For the Record – Flawed Methods, Unnecessary Divisions

OCTOBER 9, 2013 – Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos (2013) have written a defence of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a party wracked by crisis since late 2012. This crisis was precipitated by the response, on the part of the SWP leadership, to allegations of rape and sexual assault. However, Kimber/Callinicos assert that “all those involved … have agreed that the case itself should be treated as ‘closed’” and therefore barely address issues of sexual violence, sexism, women’s oppression – the substantive issues that have generated the current crisis.

Others will, no doubt, respond to Kimber/Callinicos on these points. This contribution concerns one specific aspect of their text. To illustrate one point in their article, the authors cite a passage from a 2001 Callinicos pamphlet, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left (2001), a pamphlet which was to circulate quite widely in the years which followed, prominently featured on the SWP website until late 2009 (SWP 2009). This is a very questionable text, in 2013, to be used as an authoritative source.

The first 6,000-word portion of Anti-Capitalist Movement is relatively straightforward. It paints a picture of the political terrain at the turn of the century, the birth of a new left, and a reflection on what Callinicos sees as a parallel period – the radicalization of the 1960s. The concluding 6,000-word portion is completely different. The year of the pamphlet’s publication, 2001, was the year that the SWP argued for and won the expulsion of the U.S.-based International Socialist Organization (ISO) from the International Socialist Tendency (IST). The final 6,000 words of Anti-Capitalist Movement are entirely devoted to justifying this expulsion.

It is a justification based upon three very flawed methods: inflated rhetoric, careless use of historical analogies, and a misleading political economy. Many of us – who at the time were convinced to support the SWP leadership’s drive to expel the ISO –with the benefit of hindsight know now that we were quite wrong. Two years ago, for self-clarification, this author drafted, but did not publish, a critique of Anti-Capitalist Movement. With this 2001 pamphlet now resurfacing as a part of current debates, perhaps these notes – slightly revised – will be of interest to others. So, for the record …


The political environment at the turn of the century was shaped by anti-corporate activism. In 1999, a coalition of young anti-globalization activists and veterans of the trade union movement disrupted the annual meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held that year in Seattle, Washington (Bakan 2000a; Bakan 2000b). Ralph Nader called this Seattle moment a “fork in the road” (1999) – a watershed pointing towards new waves of struggle against corporate globalization. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands challenged the symbols of corporate capitalism – in Genoa, Quebec City, Prague and elsewhere.

The first section of Anti-Capitalist Movement documents the emergence of the anti-globalization wave of protests. Callinicos argues that “there has crystallized in the advanced capitalist countries a politically active minority that sees global capitalism as the source of the world’s ills”. He lists the key moments in the “new cycle of protest” which had emerged since the Seattle events, including demonstrations in “Washington (16 April 2000), Millau (30 June 2000), Melbourne (11 September 2000), Prague (26 September 2000), Seoul (10 October 2000), Nice (6-7 December 2000), and Washington again (20 January 2001)”. Even larger protests were to occur in the months following the publication of Anti-Capitalist Movement – the huge 300,000 strong mobilization in Genoa and the 80,000 who challenged the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City (George 2001; Ritsema 2011). For those of us who participated in various of these protests against corporate capitalism, reading through the history outlined in Anti-Capitalist Movement is a useful reminder of their importance. For others, it might provide a good summary and history of an historic movement.

With the benefit of hindsight of course, some of the analysis needs to be modified. Twelve years ago, many of us, including Callinicos, saw Seattle as the central fact in the new movement. But Seattle did not emerge in a vacuum. Its organizers had been deeply influenced by Global South mass movements against neoliberalism and imperialism, movements which – from January 1, 1994 – exploded onto the world scene with the anti-neoliberal uprisings in Chiapas, Mexico. Seattle needs to be seen as one link in a bigger chain – in part, being an echo of the mobilizations against neoliberal globalization and imperialism that emerged out of Latin America in the 1990s, going back to the Zapatistas and beyond. Even after the events of 9/11, this radicalization continued, with the 2002 mobilization against the attempted coup in Venezuela and the massive uprisings associated with the gas wars in Bolivia in 2003 and 2004. Both of these events served as part of the immediate background to the election of Evo Morales in 2005.

Another aspect of the analysis in Anti-Capitalist Movement needs to be re-examined. In a comparative evaluation of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the Seattle protests, Anti-Capitalist Movement asserts that the Intifada “is driven by the Palestinians’ burning resentment of the oppression they suffer at the hands of the Zionist state … but the system itself is not at the centre of their consciousness”. This implies that the Seattle-inspired movements were at a higher level, being directed against the system as a whole. But the Al-Aqsa Intifada was a key spark for the radicalization in the region, not least in Egypt, a radicalization which exploded in 2011 in the Arab Spring. For many in the Arab Spring revolutions, both Palestine and “the system itself” were very much at the centre of their consciousness (Barghouti 2011). It does not seem credible, more than a decade later, to see the post-Seattle anti-globalization protests as existing at a higher level than the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The Global North protests in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Washington and elsewhere were significant. But looking back from the second decade of the 21st century, it is clear that the main streams of mass movements and radical change since the 1990s have flown through the Global South – Chiapas, Caracas and Cochabamba; Palestine, Egypt and Tunisia. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and this contribution by Callinicos is a worthwhile part of an ongoing discussion.

Inflated Rhetoric

In the second half of the pamphlet – announced with the headline “An American Tragedy: the International Socialist Organization” – Anti-Capitalist Movement takes a quite different turn. Prominent throughout the next several thousand words are examples of what Leo Panitch has called “inflated rhetoric” (1987) – the exaggeration of differences to the point of caricature through the use of highly-charged language. The SWP and the ISO disagreed as to the significance of the Seattle protest. Anti-Capitalist Movement elevates this disagreement far above a mere question of tactics. According to Anti-Capitalist Movement, the Seattle events revealed “the ISO’s metastasis into a sect”. The ISO had “become so ossified that they are unable to relate to the revival of the left for which they have waited for decades”. It argues that there had been a long history of “sectarian degeneration” in the ISO, that there was, in various of the writings of the ISO, “evidence of a deep-rooted sectarian mentality”, and that even when there were moments of health, there was a recurring tendency of “retreating into the sectarian bunker”. Already, during the Balkan Wars, “we can see the ISO displaying the attitude that by which Marx defined a sect”.

Anti-Capitalist Movement does not hesitate to amplify, arguing that the “ISO leadership’s urge to differentiate … is reminiscent of some of the worst sectarian aberrations of the 1960s, for example, the refusal of the orthodox Trotskyist followers of Gerry Healy and Pierre Lambert to participate in the student and anti-war movements”. Raising the ghost of the late Gerry Healy is a strong clue signalling where the argument is headed. Perhaps no left group more captured the essence of sectarianism than Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL) and its successor the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP). These were formations on the British far left, known among other things for their adulation of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and for the scandal of sexual abuse which ultimately shattered both Healy’s reputation and the current which he had led.[1] Phrases such as “sectarian bunker” have a known content in the socialist movement, clearly intended to identify a group which has turned in on itself and retreated from the reality of day-to-day life and struggle – hence the reference to Healy.

This use of inflated rhetoric was characteristic of the whole debate. An earlier letter to the ISO (drafted by Callinicos and Tony Cliff), argued that the ISO had “failed the test of the 1999 Balkan war” (cited in Birchall 2011, 548). This accusation – “failing the test of war” – also has a known content. The phrase emerges from debates triggered by the First World War. The socialist left was a mass, united movement in the first years of the 20th century. August 1914, this unity was shattered, when the world’s largest socialist party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), voted for war credits and gave its blessing to the horrors of patriotic war. The German SPD, and most other member organizations of the Second International “failed the test of war”. This led to profound isolation for internationalists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, forcing on this minority the necessity to, from scratch, begin again the project of constructing an international socialist movement. Taking this known term from the World War One era, and applying it to tactical differences over the war in Kosovo, is an extreme case of inflating the rhetoric.

The invective had the effect of sharply polarizing the discussion along apparently irreconcilable lines. The engaged realistic activist was counter-posed to the sectarian. The anti-war socialist was counter-posed to those who had supposedly capitulated to patriotism. But was such rhetoric and extreme polarization actually necessary? It is really very difficult to discover any meaningful political differences, at the turn of the century, between the ISO and the SWP. In his biography of the late Tony Cliff, leading SWP intellectual Ian Birchall argues that “[i]n principle the different assessments of the anti-capitalist movement could have been contained within the international tendency” (2011, 549). The ISO, like the SWP, participated in the Seattle protests, and many of the other anti-globalization mobilizations. The ISO, like the SWP, took a clear position against NATO’s bombing of Kosovo. There were differences, not over matters of principle, but rather over matters of expectation, nuance and tactics. What are the prospects of this new movement? This is about expectations. Should the movements be characterized as anti-capitalist or anti-globalization? This is a nuance. How do you combine opposition to NATO’s bombing campaigns with criticism of Serbia’s attacks on Kosovo? This is a tactic. All are appropriate subjects for reasoned discussion and debate. When they become wrapped in distortion and extreme invective, that discussion and debate becomes difficult, and the value of diverse views becomes lost in an urge to silence disagreement.

The SWP leadership, however, insisted on the limitations of the ISO, and the urgency of isolating and then expelling the organization from the IST. At a 2001 meeting of the IST, held in London U.K., the ISO was formally expelled.[2]

Careless Use of Historical Analogies

It would be fairly straightforward if this use of inflated rhetoric could be ascribed solely to problems of etiquette. Bad manners can be addressed and corrected fairly easily. However, the inflated rhetoric was, at least in part, a linguistic expression of a second problematic method. Argument by way of careless historical analogy – drawing too straight a line between the Russian Revolutionary era and our own – is a central method employed by Anti-Capitalist Movement.

Callinicos argues that the new movements in the wake of Seattle demanded the adoption of new modes of work, and the abandonment of old ones from a different era. To make this point, he quotes Trotsky. “[I]f in the preceding period too many elements of inertia have accumulated in the leading organs of the party, then the party will prove itself unable to fulfill its leadership at that supreme and critical moment for which it has been preparing itself in the course of decades. The party is ravaged by a crisis, and the movement passes the party by – and heads toward defeat”.

