Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lenin on the Paris Commune (1871): An Heroic Uprising

Thomas Riggins

Chapter Three of State and Revolution is devoted to Lenin's commentary on Marx's analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune. It is divided into five parts. This article deals with the first part of the chapter:

1. What Made the Communards Attempt Heroic?

The Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 and led to the downfall of Louis Napoleon (Emperor Napoleon III) and the Second Empire. The German army surrounded Paris and France was forced to surrender. The war ended on May 10, 1871. The working people of Paris became radicalized during this period, repudiated the legitimacy of the bourgeois government,  and started a revolution to establish a socialist commune in Paris. The government fled to Versailles. The commune lasted from March 18 to May 28, 1871 when the French Army reimposed bourgeois rule in Paris by means of a blood bath.

From his vantage point in London Marx was a keen observer of what was happening in France. In late 1870, with revolution in the air, Marx warned the workers of Paris NOT to start a revolution to overthrow the French government. Lenin says Marx thought it would be the "folly of despair." The over all balance of forces was extremely unfavorable.

However, in March of 1871 the French government began to take measures against the workers that forced them to fight back and the die was cast. Even though he was pessimistic concerning the outcome, once the workers took up arms, Marx became one of the most ardent supporters of the Commune. The heroic failure of the workers, in Marx's words, "to storm heaven" was not in vain.

Although defeated their experience provided invaluable lessons for the working classes throughout the world, as Lenin put it. In the same way the experience of the Soviet Union and its ultimate defeat has left a trove of lessons for the working class of the twenty first century and will make the future (far future I fear) world socialist state immeasurably stronger and more stable due to the lessons learned (if learned) and errors not repeated.

In 1872 Marx and Engels wrote a new introduction to the Communist Manifesto  in which they said that their famous work had become "in some details out-of-date." They thought the experience of the Commune had shown that the working class could not just take control of the "ready-made" bourgeois state and then use it to create socialism. Lenin thinks that probably 99% of the people who read the Manifesto don't get the meaning of this conclusion by Marx and Engels. [They must have been very unclear!]

Due to opportunistic and revisionist leadership in the working class, Lenin says, most people now think Marx and Engels meant the workers can't just violently overthrow the state all at once but must gradually reform it part by part until it has become a socialist state. After all, the communards got wiped out when they violently seized power in Paris!

Lenin held that Marx (and Engels) meant just the opposite. The workers can't just "lay hold" of the state-- they must bust it up and make a new kind of state. Marx thought the communards were in the process of trying to do just that when they were overcome by the superior strength of the French state and the regular army.

It was not the attempt to "smash the state" that led to their defeat-- but it was a premature attempt from an initial position of weakness and that the armed struggle was forced upon them before they were ready for it. Lenin cites Marx's letter to Kugelmann of April 12, 1871 to support his interpretation. In that letter Marx says that "to smash" (zerbrechen ) the state "is the precondition for every real people's revolution on the Continent."

It is interesting to point out that Marx implies that a successful  uprising, the government being overthrown and a new government installed does not constitute a  real revolution-- no matter what it is called- coup, rebellion, revolt, uprising, etc.,  it is not a revolution. A revolution takes place AFTER the overthrow of the government and only after the state has been "smashed" (destroyed).  This is the "precondition" of the revolution which consists in the construction of a new kind of state-- a worker's (or worker's and peasant's) state. Thus, for example neither the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, of Mubarak in Egypt, nor of Yanukovych in Ukraine, were revolutions in the Marxist sense-- but merely the replacement of one form of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by another form. They were intra class coups. A "people's revolution" on the contrary, Lenin says, is one in which the vast majority of the people, including the lowest social groups, "come out actively, independently, with their own political demands."

Lenin notes that Marx limited his remarks to the European "Continent"-- not including the UK or the USA (never mind the rest of the world). Lenin says this was ok for 1871, when Marx wrote his letter, because at that time in the UK and the USA there was still possible a peaceful revolution not involving smashing and bashing the state.

This is because they were fully developed capitalist states without fully developed military-bureaucratic cliques controlling them. This was changed by WWI and "the last representatives of Anglo-Saxon 'liberty'" are now run by such cliques and need a good smashing as well.

Today we call this "clique" the military-industrial complex-- it is international in nature- and wherever it dominates a peaceful revolution would not be possible according to Lenin. But is it possible to weaken the power of the military-industrial complex by people's struggles to such an extent that it is no longer dominant? Is this just wishful thinking and we really are on the darkening plain?

