Lessons of October for the builders of Britain’s bolshevik party

Speech given by Comrade Paul Cannon at a meeting organised by the CPGB-ML on 3 November to mark the 95th anniversary of the October revolution.

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When we speak about the international significance of the October revolution it is good to remind ourselves of the excellent analysis which Lenin made in his wonderful pamphlet Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.

Now we already have very considerable international experience which most definitely shows that certain fundamental features of our revolution have a significance which is not local, not peculiarly national, not Russian only, but international. I speak here of international significance not in the broad sense of the term: not some, but all the fundamental and many of the secondary features of our revolution are of international significance in the sense that the revolution influences all countries. No, taking it in the narrowest sense, ie, understanding international significance to mean the international validity or the historical inevitability of a repetition on an international scale of what has taken place in our country, it must be admitted that certain fundamental features of our revolution do possess such a significance.

The experience of the October revolution, its preparation and execution are not rooted alone in the year 1917, but actually encompass the period dating from 1903 and the beginnings of Bolshevik organisation. Lenin went to great lengths in Left-Wing Communism to stress that he didn’t wish to over-exaggerate the significance of the Russian experience, and added that other future socialist revolutions would add to the rich historical experience gathered by the international proletariat.

Despite this, when we remember and commemorate the Great October Socialist Revolution, we do so taking with us the fundamental lessons of its specific significance to our struggle in Britain, namely: the nature and validity of soviet power as opposed to multi-party bourgeois democracy, and the absolute vital fundamentals of Bolshevik theory and tactics.

Leninist party

Lenin wrote that “the struggle to build a Bolshevik party was itself a preparatory school for victory over the bourgeoisie”.

In the struggle to build such a party, the advanced guard, the advanced workers (politically conscious and militant) learn how to fight for their interests. They learn who their enemies are and who their friends are. They learn how to fight all the enemies of socialism – not only the bourgeoisie, but also enemies within their own camp; the [right] opportunists who seek compromise with capitalism and the adventurists [left opportunists] who risk disaster and ruin with their inability to compromise, to retreat, to put words into actions.

In the struggle against opportunism, the Bolshevik party grew up and strengthened itself, clarified its positions and forged its unity in action – a unity born from fierce struggle, which was at times conducted openly and legally and at other times covertly and illegally.

In the struggle to create a revolutionary leadership, a Bolshevik party, the principal enemy, the main opportunist political trend inside Russia was Menshevism. The Menshevik party, the party of Trotsky, Martov and other egotists, was the group against which Lenin and his Bolsheviks competed for the winning over of the proletariat.

In Britain, in the early part of the twentieth century, the advanced workers [the communists] had to fight against the Fabians and Labour party. Today, the advanced workers are once again faced with a battle against the ‘left’ wing of the Labour party for the winning of the support of British workers. Our job must be to break the working class from the suffocating embrace of social democracy, and all the left and right opportunists, reformists and apologisers for imperialism, be they the SWP, CPB or Socialist Party.

Our struggle has developed along these lines for many years and will only intensify as the crisis of capitalism bites deeper. The Bolsheviks, in their struggle against opportunism, were blessed with 15 years of unparalleled experience as they built up and forged their party. Lenin said that the 15 years preceding 1917 were unprecedented for the scope and intensity of their struggles, for the experiences of success and failure which accumulated in this time.

Such was the intensity of the struggle against tsarist despotism and the horrors of World War One that the masses of toilers throughout the Russian empire were able to learn through their own experience the necessity not only of overthrowing the tsar, but also of moving to socialism, after the betrayal of the ideals of the February revolution by the Mensheviks and other class collaborators.

Russian Revolution – not just 1917!

Lenin, writing in Left-Wing Communism, outlined the principal stages in the development of the struggle during the period 1903-1917.

1903-1905 were described as years of anticipation of a general revolt. These were years when small circles of revolutionaries and revolutionary groups debated and argued out their ideas, proposed programmes and manifestos whilst sensing that the miserable lot of the masses was becoming so unbearable that general revolt and rioting would break out at any moment.