The quotation is from Trotsky’s work, The Lessons of October, an analysis of the challenges which confronted the European left in the context of revolutionary upheaval in 1917 and 1918. Callinicos says that it represents Trotsky “reflecting on the experience of the Bolsheviks”. That is not entirely accurate. In the paragraph from which the selection has been culled, Trotsky contextualizes his analysis. “On the basis of our experience – even taking only one year, from February 1917 to February 1918 – and on the basis of the supplementary experience in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, and Germany, we can posit as almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power” (1937, 4). These words are absent from Anti-Capitalist Movement.

Surely we should be careful about the applicability to our times of any analysis thinking through the challenges faced by socialists “in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power”. Further, look at the parties Trotsky was analyzing, – parties based in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and Russia. Unlike the small organizations which comprise the IST, the key parties on this list were real, mass parties. According to Tony Cliff, the Bulgarian socialist group which “voted to affiliate to the Comintern” in 1919” was a mass party with 35,478 members in 1920” (1979, 10–11). In Germany, the communists numbered some 50,000 until December 1920, when they were joined by the left-wing of the Independent Social Democrats to create a party of 350,000 (1979, 11). The Hungarian Party was significant enough to be at the centre of a 133-day “Soviet” republic in 1919 (1979, 12). When the Italian Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the Comintern it had 300,000 members (1979, 10). As for the Bolsheviks, they were formed in 1903 and two years later were confronted by a revolution involving the birth of workers’ councils. Years of defeat and reaction followed, then the horrors of world war, then the two revolutions of 1917 and the working class seizure of power. In those tumultuous years, the Bolsheviks were variously a group of dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands(1975, 98–138; 168–182; 235–252; 352–366). It is a rich and complex story. But from the standpoint of the 21st century, it is little more than just that … a story. Anti-Capitalist Movement tells this story selectively. It insists that lessons appropriate to mass organizations in conditions of autocracy, confronted with the transition to state power, are directly applicable to the experience of small left formations confronted with demonstrations and movements in the context of liberal democracies.

Britain and North America in the 21st century have no mass socialist organizations. There are no workers’ soviets (self-governing popular councils). We do not at the moment have a Tsarist-like reaction forcing the left and organizers underground. Russia between 1903 and 1917 could not really be more different than Britain and North America between 1989 and 2001, or, for that matter, 2013. It is not at all clear how lessons from the one period could be applied to the other, except in the most general manner. To offer real lessons from the Russian Revolution, demands paying careful attention to specific contexts and precise differences. A method based on selective out-of-context quotation is the mark of internalized factionalism. It does nothing to contribute to clarity.

Anti-Capitalist Movement reduces the key lesson from this complex story to Lenin’s leadership method of “bending the stick”; “of focusing on the key tasks in the current situation to the exclusion of all secondary factors and indeed to the point of exaggeration … the price of failing to develop this approach is sectarianism”. The argument is crystal clear. The ISO did not “bend the stick” towards the Seattle movement, and hence became sectarian.

Contemporary research is calling into question this whole take on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Lars T. Lih has argued that Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, where the “bend the stick” thesis is advanced, took one moment in Lenin’s life quite out of context (Cliff 1975; Lih 2006, 22–27). Further, even were we to agree that Lenin frequently did exaggerate to make his point, what exactly does this imply for the very different circumstances we confront in the 21st century? Until 1917, Lenin was almost always in exile. Trade union and party organizers inside Russia operated underground. Activists faced frequent arrests, jail, exile and deportation. The Russian state was a repressive, Tsarist nightmare. The Bolshevik movement in 1905, and then again from 1912 until 1917, was a mass movement, with deep roots and real influence in the working class. Navigating this situation must have been extremely difficult. There would be a premium on tacking and turning, avoiding traps and obstacles, looking for the key next step. Perhaps we might label this tacking and turning, “bending the stick”.

But for small left currents and individuals in the context of advanced capitalism and liberal democracy in the 21st century, it is not at all clear how this has relevance. When groups are on the margins, have little influence, can at best participate in struggles, but rarely lead them, then to invoke “bending the stick” is unlikely to mean much in practice, unlikely to be a factor in changing the direction of the mass movement. In the absence of being able to “bend the stick” in action, there is only one choice left. The stick bending is done in words. The invective and the inflated rhetoric take flight. At best, it is just pretentious. At worst, it becomes a justification for yelling and verbal abuse.[3]

Misleading political economy

The third flawed method underpinning the analysis of Anti-Capitalist Movement is an extremely misleading political economy. Callinicos defends the practice, current in the IST since the early 1990s, of using – in the U.K., North America and elsewhere – the decade of the 1930s as an analogy for the decade of the 1990s (albeit in “slow motion”) (Callinicos 1994; Cliff 2000, 81–82). In 2012 and 2013, for Greece and some of the other countries in Southern Europe, the 1930’s decade has certainly returned as a point of reference. However, the situation in Greece in 2012 and 2013 is one thing and the situation in North America and Britain in the 1990s is quite another. The ISO leadership challenged the 1930s in slow motion framework, Callinicos acknowledges, pointing “to the American boom of the 1990s as a decisive counter-example to the ‘1930s in slow motion’ analysis”.

Surely the ISO leadership had a point. Let’s try to get a picture of the 1930s, and then contrast it with the 1990s. The most basic measure of economic health is the value of GDP (output) per capita, adjusted for inflation. When that figure is rising, then the economy is growing. When that figure is shrinking, so is the economy. The first chart here takes the output per capita for the U.S. in 1929 as 100, and then shows the trajectory of output per capita in the years which followed, from 1930 until 1940. It is an extraordinary picture of decline. By 1933, output per person was almost 30 percent below what it had been in 1929. It was this kind of economic collapse which led to mass unemployment, soup kitchens and bread lines. By the end of the 1930s, output per person was slowly increasing, inching back to where it had been in 1929. But we now know that output per person was finally able to surpass the 1929 figure, and the economy could return to growth, only because of manufacturing gearing up for World War II.

If that is the profile of the 1930s, how does it compare to the 1990s? The second chart applies the method of the first to the decade of the 1990s, and includes three countries, the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. 1990 is used as a baseline, output per capita that year expressed as “100”. For one of the three countries, the 1930’s analogy clearly has some relevance. The chart documents the catastrophic decline of the Russian economy in the 1990s. By 1998, output per capita was barely half what it had been in 1990. The end of Stalinism in Russia and the transition to the market were very big stories in that decade. But Russia’s experience was qualitatively different from that of the U.S. and the U.K. There was decline in 1991 for the U.S., and for 1991 and 1992 in the U.K. But from that point on, the story is the opposite of the 1930s, output per capita rising in both countries. By 2001, output per person, in both countries, was 25 per cent greater than it had been in 1990. Clearly, for those two countries at least, any analogies with the Great Depression of the 1930s would have to be treated with some suspicion. If a fourth country had been added to the picture, the entire analogy would have collapsed. The spectacular economic take-off in China was well underway in the 1990s. In 2001, output per capita in China was an extraordinary 162 per cent greater than it had been in 1990.

Anti-Capitalist Movement insists that, in using the analogy with the 1930s, they were “very careful to stress the differences between the 1930s and the 1990s”. The truth is, once the 1930s analogy had been put on the table, being “careful” was going to be difficult. The problem with invoking the 1930s, even with many qualifications, is that, for millions of people, the phrase has real, and instant meaning. It is not ambiguous. “The 1930s” is a headline signifying social and economic collapse. The decade of the 1930s was one of catastrophic economic decline, catastrophic levels of unemployment, catastrophic collapse of living standards, the rise of fascism, the occupation of the factories in the United States, civil war in Spain, horrendous war and social collapse in China – and ultimately the beginning of the Second World War. It was a decade of wars and revolutions, of socialism or barbarism. In that context, Trotsky argued that the objective basis for capitalist crisis was clear for all to see, the objective material for socialism was at hand, but what was lacking was subjective – the organized, experienced cadre in the leadership of mass socialist organizations. “The crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership” (Trotsky 1981, 2). This was a desperate formulation from a desperate decade, misleading but perhaps understandable given the horrors of fascism and the stark failure of the Stalinist parties. That was then. When the analogy with the 1930s was (quite wrongly) applied to the 1990s in the U.K. and the U.S., in such a way as to imply that the only barrier between the 1990’s generation in those two countries and the move towards socialism was a subjective one – in other words, when the bar was raised so high that success was absolutely impossible – then the finger-pointing and divisions soon followed. It became a political economy justification for the inflated rhetoric, invective, factionalism and splits, which proved to be very damaging.

It is also not hard to see the way in which a viewpoint fixated on the lessons of the 1930s might also lead to unrealistic expectations. Anti-Capitalist Movement argues that, “in the second half of the 1990s the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end”. This would be a logical expectation flowing from a focus on the 1930s – a decade which opened in North America with a deep downturn in working class struggle, a downturn which finally came to an end, in both the United States and Canada, through an explosive wave of strikes and factory occupations (Preis 1972; Dobbs 1972; Palmer 1992, 214–267; Jamieson 1968, 214–275). But while there have been important moments of struggle in Britain and North America, a sober assessment of the state of the workers’ movements in both places would indicate that Callinicos’ assessment was rather inaccurate. This would certainly be the case for the first few years of the 21st century in the United States, where strike levels remained at historic lows, and where most years the rate of unionization was lower than the year before.

The final chart accompanying this article is not the last word on this issue, but it needs to be seriously examined as part of the discussion. By a very basic measure of working class combativity – days not worked because of strikes and lockouts – a clear picture emerges for the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. There is considerable combativity through the 1970s, underpinning the deep radicalization of that decade. But this slowly declines in the 1980s, then falls precipitously in the 1990s, remaining at very low levels into the 21st century. There is an interesting and important spike in 2000 in the U.S., the year after Seattle. But it is not sustained, and it certainly does not provide – at least as it concerns these three countries – confirmation for the assertion that “the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end”.


Twelve years ago, just before the expulsion of the ISO, this author (at the time a member of the IST) and Paul D’Amato (a leading member of the ISO, and managing editor of the International Socialist Review) both travelled to Jakarta, Indonesia, to participate in a small anti-globalization conference. The conference was physically attacked by an armed group of right-wingers, aided and abetted by the armed forces of the Indonesian state. Paul and myself, along with some 30 other activists – after a long ride through the crowded streets of Jakarta, crammed onto the back of an army truck – ended up spending a night on the floor of a Jakarta police station, our passports seized and under threat of arrest (Wearmouth et al. 2001). Following a weekend of protests both inside and outside Indonesia, we got our passports back, and the threat subsided.

