks to the abundant CLR coverage and analysis…

    Incidentally, I see an advertisement in History Ireland (just delivered this morning) for the Coolacrease book, this time under the imprint of the Howth Free Press, set up, according to its website http://www.howthfreepress.com to ‘float some quality works on Irish history and culture out to the world’. Their range of titles includes ‘works on history and literature as well as on local heritage from the Howth-Fingal area’ however they appear to have only two other titles on their list, a volume on Christian druids and another on the songs of that well known two-nationist bard Carolan.

    Is Howth to be the new Aubane? Certainly this represents for historical geographers of the Irish political soul a deviation from the rural Cork-urban Belfast axis and a welcome change of trajectory towards the metropolitan Dublin region.

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  • By: Irish Mark P Tue, 13 Jan 2009 13:59:32

    Ken, the opening section of the pamphlet consists essentially of a claim that Stalinism was realistic while anti-Stalinist Marxism was unrealistic.

    No evidence is adduced for this, nor is any evidence provided for the host of bizarre claims about the psychology of Trotsky, about the nature of the Trotskyist programme or even for such basic and entirely unfounded assumptions as the claim that Lenin would have supported the idea of socialism in one country. For Clifford, then as now, merely to state whatever his vile gut feeling is on the issue of the day is enough for “truth” to be established.

    It is a defence of Stalinism. No, you don’t have to be a Stalinist to agree with much of it. You could also be an anti-Communist, of the view that no socialist society is possible bar Stalinist barbarism. It is impossible to agree with the arguments made in this pamphlet and not fall into one of those categories.

    In so far as the pamphlet has any historical interest, it is in the lesser scope of its lies as compared to those of other apologists for Stalinist mass murder. At a time when mainstream Stalinism still denied the horrors of Stalin’s rule, the BICO were well aware that Stalinism was a barbaric system that developed Russia essentially by throwing millions of people into a human meat grinder. They just didn’t care. I’m not sure that I find this allegedly pragmatic callousness any more attractive than the more traditional Stalinist delusions.

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  • By: ejh Tue, 13 Jan 2009 15:32:05

    It is impossible to agree with the arguments made in this pamphlet and not fall into one of those categories.

    I’ve got ten bob says different.

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  • By: Bartholomew Tue, 13 Jan 2009 19:13:49

    The Cruiser is barely cold in his grave and Aubane has taken over Howth! Next stop Dalkey, then on to Oxford…

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  • By: Ken MacLeod Tue, 13 Jan 2009 21:25:55

    Irish Mark P # 12: Ken, the opening section of the pamphlet consists essentially of a claim that Stalinism was realistic while anti-Stalinist Marxism was unrealistic.

    No evidence is adduced for this, nor is any evidence provided for the host of bizarre claims about the psychology of Trotsky, about the nature of the Trotskyist programme […]

    From my own recollections of B&ICO writings, such as their pamphlet On Trotsky, the B&ICO was very ready to adduce evidence for all of these. Its members must have worn out quite a few of the italic balls of the old golfball typewriters typing out long passages from works they were polemicising with. (See, for instance, the long passages from Cliff in the later parts of this pamphlet.) But in the case of this section, the evidence can be found in Deutscher’s biographies and Trotsky’s autobiography, with which Clifford was quite familiar and no doubt assumed his readers were too.

    or even for such basic and entirely unfounded assumptions as the claim that Lenin would have supported the idea of socialism in one country.

    The first person to say that Lenin supported the idea of socialism in one country was Trotsky. With reference to Lenin’s On the Slogan of the United States of Europe, Trotsky wrote:

    “The only more or less concrete historical argument advanced against the slogan of a United States of Europe was formulated in the Swiss Sotsial-Demokrat in the following sentence: ‘Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism.’ From this the Sotsial-Demokrat draws the conclusion that the victory of socialism is possible in one country, and that therefore there is no reason to make the dictatorship of the proletariat in each separate country contingent upon the establishment of a United States of Europe.”

    – Trotsky, as quoted by Stalin, a quotation whose authenticity as far as I know has never been contested by anyone.

    You say that it only a Stalinist or an anti-Communist could agree with the arguments made in this pamphlet. In part, this depends on what you mean by a Stalinist. The term ‘Stalinist’ is often used to elide people who (like Harpal Brar) “defend everything that was done in the Soviet Union in the Stalin period”, and the overwhelming majority of the Communist movement, who would not do that and who indeed would condemn a great deal of what was done, but who would still argue that the basic decisions made by the CPSU in the 1920s were right.

    But, that aside, lots of other tendencies could agree with much of this pamphlet. Bukharinists could, for instance. They did have a coherent programme, which was adopted by the Trotskyists in the 1930s. The Left Opposition made a bloc with the Right Opposition in 1932. As Stalin was well aware, the NKVD under Yagoda had thoroughly penetrated the LO, so Stalin was somewhat taken aback that he only learned of this bloc in 1936.

