Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 6 November 1987
For some, the "lessons of October" are clear. Duncan Hallas, one of the leading lights of the Socialist Workers Party, writes in the most recent issue of Socialist Review that "the seizure of power is impossible unless a revolutionary party has been built in advance" which has "a cadre that is able to correct its own leadership", the ability to integrate young, fresh ultra-leftists into its ranks, and a sufficient national presence to appear as a real alternative "at least to a minority of workers".
Hallas sees the role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the October revolution as the model for revolutionaries in a coming British revolution. Now is the time to prepare for the deluge. Recruit, instil correct ideas and revolutionary discipline, wait and agitate in the knowledge that the Glorious Day must come some time.
His message is echoed by almost all the leftist sects. Militant, every pretender to the bank account of the Workers' Revolutionary Party, every hard-line Stalinist faction, the few remaining Maoists - all are using the 70th anniversary of the Boshevik seizure of power to press the recalcitrant British proletariat to perform a version of the storming of the Winter Palace (under their leadership, of course).
There is one group of Leninists, however, that has taken a rather different line. The Communist Party of Great Britain, the grandfather of them all, has chosen to celebrate the anniversary not with a call for socialist emulation of the October revolution but with a discotheque (with videos) at a trendy London arts centre.
The current issue of the CP's magazine, Marxism Today, carries plenty of material on the Soviet Union today; and it milks for all it is worth the nightclubbers' taste for hammer-and-sickle T-shirts (already last year's thing according to the cognoscenti). But it refrains from talk of creating Soviets of workers, peasants and intellectuals; and it does not subject 1917 to the treatment
– tedious rehashes of "the facts about the Russian revolution" – that all the other Leninist papers have given it.
Of all the parties claiming the mantle of 1917, the one that has the least enthusiastic public attitude to the key prescriptions of Lenin himself up to the revolution
– insurrectionism, conspiratorial underground organisation, intolerance of minority opinion
– is the one with the closest connection with Lenin's successors in power in the Soviet Union.
Perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies, and leave it at that. But the CP's somewhat oblique approach to 1917 deserves more attention than this and more than the ritual denunciations that the other Leninists will give it.
For the CP's perspective is a baroque manifestation of something it realised many years ago, but still cannot admit openly: that the left in Britain, far from basking in the reflected glory of the Bolshevik revolution and claiming to be its true heir, must distance itself from October if it is to have any chance of success.
The truth in this position is not that revolutions are impossible in modern western capitalism: just remember the convulsions caused by Paris 1968 (only 20 years ago next year). Nor is it simply that the workers of the west have been so brainwashed by capitalist and cold-war propaganda that they will never be convinced by any Leninist party that dares to speak its name.
Rather, it is that the fate of 1917 and other revolutions led by Leninist parties has quite rightly made most people in Britain shrink in horror at Leninist methods and ethics. The very idea of the seizure of state power by a centralised party claiming to be the leadership of the working class has been discredited by the experience of Leninist parties in power. The same goes for the belief that the end of "socialism" excuses the use of almost any political means
– secret police, suppression of all dissenting voices and democratic political forms, torture, lies
– to keep such a party in power.
In other words, the only socialism that can possibly flourish today in Britain is one that is explicitly democratic and libertarian. However welcome and attractive Mikhail Gorbechev's reform programme and peace proposals, however spectacular the celebrations in Red Square, we must not forget that for the British left Leninism is, thankfully, a dead end.