But at the time, in the face of the overwhelming Global South challenges confronting the poor and the working class in Indonesia, the Global North differences between the IST and the ISO receded into the background. In fact it was impossible to even begin to explain the nature of the division to the activists in Jakarta. They participated with us in conference discussions, formal and informal, worked with us shoulder to shoulder against the repression of the Indonesian state, and drew the quite correct conclusion that our politics were, for all intents and purposes, identical. If there is one single lesson from the last twelve years, that experience in Jakarta probably frames it best.

Sometimes there are meaningful political differences. But to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, we need to reject methods which serve to artificially inflame and exaggerate. In other words, we have to reject the methods employed in Anti-Capitalist Movement.

In 2006, three Palestinian rights’ activists, leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)  movement, outlined a helpful alternative approach. “The roots of sectarianism” they said “lie in fetishizing minor programmatic differences and organizational forms ahead of the interests of the movement as a whole”. As an alternative, “[w]e need to change the way we relate to each other, realizing that building unity in practice is our most powerful weapon. … [T]he best political line is something developed through a common political practice – not bequeathed to the movement from historical texts” (Hanieh, Jamjoum, and Ziadah 2006).

© 2013 Paul Kellogg


[1] Those who wish to understand just how sectarian Healy was, should examine the little pamphlet, Politics as Religion (Hallas 1974) written by the late Duncan Hallas, a key article from which “Building the Leadership”, is now available online (Hallas 2008).

[2] There was another key issue involved late in the dispute, an allegation that the ISO was involved in a split in the Greek section of the IST (Birchall 2011, 549), an allegation which pushed many to vote with the SWP CC. In 2012, I had the privilege of attending an ISO public meeting addressed by Antonis Davanellos (2012), leading member of one of the groups in question, the International Workers Left (DEA). This connection with the DEA was invaluable in providing material for an article on the crisis wracking the Southern Mediterranean (Kellogg 2012). It also made it quite clear that, in 2001, we were all operating with very partial information. In any case, the bulk of the polemic in 2001 was focused on the issues discussed here, Seattle and anti-war work.

[3] This analysis relies on research developed by Abigail Bakan (2009).


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———. 2000b. “From Seattle to Washington: The Making of a Movement.” International Socialism II 87 (Summer): 85–94.

———. 2009. “Party, Movement, Class: Gramscian Reconsiderations and the Case of the BDS Movement.” Conference Paper, Seventh International Conference, Rethinking Marxism: New Marxian Times. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Barghouti, Omar. 2011. “BDS: The Global Struggle For Palestinian Rights.” Socialism 2011. Chicago:

Birchall, Ian. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Callinicos, Alex. 1994. “Crisis and Class Struggle in Europe Today.” International Socialism II 63 (Summer): 3–47.

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———. 2008. “Building the Leadership (October 1969).” Marxists Internet Archive. February 24.

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———. 1981. The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International [1938]. New York: Labor Publications.

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Reflections on the Crisis in the SWP

JANUARY 13, 2013 – 1. Richard Seymour is author of the widely read blog, “Lenin’s Tomb,” and a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group left of the Labour Party in Britain. In an article written in the days following the January 4-6 annual conference of the SWP, Seymour made public a controversy inside the party, a controversy so serious he says: “the future of the party is at stake”. Speaking of the party’s Central Committee he said: “they are on the wrong side of that fight”. Speaking to fellow members of the party, he wrote: “You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms … You must fight now” (Seymour, 2013a).

2. China Miéville is a prolific author (Miéville, 2006, 2010, 2012) and another prominent member of the SWP. Like Seymour, he has publicly expressed concern about recent developments inside the party. There is, he says: “a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism’” (Cited in Penny, 2013).

3. The SWP has a student group on various campuses called SWSS (Socialist Workers’ Student Society). The SWSS group based at Leeds University released a public statement after the SWP conference, where it “condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the recent handling of very serious accusations against a leading member of the SWP Central Committee”. The Leeds SWSS group argues that: “an atmosphere of intimidation has been allowed to develop in which young members are viewed with suspicion and treated as such” and that there exists “a culture where members feel unable to raise disagreements” a culture which is the “opposite of the kind which should exist within a healthy revolutionary organization” (Leeds University SWSS, 2013).

4. In the days after these same events at the SWP conference, a full-time journalist working for Socialist Worker, the party’s weekly paper, announced his resignation from both his job and from the SWP. He described his reaction to the conference discussion that triggered his resignation as: “one of simple, visceral disgust. I was shaking. I still am. I did not know what to do. I walked out of the building in a daze” (Walker, 2013).

5. The SWP is the largest and most prominent organization in the International Socialist Tendency (IST). In the wake of the SWP conference, there was a public announcement by the IST organization in Serbia that it no longer wished to be part of the tendency. They pointed to what they saw as “a stifling party culture and regime” inside the SWP, and stated that four pre-conference expulsions represented “conduct that reflects bourgeois management techniques” (SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST, 2013).

I begin with these five points to indicate only one thing – there is a very serious crisis inside the SWP. What is the background to this crisis? The references that accompany this article, provide copious detail. Below is a short summary.

1. Two years ago at the SWP conference, there was a report to conference, concerning a personal relationship between a Central Committee member (a man) and a woman member of the party. It seemed, at the time, that what was involved was “an affair that was badly ended, with the accused merely hassling the person long beyond the point of propriety” (Seymour, 2013b). The situation, serious in itself, had apparently been resolved.

2. It was not. In 2012, the issue returned, this time with the Central Committee member charged with sexual assault. A committee of the SWP (Disputes Committee) adjudicated the matter, concluding that the charges were not proven.

3. Among the criticisms made of the process by which this decision was reached, was the very serious one, that at least some of the committee members were personally acquainted with the man accused.

4. While all this was ongoing, a second woman came forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, directed against the same member of the Central Committee.

5. In the run up to the SWP conference in January 2013, four SWP members, apparently all themselves former full-time employees of the party, were discussing, on a Facebook group, how to respond to this situation. For this, they were expelled from the party, as this, apparently, amounted to “secret factionalism”.

6. This then resulted in the formation of two formal factions, which garnered considerable support at the SWP conference. The positions of the factions – calling for a reversal of the expulsions and a review of the Dispute Committee’s decision – were voted down by the majority of the conference delegates. One of the votes, however, was by a quite narrow margin.

7. At the end of the conference, these factions were instructed to disband, as organizing “across branches” on these matters is only allowed in the SWP in the three months before conference. To continue to meet and discuss these matters is a breach of discipline, making members subject to expulsion.

8. However, the issue has not gone away. The Central Committee member involved, while now not a member of that body, is still apparently engaged in high profile party work. The controversy has now become the object of speculation and discussion in the mainstream press (Penny, 2013; Taylor, 2013).

What is at stake? There are two issues, one to do with women’s oppression, the other to do with left organizing. In terms of women’s oppression:

1. The charge of sexual assault is extremely serious. It is completely inappropriate to adjudicate such a matter by a committee some of whose members know the accused well. This puts the woman bringing the charges in a very painful, impossible position. It is an approach that will be repulsive to many in the movements.

2. The current radicalization – in Occupy, during the student strike in Quebec in 2012, in Idle No More, in the Arab Spring, in the extraordinary upsurge in India against rape – is leading to a welcome revival of feminism. A new generation of young people is rejecting the anti-feminism that was perpetrated by the right-wing during the years of the backlash, and reconnecting with and extending the traditions of women’s liberation from the 1960s and 1970s.

3. However, in the current crisis in the SWP, according to Tom Walker, “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters” (Walker, 2013). Seymour says that “old polemics against ‘feminism’ from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with” (Seymour, 2013a). These old polemics were based on a stark counterposition of Marxism and feminism. Tony Cliff in 1984, for instance, wrote: “Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism … There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them” (Birchall, 2011, p. 467; Cliff, 1984, p. 7). This quite sectarian orientation in theory is being helpfully challenged from within the Marxist tradition (Bakan, 2012; Ferguson, 1999, 2008; Smith, 2012).

In terms of left organizing:

1. The expulsion of four members for discussions in a Facebook group is absurd on its face. This is particularly so in the era of the Arab Spring. Facebook has become a tool of resistance, used to help the social movements bring down authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For Facebook conversations, in this same era, to be seen as a threat by leading left-wingers, is risible. In addition, the very thought of trying to monitor Facebook, as well as being impossible, implies a culture of surveillance which is antithetical to effective left politics.

2. The Facebook expulsions were justified with reference to the Bolshevik tradition and democratic centralism. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of both. One example will suffice. As the Bolshevik Party was preparing an insurrection towards the end of 1917, two leading party members, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, openly expressed their opposition to the insurrection in a non-party paper. Vladimir Lenin was furious, called them strike-breakers, and argued for their expulsion from the party (Lenin, 1917). He failed. The editors of the paper, in which his call for the expulsions was printed, responded by saying that: “the sharp tone of comrade Lenin’s article does not change the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind” (Bone, 1974, p. 120). Zinoviev and Kamenev went on to play prominent roles in the Russian movement, as leading members of the Bolshevik and its successor, the Communist Party. This is worth underlining. The strike-breakers Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled in the context of the Russian revolutionary upsurge of 1917. The Russian Revolutionary tradition cannot be used as a pretext, therefore, to expel four individuals for comments on Facebook in the rather less revolutionary conditions of Britain, 2012.

3. This austere (and incorrect) interpretation of the Bolshevik tradition is compounded by the rigid prohibition on cross-branch discussion about party matters after the conference. This rigidity, combined with a sectarian habit of counterposing Marxism to feminism, can create an unhealthy internal dynamic leading to more and more punitive actions by the leadership.

These reflections are written by someone who is not a member of the SWP, and who does not live in Britain. However, the current crisis of the SWP has implications beyond the ranks of the SWP and outside the borders of Britain. As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organizing, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg


Bakan, A. (2012) ‘Marxism, Feminism, and Epistemological Dissonance’, Socialist Studies / Études socialistes, 8(2), 60–84.

Birchall, I. (2011) Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Bone, A. (trans.) (1974) The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918. London: Pluto Press.

Cliff, T. (1984) Class struggle and women’s liberation, 1640 to today. London: Bookmarks.

Ferguson, S. (1999) ‘Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition’, Critical Sociology, 25(1), 1–15.

Ferguson, S. (2008) ‘Canadian Contributions to Social Reproduction Feminism, Race and Embodied Labor’, Race, Gender & Class, 15(1/2), 42–57.

