Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Joshua Slocum - Sailing Alone Around the World

In his introduction to this famous traveller's tale, Arthur Ransome says that "A school library without this book is incomplete. It should be part of the education of every English or American boy". Times, of course, change, and Joshua Slocum's feat is almost forgotten.

There is no doubt though, that he inspired and excited the world when he became the first to sail single handed around the world. The story itself is a somewhat stilted yarn - it's full of descriptions of ropes, sails and wind directions. No doubt, the school boys that Ransome refers to, might have understood it all, but it can be a bit confusing for the land based reader today.

The voyage itself is not only an incredible feat - it also marks the passing of a world that no longer exists. It is a time when sail is being eclipsed by steam, and when foreign ports were as unique as alien planets. Slocum visits some amazing places - the place where Alexander Selkirk (inspiration for Robinson Crusoe) was marooned being one. Slocum claims that Selkirk lived in a particular cave, though recent research doesn't back that up. He also meets the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson who appears to live on an island in the middle of nowhere, and takes her on a sailing trip.

By its very nature, Slocum's story is a long trip, punctuated by brief visits to ports and islands. At many of the places, he is feted by the local establishment, who arrange speaking events and take him on tours. Through this, he funds the further voyage. There are no big name sponsors here. No newspapers or advertising to keep his trip going. Slocum survives from resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers.

There are some odd moments - pirates and robbers occasionally, beaten off by a couple of quick shots, or some tacks scattered on the ship's deck at night. Armchair sailors the world over will enjoy this tale, perhaps mostly from historical interest. Though it may well inspire, it's doubtful that it should be put at the heart of youngster's education today.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tony Cliff - All Power to the Soviets, Lenin 1914 - 1917

The second volume of Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin contains perhaps the most important political and historical period for socialist activists. The first volume of the three part series dealt with the early years of the Bolshevik party and Lenin's role in building it up to the point when the First World War broke out. This part has, in my experience been widely read, discussed and debated through by the revolutionaries who stand in the tradition that Tony Cliff founded.

But both the remaining volumes also have much to offer activists and students of the Russian Revolution. The period under question begins with the activity of the Bolsheviks with the outbreak of the First World War. It ends with, as Cliff points out, Lenin speaking to the Congress of Soviets the day after the uprising had taken power and declaring "We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order."

The period is interesting, not least for the amazing events that took place. By the time 1917 had arrived, Russian military hopes were being dashed by a combination of military ineptitude, rebellion and mutiny. Conditions at the front were appalling, hunger, lack of equipment and a brutal military regime combined to make a situation ripe for rebellion. Conditions in the cities, villages and towns were hardly better. Something that revolutionaries were quick to build upon.

The twists and turns of the final year before the uprising takes up most of the detail of this volume. Contrary to the perceived idea of a simple Bolshevik coup, Cliff paints a picture of a working class and peasantry increasingly moving of it's own interest towards revolution. The Bolsheviks fight to put themselves at the heart of the movement, though in the initial stages, when the February revolution overthrew the Tsar, the Bolsheviks were taken by surprise.

Through patient argument, principled slogans and activity and often sheer bravery, the Bolsheviks gradually become the acknowledged leaders of the revolutionary movement. At various points during 1917, the Bolsheviks go on the defensive. During the "July Days", the working class of Petrograd, the largest and most important industrial city, move instinctively towards revolution. Lenin argues hard, against most of his party and its leadership that the time is not right. The Bolsheviks see a collapse in support and are repressed even further, though their subsequent practice in the face of a far-right attempted coup, makes their principles clear to the great mass of the workers.

On this and in other moments, Cliff makes an important point. Far from being the monolithic organisation that the Bolsheviks are often described as, there was much internal disagreement and debate. Lenin was often in a minority and took time to win his comrades around. At other points, Lenin was wrong, despite the Stalinist myth of his infallibility. Even more importantly, Lenin never simply used his own standing within the organisation to win a political position. He frequently refers back to the rank and file, or the experiences of other workers to deal with a changing situation and win the leadership of the organisation to a new direction or new slogans.

I was also interested, as I suspect many revolutionary socialists will be, at how the internal organisation of the Bolsheviks worked. Being an underground, illegal group for most of their existence, there are some differences for those organising in the UK today, for instance. But there are similarities. Not least the way that revolutionaries must constantly change tack to relate to changing political circumstances.

But also of interest is the lack of organisation. Groups of Bolsheviks outside the main cities, frequently complain of lack of material and direction from the centre. The Central Committee seems at times to be at odds with each other, certainly, Cliff points out, that they occasionally took decisions that they seemed to forget. Perhaps as a result of the illegality, the CC often didn't have full meetings - the meeting that decided to go for the insurrection had only slightly over half of its members present.

This is a fascinating work for students of revolutionary history. At times, it lauds it's central character a little too much. But this is because its real subject is the creation of a revolutionary organisation capable of leading the working class to power. There is little her about Lenin himself - what he liked to eat or what music he preferred. If you want that information, I'd recommend Krupskaya's book. For Cliff, Lenin is utterly inseparable from the revolutionary struggle. His experiences are the experiences of the movement, and there is much here to learn from.

Related Reading

Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Cliff - Revolution Besieged, Lenin 1917 - 1923
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

Friday, September 17, 2010

Peter Fryer - Hungarian Tragedy

It's a statement of the obvious, but revolutions change things. Most obviously a successful revolution changes the political and economic setup. But even unsuccessful revolutions throw life into turmoil. All that seems certain becomes uncertain; "All that is solid, melts into air" as Marx put it.

