Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Castro and the ''professional dangers'' of power

There is a useful article in this week's Socialist Worker on the political legacy left by Fidel Castro. Whenever I think of Castro, I am always reminded by the Manics Street Preachers comment on him, a lyric from the song 'Baby Elian': 'You don't just sit in a rocking chair, When you've built a revolution'. The notion of revolutionary leaders sitting around in rocking chairs once in power is of course hardly a new story. Historically speaking, a quick read through Christian Rakovsky's 1928 article 'The "professional dangers" of power' reminds us of that. Rather than deploying the moralism of the Manic Street Preachers, as a Marxist Rakovsky was trying to come to terms with the material roots behind the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy after the Russian Revolution, in part drawing instructive parallels with the Great French Revolution.

More than once Robespierre warned his partisans against the consequences which the intoxication of power would bring. He warned them that, holding power, they should not become too presumptuous, "big-headed", as he said, or as we would say now, infected with "Jacobin vanity". However as we shall see later, Robespierre himself contributed largely to the loss of power from the hands of the petty bourgeoisie which leaned on the Parisian workers.

Rakovsky identified with Babeuf's critique of how the militancy and revolutionary creativity of the Parisien masses died away once the Jacobins were in power:

Babeuf, after his emergence from the prison at Abbaye, looking about him, began by asking himself what had happened to the people of Paris, the workers of the faubourgs St Antoine and St Marceau, those who on 14 July 1789 had taken the Bastille, on 10 August 1792 the Tuileries, who had laid seige to the Convention on 30 May 1793, not to speak of numerous other armed interventions. In one single phrase, in which can be felt the bitterness of the revolutionary, he gave his observation: "It is more difficult to re-educate the people in the love of liberty than to conquer it".

We have seen why the people of Paris forgot the attraction of liberty. Famine, unemployment, the liquidation of revolutionary cadres (numbers of these had been guillotined), the elimination of the masses from the leadership of the country, all this brought about such an overwhelming moral and physical weariness of the masses that the people of Paris and the rest of France needed thirty-seven years’ rest before starting a new revolution.

Babeuf formulated his programme in two phases (I speak here of his programme of 1794): "Liberty and an elected Commune".

Of course there are differences between the French, Russian and Cuban Revolutions. Each revolution has to be studied, explained and understood on their own terms, but generalisations from the experience of revolutions are also possible and necessary.

There is also a more general lesson about class struggle that has to be remembered and if necessary relearnt anew. That is, understanding that there is a temptation for every popular leader of a progressive or radical movement to just sit around once even a small victory has been won, particularly if that victory is won on the field of electoral politics. In America today for example, while I am pleased to see that Ralph Nader has decided to run for President again, it is not surprising that his campaign seems to be finding it harder to really take off this time round. After his triumphant and inspiring securing of almost 3 million votes in the 2000 elections, he seemed to have sat in a rocking chair rather than doing the kind of campaigning work necessary to keep the momentum up, appearing only at election times to do what he does best - highlighting the way in which both the Democratic and Republican Parties only serve the American Empire and the interests of multinational capital. The long fight for political representation for working people in America requires surely something more than this.

And while I certainly do not want to turn this blog into the 'George Galloway Ate My Hamster' blog, the 'professional dangers' of power also apply in Britain as well. 'You don't just sit around as a radio talk show host when you become the first left of Labour MP to be elected for sixty years' might not be the most beautiful lyric ever crafted in the world - indeed it would almost certainly be in the running for the most ugly lyric ever written - but for all its moralism it would perhaps contain an important truth about politics within it nonetheless.

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