Leeds University SWSS (2013, January 12) Leeds University SWSS Statement [online]. Swiss Leeds Uni.  [Accessed12 January 2013 ]

Lenin, V. (1917, October 18) ‘Letter To Bolshevik Party Members’ [online], Pravda.

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Miéville, C. (2010) Kraken. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Miéville, C. (2012) Railsea. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Penny, L. (2013, January 11) ‘What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?’ [online], New Statesman.

Seymour, R. (2013a, January 11) ‘Crisis in the SWP’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Seymour, R. (2013b, January 12) ‘A reply to the Central Committee’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Smith, S. (2012) Marxism and Women’s Liberation [online].

SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST’ [online], (2013, January 11) [online], Grumpy Old Trot.

Taylor, J. (2013, January 13) ‘Ranks of the Socialist Workers Party are split over handling of rape allegation’ [online], The Independent.

Walker, T. (2013, January 10) ‘Why I am resigning’ [online], Facts For Working People.

Historical Materialism in Canada

In the shadow of the economic crisis in Greece, inspired by Occupy, the Arab Spring, and Quebec’s “Maple Spring”, the 2012 edition of the Historical Materialism Conference in Toronto, was a resounding success. More than 400 people attended the 80-plus panels during an intensive three-day event stretching from Friday, May 11 through Sunday, May 13.

Historical Materialism saw an important series of discussions on indigenous politics, involving eight sessions, a plenary and a Long Table discussion. There was a well-attended session on the relationship between Marxism and Feminism and several sessions on key issues in political economy. The complete program can be seen here.

Historical Materialism originated as a journal 1997. Subscription information is available here. Annual conferences associated with the journal have been happening each November in London, U.K. since 2004. This year’s (the ninth annual) will be held between November 8 and 11, 2012.

Toward the United Front

One of the highlights of the 2012 Toronto HM conference, and of last year’s HM conference in London, was the launch of John Riddell’s 1310 page Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922. At that congress, 350 delegates from 61 countries (Riddell 2012, 55) grappled with the political challenges of building a united anti-capitalist movement in the post-war era. Three panels at Historical Materialism Toronto addressed issues relevant to Riddell’s book, with 150 people in total participating in those discussions.

Riddell’s book – which was also the subject of multiple sessions at the HM conference in London in 2011 – is the seventh in an ongoing series making available the proceedings and documents relevant to the construction of an international socialist movement in the difficult years before, during and after World War One. An outline of the six earlier works is available here. Central to this project were the early congresses of the Communist International, the first being in 1919. Bringing together activists from around the world, these congresses grappled with the key political issues of the day, in very difficult circumstances.

The first congress took place while Russia suffered under a terrible blockade which fuelled civil war and caused untold suffering. This blockade – imposed on the country by Britain, France and the Allied powers from the spring of 1918 until it petered out in 1920 – began in two phases. After the October Revolution, “the allies stopped the flow of supplies to Russia”. But the full regular blockade “was established after the Brest-Litovsk treaty” (Carr 1978, 3:126). In other words, Russia was being strangled by the victorious democracies, as punishment for Russia bringing to an end the carnage of World War One on Germany’s eastern front. Blockade went along with military invasion to fuel the destructive civil war aimed at overthrowing the new Russian workers’ state. The military invasion proved futile. In February and March of 1919, there were mutinies among British, French and U.S. troops (Carr 1978, 3:127–127). By the fourth congress – the subject of Riddell’s book – the blockade had been lifted and the civil war was over. The Russian workers’ state emerged victorious – but suffered horrendous casualties.

Riddell’s translations – and his superb 59-page introduction – bring to life this 90 year-old gathering of activists. The hard cover version will be difficult to buy for many individuals, as its list price is €199 ($283). But it is an excellent volume to recommend to a library, particularly if you are associated with a university. And, a $55 paperback version will be available later this year, published by Haymarket Books in Chicago.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg


Carr, Edward Hallett. 1978. A History of Soviet Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Volume Two. Vol. 3. 14 vols. Macmillan.

Riddell, John. 2012. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Eastern Europe: Western Europe’s poor Second Cousin

The Berlin Wall – the physical barrier dividing the “communist” east from the “free” west – collapsed under the pressure of a magnificent mass movement in 1989. It was difficult, in 1989, not to be sympathetic with the beautiful sight of ordinary East German workers, physically dismantling an ugly barrier which had disfigured the city of Berlin since 1961. But among those in the West who were sympathetic to the revolt from below, most were influenced by what was without question accepted as a truism – that the collapse of the Berlin Wall symbolized the superiority of the market compared to “state-socialism”. East and West started out in much the same shape after the war, the argument goes. But in the west the market, with all its flaws, led to France, West Germany, Sweden, etc. developing into some of the biggest economies in the world, while East Germany, Hungary and the rest of the East stagnated. State control just does not work and the market, with all its problems, has proven its superiority. The problem with this argument is that East and West Europe did not begin from the same point at the end of World War Two.

Western Europe is home to economies which were the first in the world to undergo industrial revolutions. First in Netherlands and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed by France in the late eighteenth century and finally Germany in the late nineteenth century — it was here that capitalism firmly took root, smashing up the old, peasant-based societies, and laying the groundwork for extremely rapid industrialization.[1]

The basis for this industrial strength was driving the peasants off the land, and turning them into wage-labourers in the sprawling new cities of Europe — Manchester, Paris, Turin, Berlin. The wealth produced by an industrial working class – working in large collective workplaces with access over time to more and more machinery and automation – is far greater than that produced by a peasantry working in labour-intensive conditions on small plots of ground in the countryside. The Dutch, the French and the English, on the basis of the massive growth of their industrial economies in the nineteenth centuries, embarked on a global competition for world supremacy, ultimately bringing all or part of every continent in the world under their imperial control.

They were joined by Germany and the New World upstart the United States in the nineteenth century. The rivalries of these capitalist giants twice exploded into world war in the twentieth century.

The situation in what, before 1989, was called “Eastern Europe,” was very different. Much of Eastern Europe had, until very late in the day, aristocratic ruling classes that were much more successful at resisting the advance of capitalism than were their counterparts in the west. The wealth of the aristocracy was based on peasants tied to the great landed estates. Thus the aristocratic ruling class had an interest in preserving the old, peasant-based economies, and resisting the advance of industrial capitalism.

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, this ruling class was much more successful in Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, Rumania, etc., in resisting the rise of an industrial capitalist class, than in the West.

In the East, the bulk of the population until well into the twentieth century, continued to live very traditional lifestyles in labour-intensive conditions on the land.[2] The development of the industrial working class occurred, but as a small minority inside society. It wasn’t until the 1860s that serfdom was abolished in Russia. When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, there were 15 times as many peasants as workers in the country. It was only as a result of defeat in World War II that the power of the old aristocratic ruling class in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up.

Similarly the Ottoman Empire – from which came Turkey as well as several of the southern republics of the Soviet Union – survived the beginning of the twentieth century intact, its semi-feudal ruling class a real barrier to capitalist development. Only with defeat in the First World War was this ruling class smashed up and the possibility of industrial development opened up.

In short, the bulk of the “Eastern Bloc” was carved out of those sections of Europe and Asia that had been very late in embarking on a path of industrialization. The bulk of the “Western Bloc” was comprised of those countries that had been the first to industrialize, that had made incredible strides in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in developing their industrial base, and had been able to, on that basis, spread their economic interests throughout much of the globe.

There are exceptions to this. Spain and Portugal in the Western bloc were late-industrializing countries, while East Germany in the Eastern bloc had been an historical heart of much of German industry. But in general, the pattern of most-advanced economies ending in the Western bloc, least advanced ending in the Eastern bloc, is accurate.

It means that the two sections of Europe that ended up confronting each other after World War II – a Western section under the hegemony of Washington, and an Eastern Section under the hegemony of Moscow – were coming from very different places. In the West, for the most part, were economies with a history and tradition of industrial capitalism going back generations. In the East, for the most part, were economies which until quite recently, had been under the thumb of conservative and reactionary land-based aristocracies, and which were, as a result, considerably poorer and considerably less industrialized than their counterparts in the West. It was not a contest between equals.

Previous article – “Twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

Read next: The Legacy of World War II

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] See E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (Toronto: New American Library, 1962); Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems analysis: An Introduction (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004).
[2] In one of his early, and largely overlooked books, Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff) makes this exact point. “Of the total population those engaged in agriculture, fishing and forestry made up in Bulgaria (1934) 80 per cent; Yugoslavia (1931) 79 per cent; Rumania (1930) 78 per cent; Poland (1931) 65 per cent; Hungary (1930) 53 per cent; Czechoslovakia (1930) 38 per cent.” Ygael Gluckstein, Stalin’s Satellites in Europe (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952), p. 13.

Twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

August 19, 1989 hundreds of East Germans “attending a demonstration called the Pan-European Picnic, escaped into Austria from Hungary by storming a border gate that had been opened as a symbolic expression of unity.”[1] This was one part of an enormous mass movement which engulfed all of Russian-occupied Eastern Europe in the revolutionary year of 1989. As a result of this pressure, Hungary – then part of the Russian dominated Eastern Bloc – was forced to open its border with Austria, and thousands of East German workers – who could acquire visas to visit Hungary or get to Hungary through Czechoslovakia – took advantage of this hole in the “Iron Curtain” to pour across, into Austria, and from there into West Germany.[2] The pressure of this movement of millions, the pressure of a mass movement for democracy and freedom, ended with the November 1989 physical destruction of the Berlin Wall separating East and West Berlin. When that wall came down, a new era in world politics began.[3]

Before these momentous events, one theme dominated world politics – the competition between the United States and what was then called the U.S.S.R. – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (which dissolved in 1991). This rivalry was labeled “Cold” only because it did not erupt into a “Hot War” as did the earlier rivalry between Germany and Great Britain, a rivalry which was at the core of the charnel houses of World War I and World War II.

But Cold or Hot – it was terrifying. Three generations grew up in the shadow of the bomb – the nuclear weapons which were deployed in their thousands by both sides in the Cold War – living with the ever-present possibility of nuclear confrontation between the West (led by Washington) and the East (led by Moscow).

The 1980s in Eastern Europe opened with the great working class uprising in Poland in the early 1980s, creating the ten million strong union Solidarność, which by 1989 had been able to push aside the authoritarian Stalinist Communist Party and take governmental office.[4] This was the spark for the mass movements which were to sweep aside Stalinist rule throughout Eastern Europe.

