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My Encounter with the Trotskyist Movement

Part Two of a Reminiscence, ‘1958: My Search for Socialists’

By John Riddell: Hearing of my misadventure with the LPP (Communist Party) bookstore, Richard Fidler tipped me off to the existence of an alternative Marxist outlet, the Toronto Labor Bookstore, at 81 Queen St. W., opposite what is now Toronto’s City Hall Square. As I entered, I recognized the person at the desk – Ross Dowson, whose photo had appeared in the daily press. He had run several times as a Trotskyist mayoralty candidate and had recently picked up a few percentage points of the vote in each of two federal by-elections.


See also Part 1 — 1958: My Search for Socialism


Ross Dowson-2

Ross Dowson (1917-2002)

Neatly dressed and slightly balding although still in his early forties, Dowson greeted me with enthusiasm, as if he’d been waiting years for this encounter. We started chatting. Soon the conversation turned to the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact that ushered in World War 2. I gave the standard defense: the Soviet Union was forced to accept the treaty in order to win time and gain a geographical buffer to fend off a likely German attack.

Dowson countered by informing me that, after the pact, the official Communist movement abruptly cancelled their campaign in Canada and globally to unite progressive forces against fascism. Then he voiced an idea that was totally new to me and that I immediately found convincing. What the Soviet Union may have gained militarily through the pact, Dowson said, counted for little compared to the impact of alienation and disorientation caused among its millions of supporters worldwide. Read more…

1958: My Search for Socialism

A Memoir (Part One)

By John Riddell: I hear many negative comments from socialist friends these days about “Stalinism” or “Trotskyism.” The terms are not easy to evaluate. They relate to history, to the Russian revolution and its contradictory legacy, to events now almost a century in the past.

John 1958-2

John Riddell, 1958

Well, I come from those long-ago times. My engagement with socialism 60 years ago hinged on evaluating the rival claims of Stalinist and Trotskyist movements. So let me recount how the world looked to me back in 1958, the year that I became a socialist activist. I invite readers to form their own opinion on the present-date relevance or non-relevance of this long-ago debate.

My story begins in Toronto, two months after my sixteenth birthday. Read more…

India’s Kashmir Crackdown Poses Risk of War

By John Riddell: On August 5, India’s Hindu nationalist government unilaterally revoked the autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, while flooding the region with troops, imposing a curfew, and shutting down all communications.

The state is to be broken in two, with the eastern portion (Ladakh) under direct rule by New Delhi.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi shut down Internet connections, mobile phone services, and land-line phones in the besieged region. The fragmentary news that has trickled out speaks of arrests of leading politicians and widespread fear among the region’s 12 million inhabitants. Read more…

Lenin’s Verdict on Kautsky in State and Revolution

It’s Time for a Closer Look

Karl Kautsky (1854-1938)

By Lars T. Lih, Summer 2019: After 1914, Lenin and Karl Kautsky became bitter political enemies. No person was denounced by Lenin with so much obsessive fervor as was Kautsky—a reflection of the central role Kautsky had formerly played in the outlook of the Russian Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, despite his monumental anger at the person, Lenin never renounced his admiration for the views set forth by Kautsky in his earlier writings. On the contrary, he explicitly and enthusiastically continued to endorse “Kautsky when he was a Marxist.” Without appreciating this crucial fact, we will never succeed in understanding Lenin’s views in their historical context.[1]

One of the most instructive illustrations of Lenin’s conflicted attitude toward his former mentor is the section in State and Revolution devoted to Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist. For Lenin, the cut-off point for Kautsky’s Marxist period was 1909, as we shall see below. He therefore divides his discussion in State and Revolution into two sections, one for material up to and including 1909, and another devoted to an article published by Kautsky published in 1912. Here we are interested only in the first section that is devoted to Kautsky’s earlier writings.


See also Lars Lih’s “Lenin-Kautsky Post-1914 Database”


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Lenin-Kautsky Post-1914 Database

What follows is the first online publication of a research tool created by Lars Lih in February 2008 and updated February 2011. — JR

By Lars T. Lih: The Kautsky-as-Marxist database is a collection that I have compiled of all comments by Lenin in his final decade, 1914-1924, that bear on the issue on his attitude during those years toward Kautsky’s prewar writings—or rather, his writings up to and including 1909.  The original aim of the database was to provide empirical material on a dispute about Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky after 1914.

Both sides acknowledge that Lenin admired Kautsky strongly before 1914 and that he reacted in strongly negative terms to everything that Kautsky wrote starting in 1914.  The question is: did Lenin’s post-1914 negative attitude spill over into a reevaluation of writings by Kautsky earlier endorsed by Lenin? Read more…

James P. Cannon on Defensive Formulations and the Organization of Action

Introductory Note by John Riddell:

My article, “On Democracy and Socialist Revolution” contested the view that revolutionary Marxists (“Leninists”) favour a strategy for insurrection against parliamentary institutions, quoting from court testimony given in 1942  by James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the U.S. Communist Party and later of the Socialist Workers Party.

Cannon’s testimony, available on Marxists Internet Archive, stands as an authoritative exposition of how Revolutionary Marxists explain the road to workers’ power.

