Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Friday 26 July 2019

Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia, part three (continued) Bolshevism and a portrait of Trotsky

This is latest installment (part three of the third chapter) of my translation of Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia by Stefán Pjetursson. This little book was published in 1921 by young Icelandic socialists who identified with the 1917 Russian Revolution and wanted to defend and explain it to the wider left and trade unionists in Iceland. I am posting it in mini-chapters because it is so long. 

The earlier chapters are available below ending with the first part of chapter three, which describes Lenin and what the author knew and understood about Lenin's character and politics.

My introduction to Byltingin í Rússlandi

The Sources, Preface and Introduction contain more about their reasons for writing.

Part One: Reaction and Progress

Part Two: The Revolution

Part Three: Bolshevism, a portrait of Lenin

Part Three: Bolshevism and Marxism

Reminder: Byltingin í Rússlandi uses the New Style Russian calendar - the Gregorian calendar - introduced in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1918 which added thirteen days to the Old Style Julian calendar. This is why the author refers to the revolutions in February and October as the March Revolution and the November Revolution. I have kept the author's dates in my translation.

Part Three: Bolshevism and Marxism finishes;

“The manifesto ends with these words: Communists disdain to hide their views. They declare publicly that their goal will only be achieved by tearing down the old system. Above you—who now hold power—looms the Communist Revolution. The Proletariat has nothing to lose but its chains. But they have a whole world to win.

Proletarians of all countries, unite!

Part three continued: Bolshevism and a portrait of Trotsky

This is the basis of the entire program laid out by Marx, on which the Russian Communists—the Bolsheviks—and all other Communists in the world stand. They are all revolutionaries. They say that the working class—the proletarian class, will never get their rights other than by revolution.

How could anyone possibly think, asks Lenin, that the capitalists now at the height of their militarism, that recently set off six years of universal slaughter to strengthen capitalist oppression, when theft of land and all the various violence of the bourgeoisie has reached its high water mark in the peace of Versailles—how can anyone think, if he looks at all that has happened, that the rich would fulfil the demands of the working class?

It is simply betraying workers to tell them it’s true and getting them to trust it enslaves them. How can anyone believe that it is possible to get rid of capitalist oppression peacefully?

Who believes it now, when it everyone knows that the capitalists of the most educated countries of the world have not hesitated to allow the killing of millions of people—workers and peasants—just to satisfy their greed for money and addiction to power. Who will believe it now when he has seen Russian, Hungarian and Finnish capitalists didn’t hesitate to send thousands, or rather millions to their death to win back individual property rights over land and means of production, which the proletariat had taken off them so that ordinary people needn’t starve without the barest necessities? Are people to lack even enough food to survive?

Now what if people ask “Isn’t it better for the working class to use legal methods to try to improve society peacefully?” This is impossible, says Lenin.

The rich have always had ways to keep the working class under the yoke though some laws have been passed to improve its conditions. They have replaced old forms of oppression with new ones which are masked but still cruel. No, for all the slow improvements, what exists are individual property rights over land and production—the source of wealth. It is what underlies the oppressive power that the rich have vastly increased. Capitalist oppression—wealth in the hands of individuals—is the greatest evil that we have to be rid of.

But what happens when we start to move against it? The rich grab weapons to beat the proletariat down. No, it is unthinkable, argues Lenin, that the working class will be able to rid itself of the capitalist yoke other than by revolution.

The proletariat—the working class—has to take power into its own hands. For a long time the capitalist system has shown its unwillingness to protect mankind from the evils of poverty. The dictatorship of the proletariat will have to solve the humanitarian crisis itself. It cannot be avoided. The proletarian government must establish iron-hard discipline; it will have to smash class differences, deprive the rich of individual rights over land and production and operate all industry for the benefit of ordinary people. It will have to dismantle the old bourgeoisie at all costs so that it cannot fight against nor wreck the new order.

The only way to achieve all of its plans is to reorganise production for people’s needs and to teach people to work together. But the dictatorship of the proletariat won’t last long, it is only the preparation for the future order. When ordinary people have taken control of industry and it has been made impossible for the old capitalists to return to be a ruling class served by the masses, then state power becomes unnecessary.

The state dies a natural death when there is no political power but control over production. Then Communism will rise up—the future order. There will no longer be any classes, no grinding poverty, no idlers. There will be no oppressors and no oppressed. Everyone will own everything and work together. The causes of strife between individuals, classes or nations will disappear. In the same way that classes merge into each other, nations will be working as one. Borders will be ripped up. Blind competition and fighting will cease and in its place will be empathy and co-operation.

This is the apex of the vision of the Bolshevik program. 


After these few words about Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ program, we must mention Trotsky, who with the single exception of Lenin has become the most famous of all the Bolshevik leadership.

His real name is Leiba Bronstein, but he took the pseudonym Trotsky during his years of exile. He was born in 1877 of a Jewish family in the ghetto in the district of Kherson. Jews hadn’t had a moment’s peace in Russia under the emperors as Trotsky learned in his youth. He soon suffered the hardships of the persecution of Jews and because he was so ambitious took it hard that he should be made to pay for his ethnicity. He arrived at Odessa University as a precocious 22 year old but was never just studying. Soon he was involved in student protests and came a cropper like many others in Russia when he came to the attention of the authorities and in 1902 was sentenced to four years exile in Siberia.

Well Trotsky didn’t think much of imprisonment so after a while he escaped. It wasn’t part of his plan to be kept from working in Russia, quite the contrary. Now he focused his energies on the revolutionary movement and was important in the Petrograd uprising in January 1905. It was for this that the authorities seized him again and sent him back to Siberia. But this time Trotsky didn’t reach the intended destination. Halfway there he tricked his way out, escaped and got out of Russia. He then lived as a refugee in very difficult circumstances.

He travelled widely in the war years but wasn’t well received everywhere because he never missed any opportunity to oppose the war. Eventually he went to America and was there in March 1917[1] when the revolution began in Russia and all Russian exiles were allowed home. He was so poor that he could not have got home, if his friends hadn’t come to the rescue and given him the money for the journey. When he got home, he joined the Bolsheviks and quickly became one of their most influential leaders. The part he played in the preparation of the revolution has already been described and can be referred to above. 

Don’t be thinking that Trotsky is anything special to look at, or more than the average man. He is described as a little yellow in the face, high nose, twinkling dark eyes, short moustache and goatee beard, a high forehead with the hair often falling over it. He is of average height and moves very rapidly but his character is most important.

Trotsky has great character but he is also quick-tempered and decisive and hasn’t spared himself any hardships to become part of the team ending with one of the most difficult tasks of the Bolshevik government—the military. Trotsky created the “Red Amy”—the defensive militia from the revolutionary Russian proletariat that has brought all its domestic attackers and foreign enemies to a standstill. Trotsky has become the Bolshevik man of many troubles because the man is very talented and was formed to be where the battle is fiercest. 

Trotsky - photo used in original

Some have accused him of being consumed by ambition and that he enjoys being in charge but such an allegation is unfounded. Others have said that he has never been a team player and has worked tirelessly for the accomplishment of his own ends. But it will become clear in future that Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders bear equal responsibility for their policies. They will never beg capitalism for mercy and it should not expect mercy from them. “If we are forced in the end to go”, said Trotsky, “we shall at least slam the door so hard behind us that the whole world takes notice.” 

Trotsky also says that there is little risk of Bolshevism in Russia being suppressed, “the world war has so accelerated the collapse of capitalism that we Bolsheviks are invincible (but) the enemies that have encircled us must be broken up by proletarian revolution.”

[1] Old Style calendar, February 1917 New Style.