East Germany, like Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, had been run as a one-party state since being incorporated into the Russian sphere of influence after World War II. The Berlin Wall itself had been erected in 1961 to prevent East German workers escaping to the West. Its construction was an open condemnation of the failing of the so-called “Peoples’ Republics” of Eastern Europe. Its fall was a direct result of the democratization movements that were happening throughout Eastern Europe in the 1980s – moving from Poland to Hungary and Czechoslovakia – which allowed a way out for East Germans who wanted to escape authoritarian rule.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of the Moscow-centred bloc and the end of the Cold War. The disappearance of the Russian bloc saw authoritarian regimes dissolve, first in Eastern Europe, then in Russia itself.

Now a story like this, in any other circumstance, would be inspiring for everyone on the left. Socialism began as a campaign for democracy and the right to vote.[5] Socialists are always campaigning for an increase in rights and political freedoms. Socialists have always historically identified with mass workers’ movements such as the one represented by Solidarność, and with movements for democratic rights such as those that swept Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

But this story was different. Russia called itself communist. Its East European satellite states called themselves communist. Liberal politicians and theorists had argued that the Cold War was a contest between capitalism in the west and communism in the east, and most on the left agreed. So in the wake of the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of these “communist” states – the confusion in much of the left was extreme. Accepting that these regimes were, in some way, socialist, post-capitalist or “workers’ states” drove many on the left into confusion at what they saw as the victory of the market over the state. Instead of joining in the celebrations, and dancing on the fallen wall, many on the left looked on in horror. By contrast, there was a triumphalism among liberal, pro-capitalist theorists. Francis Fukuyama talked about the “end of history”.[6] The argument was pounded home that 1989 proved the superiority of the market and capitalism over the state and socialism.

There was just one problem. The regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe might have been dominated by the state – but they were in no way socialist. Socialism is not about state power, but about the power of the working class and the oppressed. It is not about the suppression of democracy, but about the extension of democracy from the state to the economy. We need to not just elect members of parliament once every few years, but to elect our bosses, our administrators, our judges.[7] The key institution of socialism is not the state bureaucracy, the Politburo, the Party or the Central Committee. The key institution is the workers’ council – an institution of mass working class democracy and accountability. The outlines of this kind of direct democracy were sketched first by the workers of Paris in 1871, and then again by the workers of Russia in 1905 and 1917. A brilliant but short-lived sketch of a workers’ council state occurred in Budapest, Hungary, during the magnificent 1956 uprising against authoritarian rule and Russian occupation.[8]

Russia had seen viable workers’ councils for a few months after the revolution of 1917. But they had quickly disappeared in the cauldron of civil war, imperialist blockade and resulting starvation. The regime which emerged under the leadership of Joseph Stalin in no way resembled the hopes and dreams of those who toppled the Czar in 1917. It was not socialist but state capitalist.

At the end of World War II, when Russian troops occupied much of Eastern Europe, Stalin installed regimes modeled on his own. These regimes had the label communist. But like Russia they were best understood as state capitalist – economies run by the state, enmeshed in competition with the rest of world capitalism through the mechanism of the arms race.[9]

Those on the left who understood this – those of us who had said “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” through the long Cold War – had supported the great Polish uprising led by Solidarność and did not mourn in 1989, but joined in the celebrations when the wall fell.

Read next – “Eastern Europe: Western Europe’s poor Second Cousin

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] Fernanda Santos, “Recalling the Day that Ripped An Opening in the Iron Curtain,” The New York Times, May 4, 2009, p. A.18
[2] Richard A. Leiby, The Unification of Germany (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 28
[3] For a useful collection of background material, see The Center for History and New Media, “Making the History of 1989” (Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University).
[4] For a gripping account of the origins of Solidarnosç, see Colin Barker and Kara Weber, Solidarność: From Gdansk to Military Repression, (London: Bookmarks, 1982).
[5] In the 19th century in Britain, for instance, socialists trace their movements origin to the struggle for the franchise led by the Chartists. See John Charlton, The Chartists: the first national workers’ movement (London: Pluto Press, 1997). For an overview of the centrality of political democracy to the left and the workers’ movement (again limited to a focus on Britain), see Paul Foot’s last book, Paul Foot, The Vote: How it Was Won and How it was Undermined (London: Penguin, 2005). Lars Lih has documented that the struggle for political democracy was far more central to the political orientation of the Russian Bolsheviks than is commonly understood. See Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (Boston: Brill, 2006), especially Chapter 2, “A Russian Erfurtian,” (pp. 111-158).
[6] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?National Interest, Summer, 1989
[7] This idea goes back to the great democratic experiment of the Paris Commune in 1871. Writing about this, Karl Marx described the “from below” institutions of mass democracy created by the Paris workers as “essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of Labour.” (Karl Marx, The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 51 (New York: International Publishers, 1986), p 334. The necessary basis for working class emancipation, then, is the direct democracy of the producing class. Through this political act – the completion of the democratic revolution, if you will – the producing class will be able to begin working out how to end economic exploitation.
[8] See Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (London: Index Books, 1997) and Chris Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (London: Pluto Press, 1974).
[9] Two Russian Marxists, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, provided the theoretical foundations for the theory of state capitalism. Trotsky himself used the term “degenerated workers’ state” to analyze Russia in the 1930s. But two of his most important books from the last years of his life are central in the understanding of the counter-revolution which shaped the new Stalinist regime emerging from the wreckage of Civil War. See Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., 1937), and the unfinished work (unfinished because of Trotsky’s assassination by a Stalinist agent) Trotsky, Stalin: an appraisal of the man and his influence (London: Hollis and Carter, 1947). Bukharin’s key work was Imperialism and World Economy (which really should be translated as World Economy and Imperialism), newly republished in Phil Gasper, ed. Imperialism and War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009). Leon Trotsky’s one-time administrative assistant, Raya Dunayevskaya, was one of the first Marxists to develop a worked out view conceptualizing the U.S.S.R. as a form of state capitalism. See Raya Dunayevskaya, “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a Capitalist Society,” Internal Discussion Bulletin of the Workers’ Party, March 1941, and Dunayevskaya, “The Nature of the Russian Economy,” The New International, December 1946/January 1947. She was joined in this viewpoint by one of the 20th century’s most respected Marxist theorists, C.L.R. James. See C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, “State Capitalism and World Revolution”, 1950. In the last decades of the 20th century, the theorist most closely identified with the theory of state capitalism was Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff). See Tony Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: International Socialism, 1964).

Fidel Castro: ‘Our revolution is not red but olive green’

Fidel Castro has announced that he will step down as president after almost 50 years as the president of Cuba. He has outlasted two generations of U.S. presidents, dedicated to his overthrow. In 1959 – the year of the revolution – Castro said: “Our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist! … Capitalism sacrifices the human being, communism with its totalitarian conceptions sacrifices human rights. We agree neither with the one or the other … Our revolution is not red but olive green. It bears the colour of the rebel army from the Sierra Maestra.”[1] No wonder generation after generation of young people, fighting for social change, have identified with both Castro and the revolution he personified.

When you study the history of Cuba, you can understand why the young Castro described his revolution as “neither capitalist nor communist.” Before the 1959 revolution – which overthrew the corrupt U.S. backed Fulgencio Batista – hidden from most histories is the magnificent uprising of 1933.[2] In the context of the catastrophic Great Depression, a massive movement engulfed the country. Richard Gott cites one eyewitness account. “Within less than a month the number of mills under labour control was estimated at thirty-six. Soviets were reported to have been organized at Mabay, Jaronú, Senado, Santa Lucía, and other centrales. At various points mill managers were held prisoners by the workers. Labour guards were formed, armed with clubs, sticks and a few revolvers … Workers fraternized with the soldiers and police.”[3]

Batista emerged into history as the central figure who helped to restore capitalism by leading the counter-revolution. Tragically, the communist organization at the time – the Partido Unión Revolucionaria – eventually did a deal with Batista. Their international organization – the Communist International – could say that “The people who are working for the overthrow of Batista … are no longer acting in the interests of the Cuban people.”[4] This alliance with Batista would last a decade, from 1937 to 1947. Castro’s movement in the 1950s was, then, a movement against a regime which the Communist Party had helped legitimize. The Communist Party was completely discredited, and Castro’s revolution was “not red but olive-green.”

Bitter opposition from the United States has defined Castro’s rule. This has nothing to do with a supposedly “democratic” U.S. against an “authoritarian” Castro. On taking power, to make even small improvements in the lives of Cuba’s poor, Castro had to challenge both landlords and capitalists. The U.S. has never forgiven him.

Cuba like much of Latin America, had an economy disfigured by centuries of imperialism. A handful of very rich landlords controlled the vast majority of land, while thousands of peasants were completely landless. Castro took three steps. First, he restricted most landholdings to 1,000 acres. Second, he divided up 40 per cent of the countryside into small holdings for the poor and landless peasants – giving them on average plots of 67 acres. Third, he stated that in future, land in Cuba would be owned only by Cubans. This infuriated the Americans, because the majority of foreign landowners were from the U.S.[5]

So when 300,000 tons of desperately needed crude oil arrived from Russia (in exchange for Cuban sugar), under pressure from the U.S. government, Shell, Standard Oil and Texaco refused to allow the use of their refineries. Castro expropriated the refineries. The U.S. then attacked the sugar industry – the lifeblood of the country, taking away Cuba’s sugar quota. “They will take away our quota pound by pound, and we will take away their sugar mills one by one.”[6] The sugar mills were nationalized, along with all major American properties on the island. So the U.S. “struck back … with the most powerful economic weapon in its armoury: an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba.”[7] That embargo has continued to this day, and has made life in Cuba extremely difficult.

But Castro’s Cuba has nonetheless survived – in fact it has more than survived. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Cuban troops fought side by side with liberation fighters in Africa, helping win national liberation struggles against European imperialism. Critically, in 1987 and 1988, Angolan troops supported by Cubans, fought repeated battles in Angola against an invading army from apartheid South Africa. The inability of the South African military to defeat the Angolans and Cubans was a critical factor in the subsequent collapse of the apartheid regime.[8]

But the brutal U.S. embargo had the disastrous impact of driving Cuba into the camp of the Stalinist Soviet Union. An economy dependent on the export of sugar to the United States became an economy dependent on the export of sugar to the Soviet Union and its allies. And working too closely with the Soviet Union sometimes meant taking the wrong sides in international disputes. In the 1970s, Cuba provided military support to the repressive Russian-backed regime of Ethiopia against the people of Eritrea who were fighting for their independence, an action that left a legacy of bitterness in Eritrea.[9]

Most analyses of Cuba accept that its society is now “post-capitalist” in some sense. This is misleading. No country as poor and isolated as Cuba can, on its own, make a transition to socialism. It remains caught in the web of the world economy, forced to “market” itself as a tourist designation with all the social ills which come with carving out such a “niche” in the capitalist economy.[10] Cuba under Castro needs not to be romanticized as a new socialist society, but understood as a country that has mobilized and stood up to imperialism over half a century.