In trying to adapt Marx, Engels and Lenin's ideas to today we must remember, as Lenin pointed out, that in 1871 the proletariat was not the majority in any country of  continental Europe and the "people" was represented by the workers and peasants together. Marx thought the bourgeois state machine had to be "smashed" as that was the only way the workers and the poor peasants (i.e., the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie) could have a free alliance and, Lenin says, "without such an alliance democracy is unstable and socialist transformation is impossible." Is such a characterization still valid with regard to workers and the lower and middle strata of the petty bourgeoisie  in the 21st century? Just what was supposed to replace the "smashed" bourgeois state? We will consider the answer in the next article.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New York City Settlement of Fire Department Discrimination a Blow Against Racism but Panned by Ultra-Right New York Post Editorial

Thomas Riggins

Under the leadership of New York City's progressive new mayor Bill de Blasio a settlement has been reached between a discrimination lawsuit filed by the Vulcan Society (representing minority firefighters) and the city over the use of racially based civil service tests that favored white applicants.

In a case dating back to 2007 which found the city guilty of racism in testing, by a Federal Court, and still being appealed by the city, due to former mayor Bloomberg's refusal to accept the ruling, an acceptance of the court's findings by mayor de Blasio brings an end to this shameful episode of discrimination against minority firefighters and applicants by their own government.

However, there are some groups who still try and defend the racist practices of the Bloomberg years. One example can be found in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation's  ultra-right New York Post which claims, untruly, that de Blasio "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

In its editorial [3-18-2014] the Post tries to mislead its readers by distorting the facts and falsifying the information that they present to them (a common practice of Murdoch's operations in general). I can't help but get the impression that the Post is waging a disinformation war against working people in general and minorities in particular in the interests of its the anti-working class  owners.

In the first place there was no "victory" on the horizon against the proof of racism on the part of the NYFD. The Post claims that  "case had been moving in the FDNY's direction" because it was on appeal due to the appeals court's finding that the judge handling it (Nicholas Garauflis ) "had raised so much doubt about his impartiality that a key part of the case was assigned to another judge." The Post adds, "Even so…. the city agreed to shell out $98 million in back pay, medical benefits and interest to the suing firefighters."  The Post calls this a "surrender."
Actually it was a victory for the FDNY and the city.

The Post's version is misleading as it gives the impression that the charge of "racism" against the FDNY was in doubt and only if that were true would the case be "moving in the FDNY's direction" and maybe the $98 million need not be "shelled out." What is the truth?

Judge Garauflis found the FDNY guilty of "unlawful disparate impact" with respect to its testing policy. This is a technical legal term but simply put it means that it is illegal to give civil service tests that don't really test for knowledge that is related to job performance and have a negative effect on groups of people by failing them so they can't get the job. In this case the test is illegal because it has nothing really to do with the job being tested for.

The FDNY's test was such a test and it can be called "racist" because it had the effect of preventing minorities in general from being employed by the department. Even after this was pointed out to the department it continued to use such tests-- this is the reason for the suit.  This finding was not questioned by the appeals court and the $98 million and other penalties was going to go into effect period.

What  the appeals court objected to was Judge Garauflis' additional finding that the NYFD had intentionally designed the tests to be discriminatory.  The appeals court appointed another judge to handle this issue. But it also left Judge Garauflis in charge of the financial and other penalties in the case so there was no "shelling out" of any monies by the mayor.

Why was the settlement a victory and not a "surrender." Because the settlement entailed the city accepting the verdict of "unlawful disparate impact" which was not on appeal anyway and the Vulcan Society withdrew its complaint that this was the result of a deliberate plan to discriminate. Thus the appeal was ended.

The NYFD can feel, in some sense, vindicated because it can claim that it never
deliberately discriminated against minorities, and hence the city is not "racist" in that sense. It is also a victory for the people of New York City because when a racist practice is pointed out they have a mayor who moves to correct it not cover it up.

The only defeat goes to the The New York Post and its racist anti-working class agenda.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Smash or be Smashed? Lenin's Theory of the State

Thomas Riggins

In  Chapter Two of State and Revolution Lenin discusses the lessons of the European revolutionary movement of 1848-51 There are three sections to this chapter. The first section is entitled:

1.) The Eve of the Revolution

 Lenin points out that the first "mature" works of the Marxist world view were created on the "eve" of the 1848 upheaval-- namely Marx's 1847 work The Poverty of Philosophy  and Marx and Engel's joint work The Communist Manifesto. Every educated person has read the latter work but the former may not be so well known.

It was composed by Marx to confute the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) whose Philosophy of Poverty appeared in 1846 and put forth an anarchist program for the working class: the class should abstain from politics and concentrate on economic struggles leading to the abolition of the state. However, this is not the place for a discussion of this work by Marx and I will only reproduce the quote that Lenin uses to illustrate Marx's first "mature" view on the state: "The working class, in the course of development, will substitute for the old bourgeois society an association which will preclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power proper, since political power is precisely the official expression of class antagonism in bourgeois society."