But revolutions also change people. They change the people who take part, turning them into leaders, writers and agitators - giving them the confidence to take up arms, or break open a police station. And finally they change the onlookers.

At the time of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Peter Fryer was an onlooker. He had, for some 14 years been a member of the British Communist Party. For years he'd been a proud journalist working "at less than a labourer's wage" on the CPGB's newspaper, The Daily Worker. Sent to Hungary to report on the events of the revolution, what he saw turned his world upside down.

Fryer almost certainly didn't have a rose tinted view of East European socialism. But he in no way expected the response that the Soviet regime inflicted upon the Hungarian people. More importantly, Fryer was inspired by the experience of a people in the midst of revolution. As he put it, "Here was a revolution, to be studied not in the pages of Marx, Engels and Lenin, valuable though these pages may be, but happening here in real life before the eyes of the world. A flesh and blood revolution with all its shortcoming and contradictions and problems - the problems of life itself."

In his travels, Fryer documents the revolutionary processes that mark working class uprisings time and again. The election of organising groups to run workplaces, cities and farms. The collective discussions and debates that take time, but are the true trappings of real democracy. The suppression of the enemies of people - sometimes, in the case of Hungary, the hanging of the secret police. We hear of the release of the thousands of people imprisoned by the former regime and the freeing up of ordinary men and women, held dormant for years. There is a lovely section where Fryer describes the explosion of independent newspapers - with one editor playing host to queues of young people coming in with their stories, poems, articles and writings.

Of course this was short lived. The Soviet invasion was a brutal suppression of these hopes. But the workers councils and committees didn't vanish. The people fought on, despite the overwhelming odds. Having tasted freedom, it takes much to give it up.

Fryer's dispatches were censored and then ignored by the Daily Worker. Such vivid descriptions of workers and peasants rising up and taking control, was far too much for an organisation and newspaper dedicated to believe that Russia and its client states ruled already in the name of the workers. His estrangement from the CPGB didn't mean he abandoned revolutionary socialism. His own experience in Hungary could only bring a greater desire to see a revolutionary transformation of society, but he learnt that that needed to take place in the East, as much as the West.

Further Reading

Chris Harman's "Class Struggles in Eastern Europe" goes much deeper into the background to the various risings against Soviet rule.

Mike Haynes' ISJ article "Hungary; workers' councils against Russian tanks" marked the 50th anniversary of the revolution. It's worth reading here.

Related Reviews

Dewer - Communist Politics in Britain

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Hugo Dewar - Communist Politics in Britain: The CPGB from its origins to the Second World War

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB
The history of radical parties is always of interest to those trying to build radical organisation in their own times. One of the reasons for this, is that you can learn from their successes and their all to often mistakes. The other is that history has an unerring way of repeating itself.

At the core of Hugo Dewar's book is an attempt to understand why it was, that in a period that should have been ideal for its growth, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) failed to grow significantly. In doing so, he helps us to understand some of our own problems in the current period.

The October 1917 revolution in Russia lit a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world. Here was proof that workers could stand up and overthrow the old order which had bought war, misery and poverty. The leaders of that revolution became icons for the people everywhere.

Success brought its own problems. In their desperation to emulate the success of the Russian revolutionaries, it was all to easy to simply attempt to borrow, root and branch the strategies of the Russians. Following one resolution to the Communist International, Lenin commented that the motion had been "Too Russian", based too much on their experiences. A backward economy like Russia meant that the revolution didn't have to tackle the problems of the Reformist parties that revolutionaries in Britain and Germany had to try and deal with. The misunderstanding that the Russian revolutionaries had of organisations like the British Labour party meant that all to often socialists abroad underestimated their appeal to working people. (This is something that is further explored in Cliff and Gluckstein's book on the British General Strike.)

This explains why, the CPGB constantly tried to enter the Labour Party, even when workers were turning their backs on it, or even when the CPGB was claiming Labourites as being Social Fascists.

However the biggest problem for the CPGB is that they never developed their own ability to think through the period they were in. On every major question, they followed the lead of the Russian dominated Communist International. This wasn't initially a problem, but when the CI had become less of a tool for world revolution and more of a weapon for Stalin to help strengthen Soviet foreign policy, the CPGB ended up subordinating it's activity to the interests of another state.

So the late 1930s were dominated by vacilation on the question of war and colonialism, as Stalin first challenged Hitler, then accommodated to him and then went to war with him. For many earnest Communists, the rapid changes in line were confusing and demoralising. On the brief occasion when the leader of the British CP Harry Pollitt thought independently of Moscow and produced an anti-war tract, it had to be pulped within a few weeks as the line from the Russian capital changed once again.

All in all, there is much in this short book to learn from - though mostly it's of a negative character. The CPGB did have some successes in organising workers, and this doesn't really feature in what is a polemic against their history. Their significant growth seems to mostly flow from activities that stemmed from mistake strategies. One of these, the Popular Front saw the CPGB attempting to unite with any anti-fascists there were. At one point supporting a Tory candidate against a socialist.

The 1930s were a period dominated by economic crisis, war and the rise of fascism. Things aren't yet so bad in 2010. But they could be.Whether workers weather the storm and even build movements out of it that can challenge the madness of the system, will depend in part on clear socialist leadership. One of the lessons of the pre-war CPGB are that a small organisation can make a difference. The tragedy is that they got is so wrong. Let's try and learn those lessons to avoid such damaging errors in the future.