In 1953, while on trial with 100 others for their assault on the Moncada Barracks, the then 26 year old Fidel Castro entered the stage of history. “The guilty continue at liberty and with weapons in their hands – weapons which continually threaten the lives of all citizens. … I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”[11] As Castro prepares to step down as president of Cuba, more than half a century later, there is no question that history has absolved him. The revolution he led remains a beacon for millions in the Global South.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Cited in Peter Binns and Mike Gonzalez, “Cuba, Castro and Socialism,” International Socialism 2:8, Spring 1980, p. 6
[2] See Luis E. Aguilar, Cuba 1933: Prologue to Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972)
[3] Cited in Richard Gott, Cuba: A new history (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 136
[4] Cited in Gott, pp. 143-4
[5] Gott, pp. 170-1
[6] Gott, pp. 183-4
[7] Gott, p. 185
[8] “Cuba & The Liberation of Southern Africa,” Pan-African newswire, November 8, 2005
[9] D. Fogel, Africa in Struggle, (San Francisco: ISM press, 1982), pp. 281-336
[10] See Antonio Carmona Báez, State resistance to globalisation in Cuba (London: Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 1-85
[11] Fidel Castro, “History Will Absolve Me,” Castro Internet Archive

Return of the Cold War?

February 21, a three-stage Navy SM-3 missile hit a satellite the size of a school bus, and blew it to pieces.[1] The bizarre explanation for this from the Pentagon, was that they were concerned for peoples’ health. The fuel tank on the satellite (which was falling out of orbit) contains several hundred pounds of something called hydrazine, which is a health hazard. Don’t believe the “health” explanation. The missile strike marks a serious escalation in the arms race, a race that may have slowed after the end of the Cold War, but never really went away.

First, the hydrazine “threat” is completely overblown. As Time magazine pointed out, “It’s extremely hard for a spacecraft component to survive reentry even if you want it to … The hydrazine tank … is unlikely to make it through the heat and aerodynamic violence of the plunge that awaits it, meaning that it will spill its contents high in the atmosphere, where it will represent barely a breath of gas that will disperse harmlessly.”[2]

The real reason for the satellite strike is military competition with Pentagon rivals. CNN reports that: “In January 2007, China used a land-based missile to destroy a 2,200-pound satellite that was orbiting 528 miles above the Earth.”[3] The destruction of the hydrazine-carrying satellite this month by the Pentagon is their way of saying to China, “what you can do, we can do better.”

In fact, the missile used in the strike is part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, an integral part of what the Pentagon calls “Missile Defense” but what most of us call “Star Wars.” In 2002, the system was tested “successfully” according to the Missile Defense web site. Not all agreed. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists was very sceptical, saying that missile defense would require hitting a tiny object, maybe one metre long, while the target used in the test was huge – a 10.5 metre long rocket. But it had to be that big, they said, because of the “relatively poor capability” of the radar used to track incoming missiles.[4] The Pentagon concluded they needed to test this technology “against more stressing ballistic missile targets and target scenarios.”[5] That is exactly the opportunity presented by the satellite that was falling out of orbit. It became the Star Wars equivalent of a clay pigeon to test the capabilities of a system which is designed for the terrifying prospect of war in space.

What we have is a return to what we thought was over – an arms race between Great Powers, playing Russian Roulette with the lives of the people of the world.

Most thought this was over because the last arms race was embedded in the Cold War, which was almost universally seen as a competition between capitalism on the one side and communism on the other. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, analysts both left and right saw this as the triumph of capitalism over communism, and the end of the conditions which created the arms race.

This was terribly misleading. The Soviet Union, at the centre of the competition with the West, was a completely class-ridden society – a million miles removed from anything resembling communism or socialism. We cannot judge societies by the labels attached to them by their rulers. Socialism has to do with the deep extension of democracy to every aspect of the economy and the state. With the rise of Stalin, all aspects of democracy in the Russian state were expunged – and the wonderful economic democracy of the early years of the Russian Revolution disappeared when the workers’ councils (soviets) ceased to be more than rubber stamps for the state-appointed managers.

Russia was state-capitalist, and the competition to carve up the world between the U.S. and Russia world was no different in kind from the competition to carve up the world between England, France, Germany and Italy in an earlier epoch. The reason an arms race has “returned” is that it never went away. When societies are class-ridden and based on the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of tiny minorities, then competition between these powers is inevitable, and the “classic” form of competition between states is military.[6]

We know that the Pentagon does not represent the forces of “freedom” that it always uses as justification for its muscle-flexing. By the same token, the Chinese state which is blowing up satellites with missiles is no more “communist” than the Russian state under Stalin, Brezhnev and others who used military force to crush revolution in Hungary, lay waste to Afghanistan, and throw away masses of money on a what remains the world’s second largest collection of nuclear ballistic missiles.

Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could barely control his glee when announcing the successful strike against the rogue satellite. His smile might get even broader if the U.S. Congress approves its budget request. Submitted to Congress in the first week of February, the 2009 budget asks for $515 billion, up eight percent from the amount allocated last year. According to The Christian Science Monitor: “This request, adjusted for inflation, is the biggest since the end of World War II.” And it doesn’t even cover “war operations” whose first tab will be $70 billion for 2009, which likely represents “only a down payment on next year’s war costs.”[7]

To wipe the smile off the Pentagon’s face will require a movement against war that is every bit as international as the militarism of Washington, Beijing and Moscow.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Peter Grier and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Missile Shoots Down Satellite – But Why?” The Christian Science Monitor, February 22, 2008,
[2] Jeffrey Kluger, “Was a Satellite Shootdown Necessary?” Time, February 20, 2008
[3] “Pentagon confident satellite’s toxic fuel destroyed,”, February 21, 2008
[4] David Wright, “An Analysis of the 25 January 2002 Test of the Aegis-LEAP Interceptor for Navy Theater-Wide,” Union of Concerned Scientists Working Paper, March 3, 2002
[5] Missile Defense Agency, “Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD),”
[6] For more on the theory of state capitalism in Russia, see Tony Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: International Socialism, 1964), Raya Dunayevskaya, “The Nature of the Russian Economy,” The New International, December 1946/January 1947, and C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, “State Capitalism and World Revolution”, 1950
[7] Gordon Lubold, “Pentagon asks for Biggest Budget Hike Since World War II,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 2008

Putin, Chechnya and imperialism

The Mulroney-Schreiber affair has brought the little Central Asian country of Chechnya back into the headlines. Mulroney’s very bizarre defence for acting as Schreiber’s paid salesman, includes a reference to peddling military vehicles to Russia for use in “peacekeeping” in Chechnya. In this context, it is useful to look in some detail at the situation in Chechnya. The article posted here, makes the case that Russia’s oppression of Chechnya is a classic example of Great Power Imperialism. There is nothing remotely resembling “peacekeeping” in its actions there.

This article (slightly revised with updated references) was originally written in February 2000. It is of course marked by its context. Eight years ago, Russia was only two years removed from the catastrophic winter of 1998 where some pensioners were literally dying of starvation.[1] We could not know at the time that eight years later, Russia would be at the centre of the “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India China) resurgence of economies in the Global South. But given these limitations, it still is useful as a documentation of the imperialist nature of Russia’s relationship to Chechnya.

The butcher of Chechnya[2]

FEBRUARY 2000 – Vladimir Putin is the butcher of Chechnya. There is really no other title that so captures the essence of the new president of Russia. When former president Boris Yeltsin elevated Putin to the prime minister’s office in August 1999, he was a complete unknown with virtually no public recognition or support.

He changed that by presiding over a racist campaign against the Chechen minority in Russia, accusing them of instigating the terrorist bombings that had killed upwards of 300 Russian civilians.[3] Putin’s campaign of racist scapegoating was followed by an artillery and air assault on the small republic of Chechnya and then, in the fall of 1999, an all out invasion of the republic with a massive army of 100,000.[4]

The butchery of this war is his one and only political act to date. The racist patriotism he whipped up in the course of that war is what allowed his Unity Party to go from obscurity to capturing close to 25 per cent support in the December elections.[5] This support was sufficient to allow Yeltsin to resign and elevate Putin from the prime minister’s office, to the much more powerful presidential suite, on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

The very purpose of the war was to elevate Putin to power. In the summer of 1999, the Kremlin rulers looked to be in deep trouble. Yeltsin was thoroughly discredited, and there was no candidate on the horizon, trusted by the billionaire oligarchs who control the economy, in a position to take his place. But war-frenzy has diverted the attention of millions from the everyday despair of their lives. And Putin has ridden that frenzy to power.

Yeltsin, from 1994 to 1996, had presided over an appalling war against Chechnya where that country was “reduced to a wasteland” with “100,000 people killed.” In spite of this barbarism “Russia failed to impose its will on the breakaway republic. A tiny Chechen force, rather, had imposed upon the Russian army a humiliating defeat.”[6]

Putin is using “terrorism” as an excuse to avenge this defeat, and his war, like Yeltsin’s, has led to terrible atrocities. The capital of Chechnya, Grozny, has been under constant bombardment for weeks. “There is nothing to eat in the city,” said Maria Gakisheva, 61. “They are bombing us from the air and from the ground. There are a lot of dead bodies in basements because people are afraid to leave the basements to bury them.” Gakisheva left Grozny January 14, but says many people cannot leave. “Those people will not make it out of there if they get a safe corridor. They are like skeletons. They are too weak to leave. They can only be carried out,” she said.[7]

“The Russians are simply destroying the Chechen nation,” said Ramazan Isbriev, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer. Isbriev was considering supporting the Russian invasion as an alternative to the chaos that has reigned in Chechnya since the 1994-1996 war. But the brutality of the Russians has changed his mind. “They call this an anti-terrorist operation. And in 1994 they said they were restoring constitutional order. What will they say in 2004? They’ll invent something else.”[8]

For a few days in early January, the Russian brutality went so far as to see any Chechen male between the ages of 10 and 60 accused of being a potential terrorist. Boys and men of this age were ripped out of refugee columns and sent to segregated prisons for interrogation. “It’s madness,” said Aminat Deniyeva, a mother of an 11-year-old who was unable to escape from the war because of the crackdown. “What can a child do? He can’t even lift a machine gun. It’s too heavy.”[9]

We don’t know how many thousands have been killed, maimed and wounded. At least 200,000 people in the tiny republic have been forced from their homes.[10] At least 1,000 Russian soldiers have died in the process.[11] The new president of Russia is indeed the butcher of Chechnya.

