The recent decision of the Venezuelan government not to renew the broadcast licence of the RCTV channel has raised quite a lot of interesting debate, that has thrown light on some of the underlying political assumptions and attitudes of those participating in the discussion.
I have already posted about the facts of the dispute, and explained why the Bolivarian government are justified .
But one point came up in the debate at the Red Squirrel blog that is worth pursuing further.
One of the “left” voices joining in the chorus of criticism of Chavez was TWP from the Shiraz Socialist blog, which is loosely aligned with the politics of the British AWL , an avowedly Marxist group but which takes some eccentric positions.
TWP wrote : “How many of us have “openly called” for the overthrow of capitalism? Well apparently Tariq Ali doesn’t see the irony in his statement about Chavez’s failure to renew a TV licence for the anti-government channel RCTV. By his logic most of the newspapers of the far left could be legitimately closed down in Britain.”
As Ken Macleod points out:
“There's another troubling aspect of the Shiraz Socialist's take on this. She seems to think that the far left 'calls for the overthrow of capitalism' in the sense of calling for the overthrow of democratically elected governments! Apart from the absurdity of making such a call at present, most of the far left does no such thing, and it's quite dangerous to concede that it does. Cannon's Socialism on Trial is … very much to the point here.”
From June to November 1941, leading members of the Socialist Workers Party in the USA (no relation to today’s SWP in Britain), were no trial in the Minneapolis, MN, District Court of the United States.
James P Cannon defended the party brilliantly from the witness stands, and the court transcripts are a very valuable resource, because they contain a clear and simple explanation of socialist politics.
Some of the issues raised are very relevant to the current debate, in particular relating to the attitude socialists take to violence and the constitution, and in particular the explanation that as democrats we will always try to achieve our aims through peaceful means – but reserving the right to defend democracy by any means necessary.
Of particular interest is Cannon’s very clear explanation that even the Russian revolution was constitutional and legal.
Here are some excerpts from the book: Socialism on Trial"
Marxism and violence
Q: Now, what is the opinion of Marxists with reference to the change in the social order, as far as its being accompanied or not accompanied by violence?
A: It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.
A: That is based, like all Marxist doctrine, on a study of history, the historical experiences of mankind in the numerous changes of society from one form to another, the revolutions which accompanied it, and the resistance which the outlived classes invariably put up against the new order. Their attempt to defend themselves against the new order, or to suppress by violence the movement for the new order, has resulted in every important social transformation up to now being accompanied by violence.
Q: Who, in the opinion of Marxists, initiated that violence?
A: Always the ruling class; always the outlived class that doesn’t want to leave the stage when the time has come. They want to hang on to their privileges, to reinforce them by violent measures, against the rising majority and they run up against the mass violence of the new class, which history has ordained shall come to power.
Q: What is the opinion of Marxists, as far as winning a majority of the people to socialist ideas?
A: Yes, that certainly is the aim of the party. That is the aim of the Marxist movement, has been from its inception.
Marx said the social revolution of the proletariat—I think I can quote his exact words from memory—“is a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority” He said this in distinguishing it from previous revolutions which had been made in the interest of minorities, as was the case in France in 1789.
Q: What would you say is the opinion of Marxists as far as the desirability of a peaceful transition is concerned?
A: The position of the Marxists is that the most economical and preferable, the most desirable method of social transformation, by all means, is to have it done peacefully.
Q: And in the opinion of the Marxists, is that absolutely excluded?
A: Well, I wouldn’t say absolutely excluded. We say that the lessons of history don’t show any important examples in favor of the idea so that you can count upon it.
Q: Can you give us examples in American history of a minority refusing to submit to a majority?
A: I can give you a very important one. The conception of the Marxists is that even if the transfer of political power from the capitalists to the proletariat is accomplished peacefully—then the minority, the exploiting capitalist class, will revolt against the new regime, no matter how legally it is established.
I can give you an example in American history. The American Civil War resulted from the fact that the Southern slaveholders couldn’t reconcile themselves to the legal parliamentary victory of Northern capitalism, the election of President Lincoln.