I don't think Proudhon would disagree with this even though he and Marx had deep disagreements about how to bring this about. The Communist Manifesto came out in November of the same year (1847) that Marx's book did. Here Lenin quotes from it that after the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie by a worker's revolution the workers will "raise the proletariat to a position of a ruling class" this will allow it "to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hand of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class."

This quote Lenin calls an expression of one of the central tenets of Marxism. i.e., the concept of "the dictatorship of the proletariat " ["worker's super democracy" for the queasy]. The term itself was coined by Joseph Weydemeyer (1818-1866 a supporter of Marxism and a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War) and adopted by Marx and Engels to describe the Paris Commune of 1871. Lenin says this formulation of workers control from the Communist Manifesto "is a slap in the face for the common opportunist prejudices and philistine illusions  about the 'peaceful development of democracy.'"  Well, it didn't work too well in Chile, the peaceful development that is, and Venezuela is currently going through a rough patch. What conclusions did Lenin draw from these quotes? There are four.

 First, while socialists can participate in electoral struggles and parliaments they cannot be ministers in bourgeois governments. 

Second, only that part of the working class engaged in large-scale production (the proletariat proper) "is capable of being the leader of all the working people" since workers scattered about in small scale works "are incapable of waging an independent  struggle for their emancipation."

Third, Marxism is the educational tool by which the worker's party is educated to become the "vanguard of the proletariat" which can lead the workers to their true liberation once they take power.

 Fourth, opportunism is a tendency in the working class which actually represents "the better-paid workers, who loose touch with the masses, [and] 'get along' fairly well under capitalism." The leaders of this tendency renounce revolution and "sell their birthright for a mess of potage." Lenin will now move on to the second section this chapter.

2.) The Revolution Summed Up

Marx summed up his conclusions about the revolutionary upheaval of 1848-51 in a work entitled The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 1852. The title refers to the date in the French Revolutionary calendar when Louis Bonaparte's uncle Napoleon seized power in a coup d'etat-- 18th Brumaire, Year VIII of the Republic--i.e., November 9, 1799. 

Lenin thinks this work made a great theoretical advance on the  Communist Manifesto written five years previously. What this means practically is that the Manifesto must be read in conjunction with the Eighteenth Brumaire if we are not to be led astray and end up misunderstanding Marxism.

Here is  the advance. In the Manifesto, Lenin says, Marx and Engels showed that the workers must get state power into their hands if they are ever to get rid of the capitalists and put an end to exploitation, but they did not explain how to do this. "The question as to how, from the point of view of historical development, the replacement of the bourgeois by the proletarian state is to take place is not raised here" (i.e., in the Manifesto).

The question of "how to" is answered by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire. The short answer is to "Smash the State." This is a catchy slogan misappropriated today by anarchists of all stripes and I do not intend to discuss their use of it. Lenin explains that after careful study of the actual course of the revolutionary events of 1848-51 and how the workers were deceived by the bourgeoisie and the methods by which the revolutionary advances were commandeered by the bourgeoisie to strengthen their class position at the expense of the workers (Lenin also uses examples from the history of the Russian Revolution) Marx concluded that the workers could not use the bourgeois state to attain their objectives.

In revolutionary situations, such as 1848 Marx held, Lenin says, that the workers would be compelled to use the destructive power of the revolution, "to concentrate all its forces of destruction" in Marx's words, "against the state power, and to set itself the aim, not of improving the state machine, but of smashing and destroying it." 

Lenin arrived at the same conclusion by studying the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia, not only the period 1905-07, but especially the six months he had just lived through covering 27 February to 27 August 1917. He stresses that these conclusions are not "logical deductions" made from Marxist theory but the result of empirical observations of the actual on going historical process.

We come now to an extremely important question asked by Lenin. He asks if it is proper to generalize Marx's conclusions regarding his study of the French revolutionary experience of 1848-51. We can go further now and ask if we can generalize Lenin's own conclusions based on his experience of conditions in Russia. What gives us the right to take conclusions based on the specific  historical conditions obtaining in these two European states and conclude that all socialist revolutions must eventuate in a violent establishment of a proletarian dictatorship?

Lenin himself criticized Engels view of France as the "classical" model of revolution. Engels' comment that in France "the struggle of the upward-striving proletariat against the ruling bourgeoisie appeared here in an acute form unknown elsewhere " is considered  "out of date" since the revolutionary struggled in France has been in "a lull" since 1871 (some 46 years from Lenin's perspective.)  Yet, Lenin thinks that Engels might be correct in the long term as this lull does not "preclude the possibility that in the coming proletarian revolution France may show herself to be the classic country of the class struggle to the finish."