Welcomed by the West

Yet both liberals and conservatives in the West have greeted this butcher with open arms. An unsigned front page article in the liberal Toronto Star gushed: “A Putin presidency would … be good for Russia and the West. The 47-year-old moderate … would bring a welcome note of stability to Russia’s chaotic administration. He would ensure that Russia stays on the path to democracy, rather than sliding back to its authoritarian past.”[12] Britain’s conservative magazine The Economist wrote: “Russia needs a strong leader, able to get laws passed and obeyed, and institutions built, rebuilt or cleansed of corruption.”[13] U.S. President Bill Clinton said, “the United States can do business with this guy.”[14]

The praise from these conservatives and liberals did not stay at the level of words. There are bags of cash in the pipeline to assist Putin’s new regime. Just two days before Yeltsin’s surprise New Year’s Eve resignation, the World Bank announced it was lending Russia $100-million to “develop its coal sector.” A Russian official hinted that soon to follow would be a renewal of lending to Russia from the International Monetary Fund.[15] That renewal of lending will release billions of dollars into the hands of the Russian ruling class.

The hypocrisy of this stance by the West is breathtaking. Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo committed far fewer acts of barbarism than Putin has committed in Chechnya. Yet Milosevic was greeted with bombs and artillery, while Putin is greeted with smiles and cash. How do we explain the difference?

Making Russia open for business

Part of the answer can be found through an examination of the ten year old campaign to make Russia and its former allies in Eastern Europe, open for business. Western multinationals, and their governments, have a long term interest in prying open the markets of the old Russian empire to make profits.

Look at the conditions that are attached to the World Bank loans. Two of these conditions are that Russia show progress in closing money-losing mines, and that the government move away from subsidizing uneconomic production. In other words, the World Bank’s principal concern is not murdered civilians in Chechnya, but rather encouraging an increase in the number of bankruptcies in the already devastated Russian economy and a parallel increase in the number of unemployed workers.

The west also has its eyes on the great prize of oil from the Caspian Sea. This sea – which is central to the Chechen region – contains the largest known reserves of oil outside the Middle East. For months, western governments – in particular the United States – have been manoeuvring to ensure that the pipelines to carry oil from this sea pass through countries loyal to the West and not Russia. Chechnya is central to Russia’s attempt to control the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea. But a Chechnya, shattered by war, will be in no shape to compete for such a prize. The western powers, then, care not a whit if it is burned to the ground.

Old enemies and new enemies

But more than just economics is at play in the region. Russia may have lost its empire. But it is still the second biggest nuclear power in the world. The United States and the West have every interest in systematically reducing the size and power of the Russian nuclear arms cache. The Clinton administration is pushing hard for the Russian parliament to ratify the Start III treaty, which would require cuts in Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. To get Russian co-operation on this, it would be imprudent to rock the boat too much on the issue of Chechnya.[16]

Probably more important in the calculations of the Western powers is the new threat that has emerged with the decline of Russia – China. The U.S. won the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It has now, increasingly, identified China as the new big “threat” on the world scene. It has used a barrage of propaganda about this “threat” to justify the push for an anti-ballistic missile system. This hideously expensive Star Wars fantasy envisages ringing the United States with missiles to “protect” it in the case of a nuclear strike by an enemy. One of the countries to be “protected” by this umbrella of “defensive” nuclear missiles would be Taiwan. China sees this as a direct assault on its vital interests, and is strongly opposed to the ABM treaty. Getting Russia onside is critical to allowing the U.S. to legitimize its push for anti-ballistic missiles.

All of these calculations are far more central to the thinking of Western political leaders than any humanitarian concerns in Chechnya. They will mouth these concerns from time to time, but they have absolutely no intention of doing anything serious to stop the butchery.

Making the world a more dangerous place

The net effect of all this is to make the world a far more dangerous place. The Unity Party, which backs Putin, does not have sufficient support to govern in its own name. The rich “oligarchs” who are the backbone of the Russian ruling class know this, so they found Putin some allies. The results of this alliance were shown in the recent round of elections to the Duma, or parliament.

The oligarchs control all the television stations. To get airtime on those stations, you had to agree with the Kremlin’s line on the war in Chechnya. That meant vast quantities of air time for Putin’s “Unity Party” (created out of whole cloth just last year) and for the two parties he can most rely on – the Union of Right Wing Forces (or SPS), and the so-called Liberal-Democratic Party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a party so far to the right, many have labelled it fascist.[17]

“All three parties got a lot of administrative and financial support from the Kremlin in the campaign,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst in Moscow. “Zhirinovsky and Kiriyenko (leader of SPS) were on TV screens all the time. This was part of the deal: ‘You support the government and we give you the government’s resources.’ It was a cynical campaign, but it demonstrates the efficiency of the Kremlin’s information technology.”[18]

The Putin presidency has made the world more dangerous in more direct ways. His only claim to fame has been his war mongering in Chechnya. He has followed the logic of this open militarism to revise the way in which Russia plans to use its nuclear arsenal. Previously, Russia’s stated position on the use of nuclear weapons was they would be used only if the existence of the country were threatened. The new position, approved by Putin on January 6, 2000, now envisages the use of atomic weapons “to repel armed aggression,” a much less specific term.[19]

So the “strong man” so praised by the Toronto Star, The Economist, and Bill Clinton, is a man who brings in his wake the shadow of authoritarianism and the far-right, and an increased threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

Shattered dreams of 1989

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 – beginning the process that was to lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union – this was not what we were promised. We were promised the triumph of the market which would go hand in hand with the triumph of liberal democracy which would go hand in hand with an “end of history” making the world a more peaceful place.

By 1998 we had seen the first of these dreams collapse. The terrible implosion of the Russian economy in that year, virtually wiped out the middle class. The economy is now 40 per cent smaller than it was in 1991.[20]

We have now seen the ideals of liberal democracy become deformed into elections manipulated by billionaires who control the press, elevating to power people like Putin who allies himself with the likes of Zhirinovsky. And the “end of history” has seen a series of “Great Russian” wars against oppressed minorities, and the elevation of the threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

In the wake of the collapse of the hopes of 1989, liberals like the editors of the Toronto Star, have turned in desperation to search for a “strong man” who can put the Russian house in order. Throughout the Cold War, these same liberals painted terrifying pictures about the Russian spy apparatus, led by the KGB. Putin is a lifetime senior member of the KGB and its successor organizations. But suddenly, this is no obstacle to his credentials as saviour of Russia.

From heroes to zeroes

For the moment, Putin is riding high and is the darling of the west. But the ground he is standing on is riven with fault lines. His entire rise to power has been predicated on a successful war in Chechnya. Should this war unravel, he will be in trouble.

Putin is having credibility difficulties. In early January 2000, The Independent in Britain published a report, which, if true, would undermine Putin’s entire rationale for going to war. The paper obtained videotape on which a Russian officer, captured by the Chechens, says that Russian special services, not Chechen terrorists, were responsible for the apartment block bombings – the bombings that were the pretext for the war. On the video, shot by a Turkish journalist last month before Russian forces cut off Grozny, the officer identifies himself as Alexei Galtin of the GRU (Russian military intelligence service). “I did not take part in the explosions,” he says, “but I have information about it. I know who is responsible for the bombings … It is the FSB (Russian security service), in co-operation with the GRU, that is responsible for the explosions in Volgodonsk and Moscow.”[21] Rumours about Special Forces involvement in the bombings have been circulating for months. Should the war turn against the Russians, people just might start to believe them.

Putin is also having military difficulties. January 9, Chechen fighters seized strategic buildings in towns the Russians had held for weeks and months, killing dozens or maybe hundreds of Russian soldiers in the process. In just one of the towns, bodies were everywhere. “They say it was three or four, but in fact 30 died!” yelled a Russian soldier standing next to an armoured personnel carrier as a small group of journalists walked past. “Write that!”[22]

The Russian army is very vulnerable, in spite of its massive size. Many of its foot soldiers are terrified young teenagers, poorly armed and with little training, far from home and with no idea what they are fighting for. “I don’t feel safe in this machine at all,” said one young teenage soldier to a western reporter, pointing to his overheated tank. The soldier, who would only give his first name of Sasha, said, “I don’t understand why we’re fighting.”

“Several soldier’s in Sasha’s unit said they had been drafted just six months ago, after graduating from high school. Sasha … was drafted in June, when he was 18.” This in spite of government assurances that no conscripts will be used who have less than a year’s experience. “When asked whether his men were ready for battle, the unit commander said: ‘Somewhat: We shouldn’t be going at all,’ he added.”[23]

The military setbacks provoked the first open criticism of the campaign by major Russian newspapers. “Every day of the war is bringing more and more casualties,” said an article in Kommersant. “The experience of the past Chechnya campaign shows that people quickly become tired of war, while its initiators turn from heroes into political zeroes.”[24]

It is from this process of crisis and splits in the Putin camp that a real alternative to the crisis in Russia could emerge. There is a small but growing anti-war movement in Russia. Plans are underway for protests against the war in Chechnya in March.[25] “In December, a militant anti-war demo in Moscow lasted 10-20 minutes before a third were arrested and the rest dispersed.”[26] There are the beginnings – albeit small – of an independent workers’ movement, the only social force with the power to tackle the terrible problems facing Russian society.[27]

We should have no illusions that these are any more than the first baby steps on the way to the type of mass resistance that will be necessary to put forward a real alternative in Russia. After two generations of Stalinist state capitalism, the language of socialism and the workers’ movement has been discredited in Russia, and it will take years and many struggles to put things right.

What is needed are some very simple steps:

• an immediate end to the war;

• self-determination for the Chechen people and all the oppressed people in Russia;

• seizing the money of the oligarchs who are strangling Russia’s economy to enrich themselves; using the money to create jobs and rebuild social services;

• fighting for an independent workers’ movement, the only social force capable of regenerating society.

These steps may be simple, but they will not come spontaneously from either the liberals or the conservatives who alternate between welcoming Putin and “cluck-clucking” over his authoritarianism. These simple steps are equally completely incompatible with the so-called “socialism” that ruled in Russia from the time of Stalin.