Q: Can you give us an example outside of America where a reactionary minority revolted against a majority in office?
A: Yes, in Spain—the coalition of workers’ and liberal parties in Spain got an absolute majority in the elections and established the People’s Front government. This government was no sooner installed than it was confronted with an armed rebellion, led by the reactionary capitalists of Spain.
Q: Then the theory of Marxists and the theory of the Socialist Workers Party, as far as violence is concerned, is a prediction based upon a study of history, is that right?
A: Well, that is part of it. It is a prediction that the outlived class, which is put in a minority by the revolutionary growth in the country, will try by violent means to hold on to its privileges against the will of the majority. That is what we predict.
Of course, we don’t limit ourselves simply to that prediction. We go further, and advise the workers to bear this in mind and prepare themselves not to permit the reactionary outlived minority to frustrate the will of the majority.
Q: What role does the rise and existence of fascism play with reference to the possibility of violence?
A: That is really the nub of the whole question, because the reactionary violence of the capitalist class, expressed through fascism, is invoked against the workers. Long before the revolutionary movement of the workers gains the majority, fascist gangs are organised and subsidised by millions in funds from the biggest industrialists and financiers, as the example of Germany showed—and these fascist gangs undertake to break up the labor movement by force. They raid the halls, assassinate the leaders, break up the meetings, burn the printing plants, and destroy the possibility of functioning long before the labor movement has taken the road of revolution.
I say that is the nub of the whole question of violence. If the workers don’t recognise that, and do not begin to defend themselves against the fascists, they will never be given the possibility of voting on the question of revolution. They will face the fate of the German and Italian proletariat and they will be in the chains of fascist slavery before they have a chance of any kind of a fair vote on whether they want socialism or not.
It is a life and death question for the workers that they organise themselves to prevent fascism, the fascist gangs, from breaking up the workers’ organisations, and not to wait until it is too late. That is in the program of our party.
The Same way Lincoln did
Q: Now how do you expect the capitalists to abrogate the elections? How will they accomplish that purpose?
A: They can do it in various ways—by decree, by vote of Congress declaring there is a state of emergency which requires dispensing with election struggles, and handing the power over to the president or somebody to rule for this period, which may be long or short—but most likely it would be long.
That is precisely what was done to a legally constituted parliament elected by the suffrage of the French people, containing representatives of various parties—Socialists, Radical Socialist, Conservative, Communist and other parties. This parliament was dissolved, and a dictator appointed with power to rule the country at his will until further notice. That is what happened just like that (indicating).
Q: Supposing they don’t do those things that you anticipate, and you get yourself elected into control of the government, control of the Senate and the House, let us say, and you elect a president, too. Do you expect then that the army and navy are going to turn against you and try to resist your authority?
A: I anticipate that some of the officers would—those who are tied most closely to the upper circles of the ruling class. I would expect some of them to attempt to dispute the authority of the people’s government That happened in other instances.
Q: Yes, I know you are illustrating by that. I am talking about this country. You have got yourself elected into control of the government now. Now tell us how you expect the resistance against your authority is going to be made. Who is going to do it and how is it going to be done?
A: It would be done by the agents of the ruling class that is facing dispossession.
Q: Do you expect the army and navy of the United States government to turn its guns against you when you are in duly elected control of the government?
A: Yes, I would expect some of the officers to do it—not all of them. If all of the army and navy would be of such a mind, it would be manifestly impossible to be elected in the first place, because the army and navy are more or less in their ranks reflective of the general population, and if we are elected by a majority vote, you can be sure that our popularity in the masses of the people will be reflected in the military establishment That is always the case.
Q: Well, how would you resist this uprising against you?
A: The same way Lincoln did in 1861.
Q: Would you already have an army, or would you use the army that you find standing when you came into power?
A: We will just use what measures are possible. A good section of the American army and its best officers in 1861 revolted against the authority of the legally elected government of Lincoln. Lincoln took what he could and recruited some more and gave them a fight, and I always thought it was a wonderfully good idea.