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  • By: Ken MacLeod Tue, 13 Jan 2009 21:27:48

    PS. sorry about the unclosed italics (etc) in the above. I’m sure it’s clear from the context who is saying what.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 13 Jan 2009 21:37:50

    My very real problem with the use of Stalinist in these contexts is that the functional structures which to me are possibly a significant generator of profoundly negative outcomes (democratic centralism being only the most obvious, and yet I can understand why in certain contexts to use it might be understandable) used by further left parties are near-indistinguishable across the supposed spectrum from ‘Stalinist’ to ‘Trotskyist’. That doesn’t really give me hope. And then the elision, as noted above, of all those who belonged to non self-described Trotskyist parties as “Stalinist” gets a bit wearing. I loath that period in the USSR, I believe that it was a betrayal of much that was good about the achievements of the USSR and would never seek to defend it. But I see no reason why when I was in the WP I was expected to shoulder the burden of those crimes either in a rhetorical or a real fashion simply because that party was broadly supportive of the USSR at that time. Or why anyone else should be expected to either. There were real enough problems with the USSR and Communist bloc (obvious lack of freedoms in various areas) to be criticised and critiqued without having to resort to that. And it’s not that I doubt the sincerity of those making those criticisms, simply that I think they’re misdirected and have no purchase on the contemporary period.

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  • By: Irish Mark P Tue, 13 Jan 2009 22:08:50

    Ken, it’s not in dispute that Lenin once argued that a socialist revolution could happen first in one country and that “after expropriating the capitalists and organising their own socialist production, the victorious proletariat of that country will arise against the rest of the world”. He did use that rather sloppy formulation once, although there is precious little in the (vast) bulk of his writings to suggest that he thought that socialism could be built in one country.

    Given that he wrote so much, you can pull a quote or two from Lenin to suggest almost anything (and indeed many sect leaders have made their living doing much that). And in so far as he was arguing that a revolution would happen first and foremost in one country and that other revolutions would spread from that he was correct. However, the whole thrust of his work on this issue was to argue that a socialist revolution would indeed have to spread in order to survive, that socialism was a worldwide system. There is no evidence to suggest that he thought that Russia could build socialism successfully without revolution spreading to the advanced capitalist countries, and indeed little of the strategies he put forward would make any sense if he did think that.

    Secondly, and rather more significantly, yes it was entirely my intent to include under the title of Stalinist both the people who deny that Stalin did anything wrong and the people who realise that Stalinism meant barbarism but who ultimately fall back on some version of the old omelette and eggs analogy to justify it anyway. The self justifications may differ but the practical political consequences are much the same.

    I think that history has rather conclusively answered the question of whether the Stalinists could build socialism in one country. They did not and that isn’t because of some mistake or otherwise of theirs, it was because the possibility never existed. I think that “pragamatic” soft-Stalinist arguments may have made some sense to Communists outside of Russia at the time of the Stalinist Counter-revolution. However the actual barbarism of the Stalinist project, combined with its final collapse, rather cuts the legs out from under such views. If Stalin’s Russia was socialist, I am not.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 13 Jan 2009 22:27:32

    But that elides the USSR after Stalin with the USSR during Stalin, something that you’re unwilling to do with the USSR before Stalin. I’m not sure that’s an intellectually rigorous position from any particular angle. Why should the sclerotic leaderships or societal structures of the 1980s be seen as per definition the same as the hyper energised lunacies of the 1930s during the purges, or indeed the equally hyper energised and often questionable early to mid-1920s?

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 13 Jan 2009 22:31:01

    Or to pút it another way, why wouldn’t Communists outside of the USSR be able to pick and choose between all these points and say, “well that period I largely support, but that I don’t and that I do but in a critical way”? Even inside the USSR that was possible. I don’t find that a huge problem because it seems to me that the alternative is that there is some sort of ‘original sin’ that runs through communism in practice which logically must be there from the beginning. And that I do find problematic.

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  • By: Bryan the Trot Tue, 13 Jan 2009 23:53:44

    A polemic against the “original sin” thing is: Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky. Or In Defense of Marxism by Leon Trotsky.

    Many take offense to us calling all one-party ruled states with bureaucratically planned economies “Stalinism.” I think using the term too widely can cause emotion rather than political clarity to dominate debates.

    However, Stalin was the first to codify one-party permanent rule, and he aggressively put forward “socialism in one country.” Many may not find the term useful, but “one-party ruled states with bureaucratically planned economies” sure is a mouthful every time you wanna say “Stalinist.”

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  • By: Ken MacLeod Wed, 14 Jan 2009 00:15:16

    Irish Mark P # 18: people who realise that Stalinism meant barbarism but who ultimately fall back on some version of the old omelette and eggs analogy to justify it anyway.

    I doubt that such people exist.

    I do know that in Czechoslovakia in 1977 I didn’t feel that I was in the presence of barbarism, and I do know that Jan Kavan, who owned the van I was in and had supplied the literature smuggled in that van, was an agent of some Western intelligence service. I also know that I was there on an IMG assignment.