Well, the "coming proletarian revolution" didn't come and today the French workers don't seem to be able to come up with anyone better than Fran├žois Hollande-- a sorry excuse for a socialist let alone a "revolutionary." And if the French workers were in a revolutionary lull in 1917, what can we say about the Russian proletariat of today who put up with the homophobic nationalist Putin?

Do these examples nullify the conclusions of Marx and Lenin (we will have more to say about Engels later) regarding the role of violence in establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat? In the case of Marx Lenin didn't think so and his reasons, pari passu, can also be applied to his own case. Here is what he had to say. 

Lenin says that when we look over not just the developments that Marx noted in France, but the development of the bourgeois state in all the "advanced countries"-- he lists France, America, Switzerland, Britain, Germany and somewhat in Italy and Scandinavia, we see, in slower motion than in France, the development described by Marx and that "There is not the slightest doubt that these features are common to the whole of the modern evolution of all capitalist states in general."

What are these features?  These states are outwardly democratic but they are based on the powers bestowed on two basic institutions-- the standing army and a enlarged state bureaucracy. Democratic parliaments become increasing weaker and dysfunctional leading to the growth of the power of the executive branch of the government. The state apparatus functions under the control of, and to further the interests of,  the big capitalist national and multi-national corporations and banks leaving the working people more and more at the mercy of economic events out of their control. The state-apparatus claims to be representative of all the people and especially appeals to the middle classes by providing them with jobs and a living standard above the average of most working people. At the bottom are the workers whose productivity and creation of surplus value are responsible for all the wealth skimmed off by the capitalists at the top and grudgingly shared with segments of the middle class. Without organizing and socialist consciousness raising within the working class this situation will more or less tend to perpetuate itself. 

This is a rough description of the capitalist world of a hundred years ago at the beginning of the 20th century, according to Lenin. His theories and interpretation of Marxism are based on this world view. Leninism today is as relevant as is the description given above to picture the capitalist world of the beginning of the 21st century.

What will the working people put in place of capitalism? Lenin says the Paris Commune gave us a basic outline. Of course we have the model of the Soviet Union and other "socialist" countries to also look at. But Lenin's book was written before the October Revolution. Chapter Three of State and Revolution is devoted to the Commune, but I will end this paper with Lenin's short section 3 ("The Presentation of the Question by Marx in 1852") of Chapter Two before we go on to that chapter. Lenin added this section to the 2nd edition of his book (1918) it was not in the first edition of 1917.

Lenin begins this section with some quotes from a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer from Karl Marx dated March 5, 1852. Marx says that he himself deserves no credit for the theory of class struggle. "Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes."  Marx, however, does take credit for three things. 1.) Noting that classes only appear in history when certain specific modes of production have developed. 2.) That the class struggle "necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat." 3.) That the dictatorship is merely a transitional phase on the road to a classless society.

Lenin says it is a mistake to think that Marxism is basically just about class struggle. The bourgeoisie knows perfectly well that they are engaged in a class struggle against the working people. Here is a quote from multi-billionaire Warren Buffett stating there is "class warfare all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning" (New York Times November 26, 2006). It doesn't take Marxism to tell workers about the class struggle.

But it does take Marxism to tell workers what to do about it. Lenin puts it this way: "Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat [AKA' workers super democracy'--for the faint of heart]. This is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested."

Lenin stresses that this is not an anti-democratic position. Many progressives today balk at the word "dictatorship" making a fetish out it and thus preventing them from understanding what Lenin is saying. To abolish capitalism the working people, the vast majority of the population, must gain political power, do away with capitalist institutions (including the capitalist state) and build new institutions representing humanity at large. They must have a worker's state to guide them along the way of the transition to a classless society. This new state "must inevitably," Lenin says, "be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie)." 

We must remember that bourgeois rule takes many forms but in essence even the most democratic bourgeois state is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (of the 1% over the 99% as it were). Until we arrive at a classless society we have only two kinds of state to live in-- both of them class dictatorships, one of the 1% over the 99%, the other of the 99% over the 1%-- there is no third, so in the words of the old song "Which side are you on?"

This is Lenin's basic theory of the State according to Marxism. It in no way precludes mass democratic reform struggles within the capitalist system, participation in elections, or another practical methods to improve conditions on the ground for the working class under capitalism. But it does make us keep our eyes on the prize and maybe that baby in the bath water as well.

Chapter Three of S&R will be the next part of this series.