Vital debates for socialists
For over twenty years, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union has worked to build the forces of genuine socialism, with modest but significant successes – given the huge tasks ahead for socialists – which no other Trotskyist or serious left force has matched. This vital work has been conducted in extremely difficult material and political conditions, as a consequence of the collapse of Stalinism and the disastrous imposition of capitalism and authoritarian rule. The important steps forward we have made were only possible as a result of the CWI’s clear historical analysis of Stalinism and its demise in 1989-91, the maintenance of principled Marxist ideas and methods of work, and by developing clear analysis, perspectives, and socialist policies and programme.
One of the most pernicious legacies of Stalinism is the widespread ideological confusion in Russian society, coupled with an avalanche of capitalism propaganda and reactionary ideas. Inevitably, this ideological confusion finds expression in the developing workers’ movement and even in the ranks of the CWI, in a period when the working class has not yet decisively intervened into the political life of the country. For over 18 months, a sharply polarised debate has taken place inside the CWI in Russia. This culminated, last weekend, in the parting of the ways between the CWI and a grouping based around a three-person so called ‘Executive Committee’ of the Russian organization. This grouping has clearly shown, in words and deeds, that they do not even agree with some of the most basic elements of the CWI programme, methods of work or party democracy. This former opposition grouping has placed itself outside the ranks of the CWI.
The former opposition grouping rushed to publicized their completely disingenuous version of the outcome of last Saturday’s CWI meeting in Moscow, including on the ‘blogosphere’. Of course, they do not mention the real and fundamental political differences between us and try to spread all sorts of ridiculous falsehoods and personal attacks. In the process of building the CWI, we have previously parted ways with similar grouplets representing opportunist and reformist trends, a type of which unfortunately are found all too often in the developing workers’ movement in the former CIS.
We welcome the opportunity to put on public record the opposition groupings’ completely erroneous political positions on key issues, such as the Russia/Georgia War, the political programme required by workers’ today and on party democracy. We believe the workers’ movement in Russia and internationally can learn from this debate and it can help prepare socialists for the tasks ahead, as we enter a stormy period of capitalist crises, conflicts and workers’ struggles.
At a meeting organised by the International Secretariat (IS) of the CWI, held on 21 November 2009, in Moscow, an IS Statement was read out by visiting IS member, Peter Taaffe. This stated that it is now clear that the so-called Russian ‘Executive Committee’ and its supporters had broken from the CWI on crucial political and organisational principles. Peter went on to state that the Russian section of the CWI, with the support of the IS and the whole CWI, will continue to build and develop the forces of genuine Marxism and invited all those comrades who want to be part of this crucial task to get involved. Two thirds of those at the meeting expressed their support for the CWI.
This brings to an end a period of sharp disagreement within the Russian CWI. Months of growing differences over ideas, programme and methods amongst the leadership of the Russian CWI erupted throughout the entire Russian organisation during the Georgia-Russia War, in August 2008. Articles published on the organisation’s website and in its newspaper failed to put a clear socialist and class alternative to the bloody conflict that broke out between Russian imperialism and Georgia, backed by US imperialism. In fact, the opposition grouping capitulated to Russian chauvinism. Rather than demand the withdrawal of all troops from the region, for the unity of workers to resist the bloodshed and ethnic conflicts, for the overthrow of capitalism in the region and advocate the struggle to establish a free and democratic socialist federation of the Caucasus, these articles preferred to call for “friendship” between peoples and argued that only the Russian army could defend South Ossetia. They wrote: "In this situation the only force capable of defending the population of South Ossetia are the Russian troops". This incorrect position was repeated in articles on the Russian site, in written comments on the CWI members’ forum and in discussions. To give just one more example, they claimed: “The Georgian aggression can only be resisted by Russian troops”.
These articles even went as far as praising the role of the reactionary ‘Narodni Opolchentsi’ militia in Abkazia and Ossetia at the beginning of the 1990s, “who succeeded in driving out the Georgian occupants”. In 2008, one of the opposition groupings’ leaders declared that it would be perfectly logical if today people rushed to join these opolchentsi to defend their “brother peoples” in South Ossetia. In the early 1990s, the Narodnii opolchentsi were involved in, and provided cover for, those conducting brutal ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Abkhazia. The ‘volunteers’ who were signed up in 2008 were, according to press reports, mainly from reactionary Cossack bands.
The call to join the ‘opolchentsi’, alone, would have served as grounds for immediate expulsion from the CWI. It was clear, however, that the majority of members of the Russian section were not fully aware of the significance of the arguments and therefore a discussion was opened up inside the Russian CWI on the question of the Russia/Georgia War. This is in line with the proud history of the CWI in Russia and internationally, in allowing full internal democratic debate and discussion. The opposition grouping was given ample opportunity to put forward its ideas to the Russian membership and an international audience. The IS was fully involved in this discussion, including corresponding with the leaders of the opposition grouping and organizing two visits by Niall Mulholland, on behalf of the IS, for meetings and discussions with all comrades in Russia. The IS strenuously opposed the shameful and undemocratic methods used by the opposition against those Russian comrades that supported the political position of the CWI, including the denial of faction rights.
After a period of intense debate in the Russian section, a Russian conference in June 2009 adopted a resolution rejecting the opposition grouping’s serious errors concerning the war and agreed a position on the war completely in line with the principled Marxist approach of the CWI. A new EC was elected by the conference that reflected the decisions of the conference and the position of the CWI.