1905-07 was a period of open class warfare. Riots and revolt broke out, a strike movement developed at an unprecedented rate and the entire Russian empire was engulfed in strikes, street battles and clashes with police. As the struggle raged, workers took up arms, battles with police and army were routine and, in the midst of all this, a new form of organisation was born – the soviets. These councils, made up of local workers, soldiers and peasants, began to guide the struggles in the factories, workshops and fields and direct the workers, just as a general staff leads an army.

1907-10 was a period of darkest reaction, when the police, army and state regained control and bloodily suppressed the workers and their organisations. Trade unions, soviets and political parties were harassed their members were imprisoned and assassinated. Lenin remarked that the Bolsheviks were able, because of their discipline, to affect an orderly retreat – to bring their members into line and off the street, to cease the open warfare and replace it with a struggle undertaken through legal avenues and so escape the worst of the state repression. “Defeated armies learn well,” he wrote!

1910-14 was a period when the intolerable conditions were once more rousing the masses to action. Open class struggle broke out in spectacular fashion following the massacre of striking gold miners in Lena, when the naked barbarity of the state’s repression gave the working-class movement new anger and impetus.

1914-17 were the war years, during which the revolutionary movement finally came to maturity. Right from the start, the Bolsheviks maintained their principled position of calling on workers “to turn the imperialist war into civil war”. Rather than call for the defence of the ‘homeland’ or on workers to ‘back our troops’, Lenin saw that it was the task of the advanced proletariat to put a stop to the massacre by ridding society of the parasites who were sending everybody to fight in defence of their palaces, banks, landed estates and stolen wealth.

Practically, the only other anti-imperialists in Europe to match such revolutionary foresight and preparedness were the Irish republicans, who, led by James Connolly, struck a mighty blow against British imperialism right behind its own lines in Easter 1916!

Summing up this tremendous, varied and intense period through which the Russian workers and p[a name=”c2″>easants had passed, Lenin wrote: “having arisen on this granite theoretical foundation [ie, Marxism], Bolshevism passed through 15 years (1903-17) of practical history which in wealth of experience has no equal anywhere else in the world. For no other country during these 15 years had anything even approximating to this revolutionary experience, this rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement – legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, circles and mass movements, parliamentary and terrorist. [/a]

In no other country was there concentrated during so short a time such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, and moreover, a struggle which, owing to the backwardness of the country and the severity of the tsarist yoke, matured with exceptional rapidity and assimilated most eagerly and successfully the appropriate ‘last word’ of American and European political experience …

Certainly, almost everyone now realises that the Bolsheviks could not have maintained themselves in power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, unless the strictest, truly iron discipline had prevailed in our party, and unless the latter had been rendered the fullest and unreserved support of the whole mass of the working class, that is, of all its thinking, honest, self-sacrificing and influential elements who are capable of leading or of carrying with them the backward strata.”

Practical experience is immensely valuable, but some are able to learn from their experiences better than others! The Bolsheviks were able to learn from their experiences and teach the lessons to the workers. The experiences of the last 15 years, let alone the last 95 years in Britain must surely teach us something?!

The last 15 years alone have been supremely instructive for modern-day bolsheviks, and all the signs are that many ordinary workers have also grasped a few truths. Despite all attempts by the left, the CPB and others, the Labour party stands thoroughly exposed as a party of big business and a party of war, just like the other two!

And, speaking of war, we’ve recently been dragged into war on a variety of spurious pretexts. We were told that Britain was fighting a war against ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Yugoslavia, a war ‘against terrorism’ in Afghanistan, a war ‘against WMDs’ in Iraq, a war ‘against a dictator’ in Libya … and now we’re being sold the lie about the dictatorial credentials of President Assad in Syria. When will British workers learn that “imperialism strives for domination, not democracy”?!

There are encouraging signs that many in the movement have belatedly woken up to the fact that, whatever false cover is being provided by the British media for war, these conflicts are really being prepared by imperialism in pursuit of this relentless striving for domination..

Yet despite the cover being blown on stories of Iraq’s WMDs, or the ludicrous assertions that Gaddafi’s troops were using viagra so they could rape more women – despite all this bullshit being blown sky high, the likes of John Rees and other luminaries in the Stop the War Coalition still organise platforms for supporters of Nato, still promote imperialist lies about the situation inside countries besieged by imperialism and still attempt to justify these sick positions with declarations that ‘Gaddafi did a deal with imperialism’ or ‘Gaddafi shook Tony Blair’s hand’ or some such bunkum!

If Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria or any other independent, non-aligned or national-liberation force is cornered into doing deals with imperialism it is because they are forced to effect such compromise if they do not wish to go the way of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic or Patrice Lumumba and end their days lynched, stabbed or murdered in their own home.

The fact that Libya or Syria have been forced to make such concessions to western monopolies and imperialist governments should be a wake-up call to Mr Rees, Ms German, Mr Callinicos etc. It is about time these armchair ‘revolutionaries’ realised that imperialism is able to maraud around the globe – to threaten, execute or undermine anyone it pleases – as a direct result of the catastrophic shift in the balance of world power that followed the collapse of the once mighty USSR! And who were the people who wished so hard that just such a catastrophe might occur, and who greeted it so enthusiastically? Yes, our old friends Mr Rees, Ms German and co!

Building Britain’s bolshevik party

Comrades, we must learn from our history and our experience. British society has gone through a period of the bleakest reaction. We have not been living in revolutionary times. Our working class has had the faith in its own strength and righteousness squashed – not only by Mrs Thatcher and her successors, but also by those spineless careerists within our own movement who have done everything possible to prevent class war, and to ridicule or disown and condemn it when it has broken out.

Such is the situation today that the ConDem government can suggest with all seriousness that workers trade the few workplace rights they have left in exchange for a few worthless shares in the company they work for!

Our society is dominated by the ideals, morals, culture and political outlook of the bourgeoisie. It affects us all and permeates and pollutes our own ideas, behaviour and outlook. As communists, we have to challenge this head on and face reality as it is.

Many of the individuals who come to our movement are egotistical, and so disaffected that they have no concept of how to work as a team – to give their energies to the group without glory or praise. But we want to build a party of bolsheviks, not a party of armchair philosophers or egotistical posers, who do nothing to serve the people and who place the rights of the individual above all party discipline. We need to challenge all this individualistic behaviour; to raise the level of commitment to party work and socialism to the level at which most people only put their careers and the quest for personal wealth.

No other party in Britain has this objective; no other party is trying to change the culture of political work in the manner in which we are. But the deepening crisis, the rolling back of the welfare state and the plummeting of large sections of our society back down to the ranks of the lower depths of the proletariat presents for us a very real and historic opportunity to organise that section of society which is the hope for mankind’s future. The ideological bankruptcy of the Trots and revisionists means that increasingly no honest, militant working-class person will touch anything related to the Labour party, or associated with the pseudo-intellectual posturing of the petty-bourgeois elements. We can take advantage of this situation, and we are doing so!

Our party is beginning to reap the benefits of years of hard work and persistence. We possess a dedicated and stable base of activists, which has spread to cover a good section of the country. Our activity is constrained only by our relative weakness in size. We must continue to work together, sharing all hardships, to turn our groups of 5, 10 and 15 into groups of 20, 30 and 40, and to ensure that these groups also become more numerous, always insisting on activity and participation, on financial support and fidelity to the party line, facilitating and ensuring that political work and education go hand in hand.

Our task is big, but it is one that has faced many other communists. Let’s remember the words of Chairman Mao when he addressed the challenges that faced the Chinese communists and people:

“There is an ancient Chinese fable called The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains. It tells of an old man who lived in northern China long, long ago and was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. He called his sons, and hoe in hand they began to dig up these mountains with great determination.

“Another greybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, ‘How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you few to dig up those two huge mountains.’ The Foolish Old Man replied, ‘When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can’t we clear them away?’

“Having refuted the Wise Old Man’s wrong view, he went on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction. God was moved by this, and he sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs.

“Today, two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism, the other is feudalism. The Chinese communist party has long made up its mind to dig them up. We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we, too, will touch God’s heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these two mountains be cleared away? (From Mao Zedong’s concluding speech at the Seventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China, 11 June 1945)

The CPGB-ML has made up its mind to dig up and uproot capitalist imperialism and the roots of social democracy which strangle our garden like a weed. In its place we’ll cultivate a society free from exploitation. Technologically and morally advanced, we’ll play our part in freeing the world from the colonial subjugation so long imposed on the oppressed by our ruling class!

Workers of the world unite!

Long live the Great October Socialist Revolution!