Rediscover these simple steps and you rediscover the genuine socialist tradition, a simple tradition of solidarity, freedom and human emancipation.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Moshe Lewin, “The collapse of the Russian state,” Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 1998,
[2] Revised version of Paul Kellogg, “The butcher of Chechnya,” (unpublished), February 2000
[3] Geoffrey York, “Putin urges blockade of border with Chechnya,” The Globe and Mail, Sept. 15, 1999, p. A18
[4] “US DEPT OF STATE: Daily press briefing,” M2 Presswire, November 9, 1999, p. 1 ProQuest document ID: 46278360
[5] Olivia Ward, “Murder and mafia – it’s a Russian election,” Toronto Star, December 12, 1999, p. 1: Paul Quinn-Judge, “Russia’s election surprise,” Time, December 31, 1999, Vol. 154, Iss. 27, p. 210.
[6] Christian Caryl, “War against the people,” Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), June 9, 1998, p. 1
[7] Associated Press, “Russian Press Effort to Move Deeper into Grozny,” The New York Times, January 16, 2000
[8] Geoffrey York, “Russian plans backfiring in Chechnya,” The Globe and Mail, January 15, 2000
[9] York, “Russian plans backfiring”
[10] Andrzej, Rybak, “Fear and loathing keep Chechens far from home,” Financial Times, February 12, 2000, p. 5
[11] Sergei Venyavsky, “Russia covering up war casualties,” Toronto Star, January 27, 2000, p. 1
[12] “Welcome change in Russian leadership,” Toronto Star, January 2, 2000, p. 1
[13] “Putin the Great Unknown,” The Economist, January 8, 2000, p. 19
[14] Cited in Jim Hoagland, “Clinton should be careful with fawning praise,” The Gazette (Montreal), February 24, 2000, p. B3
[15] Julie Tolkacheva, Reuters News Agency, “Russia wins loan from World Bank,” The Globe and Mail, December 29, 1999, p. B11
[16] Jane Perlez, “Chechnya Challenge: War Threatens U.S. Strategic Goals,” The New York Times, November 15, 1999
[17] For example: Vladimir Solovyvov, Zhirinovsky: Russian Fascism and the Making of a Dictator (London: Addison-Wesley, 1995)
[18] Geoffrey York, “Election puts Kremlin in powerful position,” The Globe and Mail, December 21, 1999
[19] Reuters, “New Russia Defense Doctrine Lowers Atomic Threshold,” January 14, 2000
[20] Anders Aslund, “Russia’s collapse,” Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 1999, Vol 78 Iss 5, pp. 64-77
[21] Cited in Helen Womack, “Russian ‘confesses’ to bombings; Blasts at Moscow buildings,” The Spectator (Hamilton), January 6, 2000, p. C1
[22] Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Takes Chechen Town, but Can it Keep It?” The New York Times, January 14, 2000
[23] Andrew Kramer, Associated Press, “‘I don’t understand why we’re fighting:’ Russian teenage soldier” The Globe and Mail, December 28, 1999
[24] Geoffrey York, “Chechen rebels trap Russians in daring raids” The Globe and Mail, January 10, 2000
[25] “War and Human Rights,” March 3, 2000,
[26] Steve Kerr, “Russian Anti-War Movement,” from International Solidarity with Workers in Russia,
[27] Steve Kerr, “Workers’ action is the key” Socialist Worker (Canada) 323, January 5, 2000

Mulroney – the real crimes are war and imperialism

My daughter was born in 1988, the year of the second Mulroney majority election victory. Growing up as she did under the man who was ultimately to become one of the most hated prime ministers in history, it made absolute sense to her when we gave her a stuffed doll, with the Tory’s face on it, and the label “Lyin’ Brian” on the back. She and her friends got hours of pleasure from the little Tory doll.

The doll would come in handy now, a generation later. Mulroney is today very publicly involved in an embarrassing dispute with international arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber. A man as Tory Blue as Erik Nielsen, Mulroney’s deputy prime minister for two years in the 1980s, might even find the doll appropriate. “I think there was a phrase that attached to Brian years ago where he was known as Lyin’ Brian, and for my own part, I believe that they’re both in the same boat – Schreiber and Mulroney.”[1]

The Schreiber/Mulroney controversy is approaching historic dimensions. December 13, for the first time in recent history, a former prime minister was forced to appear before a House of Commons Committee.[2] Mulroney was there to answer questions about his dealings with Schreiber, under a cloud of suspicions that Mulroney had received a payoff from Schreiber for having Air Canada buy AirBus planes in the 1980s, money that he at first did not declare as income to the tax department.

Now much of this has been in the public domain for more than a decade. Stevie Cameron, in 1995, spelled out in 576 pages well-documented pages, that Schreiber was linked to Airbus, that Mulroney was Canadian prime minister during Air Canada’s last full year as a crown corporation (1988), and that in that year Air Canada bought Airbus planes worth some billions of dollars.[3] As the years went by, more and more details came to the surface. In 2001, Philip Mathias, then a reporter with the National Post, phoned William Kaplan and told him that he had information that in June 1993:

Mulroney sent a government limousine to pick up Karlheinz Schreiber from his Rockcliffe home and deliver him to Harrington Lake, the official summer residence of Canadian prime ministers. Within weeks, Schreiber … opened a secret Swiss bank account and deposited $500,000 in it. One hundred thousand dollars, withdrawn in cash, was handed over to Mulroney, still a Member of Parliament, in August 1993, at the Chateau Mirabel, while the former prime minister’s RCMP driver patiently waited outside. More payments followed in 1994. Three hundred thousand dollars in total. In cash. In hotels.[4]

We’ve all been connecting the dots ever since, and it hasn’t been all that difficult.

Now, a generation later, Mulroney has finally had to try and defend his actions. First he claims it wasn’t $300,000, just $225,000. OK – it can be hard to count bills in envelopes in public in hotels. So maybe $75,000 was missed. Second, he claims it didn’t happen while he was in office, but after he had left. Fair enough Brian. We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. And, apparently it’s not true that he didn’t pay taxes on it – just not right away. But he fixed this in 1999 by filing a “voluntary tax disclosure correcting record.”[5] We’ve all sometimes made tax mistakes. Let’s even forgive Brian that.

This is all really beside the point. The real scandal is not about sleaze and corruption at the very top of the state. The real scandal involves the services Mulroney did in exchange for this money.

“According to his testimony, Mulroney was making international representations on behalf of Thyssen Canada (part of the ThyssenKrupp Group of Germany) … to explore interest abroad in purchasing armoured vehicles made in Canada.”[6] In Mulroney’s own words, “one of these involved a visit with [then Russian] President Yeltsin where I put forward on a social, personal occasion, the discussion with President Yeltsin as to knowing their requirements for peacekeeping vehicles and their own problems in Chechnya and elsewhere.”[7]

This is far more scandalous than any admission of tax evasions. There is no possible relationship between the words “peacekeeping” and “Chechnya”. Russia has conducted generations of bloody war against the people of that embattled country. In the 1850s, what is today Chechnya was conquered by the armies of the Russian Tsar. After World War II, Stalin followed in the Tsar’s footsteps, sending hundreds of thousands of Chechens into exile in Siberia and Central Asia, unable to begin the return home until 1957.

Had Mulroney been successful in selling his “peacekeeping” vehicles to Yeltsin, they likely would have been used December 11, 1994 when Russian troops invaded the newly-independent republic, starting a war that would last until May 1997, then resume in late 1999 when a second Russian invasion led to at least 100,000 deaths, and 400,000 refugees.[8] Mulroney’s defence is appalling – he was peddling weapons to a big-power imperialist for use in a genocidal war against a small, oppressed nation.

Mulroney is not the only former Canadian prime minister to private personally from big-power politics. In June 2003, Jean Chrétien was still prime minister of Canada. There was little publicity when the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, paid him a visit. However, “human-rights groups were aghast – the dictator has led a crackdown on opposition parties, journalists and NGOs.” That political link would turn out to be very useful for Chrétien in a few months. February 3, the Calgary-based corporation, PetroKazakhstan, hired the now private citizen Chrétien as a special adviser on “international relations.” “PetroKazakhstan, which operates in the former Soviet Republic, has been feuding with the Kazakh government over alleged overpricing, and CEO Bernard Isaultier hopes Chrétien can smooth relations.”[9]

Chrétien has spent much of his time in the years since running the Canadian government, as an ambassador for Canadian corporations operating in Central Asia. In 2004, Turkmenistan President Niyazov “invited Oman and Canada to participate in oil and gas projects, including construction of a Trans-Afghan Pipeline … A Omani-Canadian delegation including Yusuf bin Alavi, foreign minister of Oman and Jean Chrétien … met Niyazov to discuss cooperation in the energy and hydrocarbon sectors. Heads of some major Canadian and Omani energy companies were also in the delegation. Chrétien is adviser to Bennett Jones, a Calgary-based law firm specializing in energy issues.”[10]

Mulroney peddles weapons to Yeltsin for use in the slaughter in Chechnya. Chrétien emerges as a hired hand for corporations doing business with Central Asian governments with questionable human rights records, and attempting to profit from a country (Afghanistan) opened to western investment by western (including Canadian) troops. Lets fill the press with the real scandals of our elected leaders – the scandals of war and imperialism.

© 2007 Paul Kellogg


[1] Brian Laghi and Alan Freeman, “Former deputy doubts Mulroney’s testimony,” The Globe and Mail, Dec. 15, 2007, p. A1.
[2] According to Sun Media National Bureau, “Former PM’s appearance of historical significance,” The London Free Press, December 13, 2007
[3] See Stevie Cameron, On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Era (Toronto: Seal Books, 1995)
[4] William Kaplan, “What Mulroney needs to tell us,” National Post, December 13, 2007
[5] Kathleen Harris, “Mulroney faces gauntlet,” The Toronto Sun, December 13, 2007
[6] Duncan Cameron, “Mulroney’s tank selling troubles,”, December 20, 2007
[7] “Unedited transcript: Brian Mulroney at the Commons Ethics Committee, Dec. 13, 2007”, NP Posted,
[8] Information from “Chechnya,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Dec. 28, 2007
[9] Dawn Calleja, “Jean’s help: priceless,” Canadian Business online, February 2004,
[10] “Canadians Eye Pipeline Work In Turkmenistan,” Pipeline and Gas Journal, Oct. 2004, Vol. 231, Issue 10, p. 10