It was therefore a great shock to many Russian comrades that during a meeting of the organisation’s Russian Committee (RC), in September 2009, the opposition grouping once again resorted to underhand, undemocratic methods to remove the EC elected by the June conference and to impose three supporters of the opposition as the new ‘EC’. This provoked a new period of intense debate inside the Russian organisation. The so-called ‘EC’ soon tried to steer the Russian organisation back to the opposition groupings’ completely wrong political positions. This can seen by a statement drafted by the ‘EC’ on 18/11/2009, which defended and praised the shameful position of the opposition grouping on the Russian-Georgian conflict, during which they capitulated before Russian nationalism. This was a clear rejection of the position adopted by the Russian Conference in 2009.
Consciousness of the working class
During the last year of debate, other political disagreements arose within the Russian organization, revealing how far the opposition grouping had moved from a Marxist position. The most important of these relates to an estimation of the mood and consciousness of the working class and the programme needed for the emerging workers’ movement. The current economic crisis has led to big attacks against the working and living conditions of the working class throughout the world. Although there have been some spectacular protests, and strikes and occupations in different countries, these have not yet taken on a generalized character. Despite the growth of a searing anti-banker and even anti-capitalist mood, this has not yet developed into a generalized socialist consciousness. But it is clear that the effects of the economic crisis will continue to be felt for years to come. There are five countries from the former USSR now in the list of “ten most likely” to default on their debts, with the Ukraine in first place, joined by Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and Kazakhstan. It is inevitable that protests and opposition will grow in the coming period. In some countries, including Russia, there could be dramatic social explosions. The CWI believes that in this situation it is necessary to present a programme that answers the day-to-day needs of the working class, around demands such as “no to job losses and wage cuts”, together with a strategy to fight for these demands. These demands have to be made in the wider context of the need for nationalization of the major parts of industry and the big banks, under workers’ control and management, for an alternative plan of production, and for a planned economy and a socialist government. There have already been examples of workers in Russia who have raised the demand for nationalization, seeing that as the only way to save their factory.
As the discussion inside the Russian CWI organization developed over the course of the last year, supporters of the opposition resisted demands such as our call ‘open the books’ and for nationalization, under workers’ control and management, just as they refused to call for a socialist federation of the Caucuses, during the 2008 war. As a result of the debate, several members were won over to the CWI’s position, and under this pressure the leaders of the opposition grouping grudgingly and disingenuously ‘accepted’ that such demands could be used as “propaganda”. However, their real position quickly resurfaced at the September 2009 meeting of the Russian Committee, when one of the groupings’ leaders spoke in favour of the “optimization of personnel” at the AvtoVaz car plant, i.e. he argued in support of job losses. Other supporters of the opposition began to support these proposals, only attempting to cover them up with left phraseology.
In a recent document produced by the so-called ‘EC’, it described the demand for a democratic planned economy and a workers’ government with a socialist programme as “stupid ultra-left sectarianism”. This is a complete rejection of the transitional approach outlined by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky described how it was necessary to present a programme of immediate demands to answer the direct needs of the working class, while, at the same time, presenting a series of transitional demands, whose aim were to build a bridge between the current consciousness of the working class and the need to for a socialist transformation of society, which entails campaigning to transform workers’ struggle into a fight for socialism.
What type of organisation do we need to build?
Naturally, the last few months’ internal debate also centred on the nature of the organization that we are trying to build. The structure of an organisation should reflect its political programme and tasks. We place a priority on the need to develop political clarity. If the structure does not correspond to the programme, then contradictions within the organisation grow. A Marxist organization operates on the basis of democratic centralism, which sees full and free discussion on perspectives, programme and tactics, to develop a politically unified organization, with a leadership and party structures that both develop and defend a Marxist position and which are capable of implementing tasks.
The rejection of democratic centralism by the former opposition grouping is perfectly in line with their political points of view and reformist trajectory. Their clear opposition to democratic centralism, as practiced by the CWI, was demonstrated by their article, “Democratic centralism, principles and political practice” in which they argued that “…Trotsky did not understand the principles of democratic centralism. Being a first rate personality, who won over the masses by his personal qualities, Trotsky in 1917 remained a lone genius. His unification with the Bolsheviks took place at the very moment when the principles of democratic centralism were already being replaced by administrative principles, which for Trotsky became characteristic of his style of leadership”.
It is clear that the former EC was, in words and deeds, following a non-Marxist, reformist political and organizational route.
The opposition grouping also attempted to hijack the media of the CWI in Russia, by publishing articles, for example, on the war, on ‘civil society’ and the national question that directly contradict the approach and programme of the CWI, while, at the same time, censoring material written by elected leaders of the CWI and refusing to publish the CWI section’s newspaper for months. This situation left the Moscow branch of the CWI with no option but to print its own newspaper, which is in line with the political position of the CWI and the Russian conference in June – a decision that was fully supported by the IS.
The former opposition grouping has chosen to put itself outside the CWI and to join the marsh of opportunism and reformism in Russia. For our part, we are confident to continue our task of building and developing the ideas of genuine socialism, of the CWI, in Russia. Even in the few days since our parting of the ways became public, we have been contacted by people in Russia, who had been watching the evolution of our organization with interest and who expressed their support for our principled political stand.
The world has changed over the past two years. There is now a more favorable situation for building support for socialist ideas. The workers’ movement in Russia may, for the moment, be relatively quiet, but as the masses of workers and youth move into action, which we believe is inevitable in the coming period, they will be looking for answers. We are confident that by developing the ideas and programme of the CWI in Russia, our overwhelmingly youthful and working class organization will grow significantly in the coming period.