The legality of the Russian revolution
Q: Now, can you tell us anything about the legality of that revolution?
The Court: Judged by what standards?
Mr. Goldman: What I mean by that is to have him explain exactly how the revolution occurred, because counsel for the government tries to present it as a violent upheaval of the minority against the majority, and the facts are the very contrary. I want the witness to explain the nature of that revolution.
A: The czar and czarism were overthrown in March by an uprising of the masses, of the people in the big cities, and the peasants.
Q: Was the Bolshevik Party responsible for that uprising in any way?
A: No. The Bolshevik Party was a very infinitesimal group at the time of the March revolution.
Q: What is the meaning of “Bolshevism”?
A: The world Bolshevik is a Russian word meaning majority. It acquired a political meaning in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. In the Congress of 1903 a controversy developed which divided the party into groups, the majority and the minority, the majority called the Bolsheviks and the minority called Mensheviks.
Q: Those are Russian words meaning minority and majority?
A: Yes. They split up and divided into parties. Each called itself the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and in parentheses on the end “Bolsheviks” or “Mensheviks”, as the case might be.
Q: Now, will you proceed and tell the jury what happened during the October Revolution, or in our calendar in November 1917.
A: Well, to show the chronology: When czarism was overthrown by the masses of the people, the whole structure of that tyranny was destroyed. A new government was constituted, but the new government machinery was based on the Soviets, which sprang up spontaneously in the revolutionary upheaval. Soviets of workers and soldiers were established everywhere. In Petrograd, the workers and soldiers sent delegates—deputies—to the central council or, as they called it, the Soviet; similarly in Moscow and other places. This body was recognised as authoritative.
The government that was constituted after the overthrow of the czar was headed by Prince Lvov, with Miliukov as foreign minister; it derived its authority from the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies. In April they had a National All-Russian Conference of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets, and there they elected an All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets. In May, the peasant Soviets had an All-Russian Congress and elected an All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the peasants.
Q: What proportion of the population did those Soviets represent?
A: They represented the people, the great mass of the people. I think it was impossible even to speak in terms of majorities or minorities. They were the masses themselves. The peasants and the soldiers and the workers were the people; those two bodies, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Peasant Soviets, formed a joint body which was recognised as the most authoritative and representative body in Russia. It was by their consent that the government cabinet ruled.
The All-Russian Executive Committee of the Soviets repudiated Miliukov, who was the leader of the bourgeoisie. The Soviet body opposed him because of his foreign policy, involving secret treaties that had been exposed. He therefore had to resign, because without the support of the Soviets, authority was lacking; and I think that could be likened, as an analogy, to the French system of the resignation of the prime minister when there is a no-confidence vote in the Chamber.
Q: So that the Soviets constituted the authority of the people of Russia?
A: That is right.
Q: In what way did the Bolsheviks progress to power?
A: I wish to go on with the chronology, if you will permit me. Following the fall of Miliukov, Kerensky rose—there is a popular impression in this country that he became premier with the fall of the czar. That is not so. Kerensky became premier in July. He was made a minister and eventually premier because he was a member of the Social Revolutionary Party. That was the peasant party, which then lead the Soviets. He was also supported by the worker element, because he had been a labor lawyer. That was the basis of Kerensky’s office; that is, his authority was derived directly from the Soviets.
Now in this period the Bolsheviks were a small minority. They did not create the Soviets. The Soviets were created by the masses; they were initiated by the masses. Neither the Bolshevik Party nor any other party could do anything without the support of the Soviets. In the midst of the revolution of 1905 and again in the overthrow of the czar in 1917, the Soviets sprang up simultaneously.
The most influential one naturally was in Petrograd, which was the seat of government. The Bolsheviks were a small minority in this Soviet at the time of the overthrow of the czar. When Kerensky became premier, the combination of his Social Revolutionary Party and the Menshevik Socialist Party—those two parties together had an overwhelming majority in the Soviets, and ruled by virtue of that. The Bolsheviks were an opposing faction.