    So when I read in the above pamphlet the sentence ‘Bukharin, at his trial, describes the state of mind of the opposition as a divided mind’, it kind of hit home, if you know what I mean.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Wed, 14 Jan 2009 07:29:34

    Bryan, I know where you’re coming from, but these debates seem to me to still be far too reductionist. Is it seriously possible to argue, as I enquired earlier, that the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s was essentially the same as in the 1980s or indeed 1920s? That seems to be a profound simplification, whether we use the term Stalinist or degenerated workers’ state. And I dislike simplification. To then map motivations onto people in 2009 as if those are precisely, or even very, similar to those of the actual Stalinist period seems equally reductionist. It’s not that there aren’t Stalinists in the actual sense of the term about, i.e. apologists for Stalin and the crimes that he committed, but these are a tiny tiny strain and to ascribe the term to broader parties or people on the left in this period doesn’t stand up for me. Or take the one party point. As previously noted many non-Marxist or even Marxist leftists would have every right to laugh hollowly at the idea that pre-Stalin the USSR wasn’t a one party state and they suffered for it too. As regards socialism in one country, to see that as a touchstone either way (and in fairness to your argument there are those who take opposing views to it who seem equally wedded to the idea that – as MarkP notes – ‘pragmatism’ is its own justification, particularly when expressed in its most ruthless variant) seems odd since one could easily argue either way.

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  • By: ejh Wed, 14 Jan 2009 08:38:44

    Ken – I didn’t know you were in Czechoslovakia in 1977.

    I don’t want to come over too much “tell us what you did in the Cold War” and you may not think it’s anybody’s business or you may not think it’s worth the retelling, but should it be otherwise, this would be an interesting thing to hear more about on another occasion.

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  • By: NollaigO Wed, 14 Jan 2009 09:32:25

    and I do know that Jan Kavan, who owned the van I was in and had supplied the literature smuggled in that van, was an agent of some Western intelligence service. I also know that I was there on an IMG assignment. ,

    Ken,
    How do you know that Jan Kavan was an agent of some (!) Western intelligence service ?

    The network definitely existed in the 1970s – a former girlfriend of mine from the early 1970s and my (present) brother-in-law went on one such trip. They used to smuggle marxist literature into Czechoslovakia (which many may regard as bizarre) and bring documents out.
    I met Jan Kevan on a number of occasions. While I have had no contact with the IMG since 1978, I never heard that Kevan was accused of being an agent of “some Western intelligence service” – again a very serious unsubstantiated charge appearing on CLR.
    He was accused of being an agent of the secret police of the Czech Communist government. IIRC, this happened in the 1990s after the collapse of the regime but he won a court case in Czechoslovakia to clear his name.

    http://www.radio.cz/en/article/66588
    http://www.radio.cz/en/article/66336

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  • By: Ken MacLeod Wed, 14 Jan 2009 10:35:25

    NollaigO, one reason Jan Kavan won his court case was that Robin Cook testified on his behalf, in camera. All that is known in public is that Cook is reported to have said that Kavan was ‘a friend of Britain’. A well-respected left intellectual has told me that the IMG member (another well-respected left intellectual) centrally responsible for the IMG’s work with Kavan believed at the time that Kavan was working for a British intelligence service.

    Stronger evidence, quite uncontested, of Kavan’s intelligence service connections was given in the BBC programme The Spying Game, which I recount along with my own involvement here.

    Note that I don’t say Kavan was an operative (i.e. an employee) of any service. An agent is (if I’ve got the parlance right) someone who acts on behalf of a service. I don’t know what the formal term is for someone who conveys tons (literally) of books and thousands of dollars from CIA front organizations.

    And I can assure you that it was not just, or even mainly, ‘marxist literature’ that got smuggled in the van I was in.

    The conservative columnist Mark Almond was also part of the network, and became somewhat disillusioned with its results.

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  • By: PJ Callan Thu, 15 Jan 2009 20:49:39

    At http://wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?topic_id=1409&fuseaction=va2.document&identifier=5034F0A7-96B6-175C-94DC93E55F32C3B1&sort=Collection&item=Czechoslovakia%20in%20the%20Cold%20War

    TODOR ZHIVKOV says in part of a report on the events in the CSSR in ’68

    “At the Dresden meeting we were informed that the counterrevolutionaries had prepared a manifesto to the people and would make it public at the right time. Western intelligence services are operating there. There is no need for us to use the Stalinist methods of the past but we are obligated to take measures to introduce order in Czechoslovakia as well as in Romania”

    Zhivkov was saying this at a Bulgarian Communist Party Plenum.

    His use of the phrase “Stalinist methods” clearly indicates that they had taken on board the whole analysis of Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CPSU.
    That congress set in motion the revisionist policies and processes that encouraged counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia and ultimately led to Gorbachev coming to power in the USSR.

    PS – Last year Gorbachev admitted his big influence wasn’t so much Lenin but –

    “St Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, the other Christ,” said Mr Gorbachev. “His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life,” he added.

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