During that time Lenin, as the spokesman for the Bolsheviks, said over and over again, “As long as we are in the minority in the Soviets, all we can do is patiently explain.” The Bolshevik Party opposed any attempt to seize power by a putsch.
Q: What is a “putsch”?
A: An armed action of a small group. The Bolshevik Party demanded, with Lenin as their spokesman, that the Social Revolutionary Party and the Menshevik Party take complete control of the government by removing the bourgeois ministers and make it a completely labor and peasant government, and they issued the promise that, “If you do that we promise that as long as we are in the minority, we will not try to overthrow you. We will not support you politically, we will criticise you, but we will not undertake to overthrow the government as long as we are in the minority.” That was the policy of the Bolsheviks in the March days of the revolution against the czar, and into July.
In July the workers in Petrograd staged a demonstration with arms, against the advice of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks advised against it on the ground that it might unduly provoke the situation, and tried to persuade the workers in Petrograd not to go into that action. It was not a rebellion; it was simply a parade with arms. This action, carried out by the Petrograd workers against the advice of the Bolsheviks, brought repressions against the workers on the part of the Kerensky government.
Then the Kerensky government undertook to discredit and frame up the Bolshevik Party. They accused Lenin and Trotsky of being German spies. This was the predecessor of Stalin’s Moscow trials. They accused Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolsheviks of being German spies. Trotsky was thrown into jail, Lenin was forced into hiding, and repressions continued against the Bolsheviks, but it did not do any good, because the policy and slogans of the Bolsheviks were growing in popularity. One by one the great factories and soldiers’ regiments began to vote in favor of the Bolshevik program.
In September an attempt at counterrevolution was made under the leadership of General Kornilov, who could be properly described as a Russian monarchist-fascist. He organised an army and undertook to overthrow the Kerensky government in Petrograd, with the idea of restoring the old regime.
The Kerensky government, that had put Trotsky in jail, had to release him from prison to get the support of his party to fight down the counterrevolutionary army of Kornilov.
Trotsky was brought from prison and went directly to the Military Revolutionary Committee, in which government men also sat, and there drew up with them plans for a joint fight against Kornilov. Kornilov was crushed; the counterrevolution was crushed primarily by the workers under the inspiration of the Bolshevik Party. They tied up his railroad trains, he could not move his troops; his best troops were induced to fight against him, and his counterrevolution was crushed.
As this was going on, the Bolsheviks became more popular all the time, as the genuine representatives of the revolution. They gained the majority in the Petrograd Soviet, the most influential Soviet in the country, and in Moscow and others. The Kerensky government was losing ground because it was not solving any of the problems of the people. The Bolsheviks’ slogans of “Bread”, “Peace”, “Land”, and other slogans—those were the slogans that the masses wanted.
On November 7 was held the Congress of the All-Russian Soviets of Workers and Soldiers. The Bolsheviks had a majority there, and simultaneously with the meeting of the Soviets, where the Bolsheviks had a majority, they took the governmental power.
Q: When you were tracing the history of the Russian Revolution, you said this: “The Kerensky government was losing ground because it was not solving any problems of the people. The Bolsheviks’ slogans of ‘Bread’ and other slogans—those were the slogans that the masses wanted. The Bolsheviks got a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. On November 7 was held the Congress of the All-Russian Soviets. The Bolsheviks had a majority there, and simultaneously with the meeting of the All-Russian Soviet, where the Bolsheviks had a majority, they took the power from the government.” Now, do you want us to understand from that, that the Bolsheviks took power by virtue of a majority vote of the Congress of the Soviets?
A: That is right.
Q: Do you not mean that the contrary was true?
A: No, I do not.
Q: Don’t you know that there was a planned insurrection before the Congress, and that the insurrection actually took place before the Congress met?
A: No. The Congress met the morning after the struggle had begun, and confirmed the new government.
Q: The fact is that the insurrection was started and was completed before the Congress ever met, isn’t it?
A: No, the power was in the Congress, and the Congress was the real power.
Q: Well, just answer my question, please. Isn’t it a fact that the insurrection had been planned and actually carried out before the Congress ever met?
A: No. The question was submitted to the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets on November 7. That is why they call it the November 7 Revolution.
Q: Don’t you know, further, that Lenin persistently warned against waiting for the Congress and doing it in a legal way?
A: Oh, that was one time that Lenin was overruled.
Q: And who won?
A: Trotsky won.
Q: Isn’t it also a fact that Trotsky ridiculed the notion that it was done legally?
A: No, on the contrary, Trotsky commented on the legal sanction of the action by the Soviets. That was why it was delayed to November 7.
Q: Isn’t it also true that he lulled Kerensky into inaction by pretending to wait until the Congress met, so that it could be decided legally who was to take power?
A: He did not pretend to wait. He waited.
Q: I submit that the contrary is true, in that Mr. Trotsky said so, and I would like to read to you about ten pages or so from the Lessons of October, and then you can tell me whether I am right or wrong.
(Mr. Scheweinhaut reads from pages 74 and 80 of Trotsky’s Lessons of October.)
Mr. Goldman: I submit Your Honour, that this book was ruled out of evidence. I have no objection if he wants to read one or two or perhaps three sentences, but to take advantage of cross-examination and put into evidence what the Court has ruled out, I think is going a little too far.
The Court: Well, this has to do, I suppose, with the dispute between counsel and witness, as to the facts with reference to which the witness takes one position and counsel takes an other. Now this is an attempt to impeach the statements of the witness by the means indicated. I assume he has a right to do that. He may continue to read it.
Mr. Goldman: Exception.
(Mr. Schweinhaut reads pages 80-91 from Trotsky’s Lessons of October.)
Mr. Schweinhaut: Now, am I right or wrong, Mr. Cannon, that the insurrection actually started and was concluded before the Soviet Congress put its seal of legality on it?
A: If you will permit me, I will show you where you are wrong. You misunderstood the whole thing; my authority for the evidence I gave here was Trotsky. He wrote the most authoritative and authentic history of the revolution. Perhaps I should mention several things to show where you are wrong:
First those pages you have read show that there were three different opinions in the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Lenin said they had a majority, and they should take the power without waiting. There was the opinion of Zinoviev and Kamenev who thought the Bolsheviks did not have a majority and should not take the power. And the third opinion was Trotsky’s that they could base the assumption of power on the legality of the Soviets.
Second, those pages you read prove that both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks derived their authority from the Soviets. In November it became clear that the Bolsheviks had won the majority in the Soviets. Kerensky, who formerly had the majority in the Soviets, prepared to move troops from the capital. What did the troops do? The troops refused to go until ordered by the Congress of Soviets. The Congress of the Soviets convened on November 7. It was revealed that the Bolsheviks had the majority, and their assumption of power was confirmed.
In this All-Russian Congress of Soviets were present the other parties who had been the majority of yesterday. They spoke and debated there. When the vote was taken, the Bolsheviks had the majority. The Bolsheviks offered to give proportionate places in the government to the other parties. They refused and walked off. The Bolsheviks did, as a matter of fact incorporate into the government, a section of Kerensky’s party, the left wing of the Social Revolutionary Party.
It seems to me that here is an excellent illustration of how a revolutionary party, after long propagandistic work, succeeded in a political crisis in winning over to its side a majority of the population represented in the most authoritative body, the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. And the Bolsheviks, adapting themselves to the legality of this authoritative body —
Q: Now, just a minute. Are you still telling us how it occurred, or are you just telling us now that you think it was a mighty fine thing?
A: No, I am explaining the legality of the development as against your interpretation that it was illegal. And it seems to me —
Q: I don’t want your opinion on that. If you want to go on and tell us what happened, all right. Don’t characterise it.
A: I don’t think you will ever get a more legal revolution than that.