Some revolutionary socialists objected to Cannon’s presentation of socialist revolution as a democratic process employing, to the extent possible, peaceful means. One critic, Grandizo Munis, argued that Cannon should have displayed “proud valor” in boldly declaring his party’s insurrectional intentions.

In reply, Cannon explained that his courtroom conduct was an application of a principle generally understood among working people, that it is best to frame demands for social change as an exercise of democratic and human rights, while laying the blame for illegality and violence where it belongs – on the capitalist ruling class. Read more…

On the Democratic Character of Socialist Revolution

John1972

John Riddell in the 1970s

By John Riddell: Under the headline “Why Kautsky was right,” Eric Blanc wrote on the blog on April 5:

“Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.“[1]

When I read these words, my mind went back to a day 40 years earlier when this formulation was hurled at me by members of Canada’s security police.  They used it as justification for their illegal disruption and harassment directed against me and fellow members of the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL). Read more…

Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution: Part 2

1917: The Bolsheviks Apply Kautsky’s Tactics

Lenin remained true to the tactical ideas of Karl Kautsky after the latter had abandoned them.

By Lars T. Lih

Lars T. Lih

As we have seen, the Bolsheviks came into 1917 with two pieces of Kautsky advice firmly under their belts: enlist the peasantry as a revolutionary ally, and do not deviate from militant anti-agreementism. In order to see how this advice played out in 1917, we need first to dispense with a couple of will-o’-the-wisps about the October revolution.

What the 1917 Revolution Was Not

In his Jacobin article [republished on this blog], Eric Blanc states the following: “Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.”

This remark brings together not one, but two, deep-rooted misconceptions about 1917: first, that a clash between two types of democracy—parliamentary vs soviet—as found in the pages of State and Revolution, had anything to do with the October victory or the politics of the revolutionary year. (State and Revolution was drafted in 1917 but only published in 1918 and it is irrelevant to the events of the previous year.) Second, that the Bolsheviks took power by means of an “insurrection,” “armed uprising,” or whatever. Let us consider.



Read more…

Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution: Part 1

Before the War: The Bolsheviks Applaud Kautsky’s Tactics

Lenin remained true to the tactical ideas of Karl Kautsky after the latter had abandoned them.

By Lars T. Lih

Karl Kautsky

In recent months, Jacobin has seen an exchange of views on the theme of Kautsky vs Lenin. Many good points were made, but on the subject of the October Revolution, we are presented with a stark choice: either Kautsky is right and Lenin is wrong, or Lenin is right and Kautsky wrong.

But this is a strange and unhelpful debate, because — as Bolsheviks of Lenin’s generation knew very well and current research reaffirms — Kautsky and Lenin were on the same page over a whole range of fundamental issues. Indeed, Kautsky served as mentor to the Bolsheviks precisely on the issues that defined them and divided them from their Menshevik rivals. Read more…

Voices for Colonial Freedom, 1917-24

‘Liberate the Colonies’, published by LeftWord Books, New Delhi

By John Riddell

New Delhi-based publisher LeftWord Books has opened new paths for socialist historical understanding by publishing Liberate the Colonies, a collection of speeches and resolutions from the early colonial liberation movement (1917-1924).

Liberate the Colonies innovates in Communist historical publishing in three ways:

  • Contributions from more than thirty revolutionary voices from Asia and Africa are organized to tell a coherent and easily accessible story.
  • Although based on global collaboration, the collection was conceived and executed in India, far from the traditional centres of publishing on world socialism.
  • The book is open-sourced: Its full text and annotation are available worldwide through a free PDF edition.

Liberate the Colonies! Communism and Colonial Freedom, 1917-24, ed. John Riddell, Vijay Prashad, Nazeef Mollah, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2019, 292 pp, INR 450; US$22.


Read more…

Comintern Project Book List Hits a Dozen

The Communist International Publishing Project 1983-2020

General Editors: John Riddell and Mike Taber

With eight volumes of the originally projected series have now been published, with another scheduled for 2020. In addition, three related collaborative projects are completed or in preparation. All published books on the list, below, are available both at libraries and for purchase.

These additions will bring the total by the end of 2020 to 12 volumes, containing more than 8,000 pages. Here are the components, both published and projected.

Except where noted, the volumes are edited by John Riddell.

Discussion articles on these volumes can be accessed through the “category” feature of this website, particularly under “Communist International.” Read more…

Canada’s ‘Liberals’ Have a Disturbing Imperial Streak

Ottawa’s disgraceful role in promoting regime change in Venezuela

By Vijay Prashad: Canada’s embassy in Venezuela has just been closed. The spur for this closure is an open attempt by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to overthrow Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Canada is one of the leaders of the Lima Group, a network of countries that came together in 2017 with the express purpose of regime change in Venezuela.

Vijay Prashad, Chief Editor of LeftWord Books.

Canada’s diplomatic corps has played the role of facilitator for the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Trudeau and Guaidó speak regularly. Their plot against Venezuela thickens.

The Canadian government held the meeting of the Lima Group this year. It helped organize the speaking tours of Venezuelan opposition figures. But, most controversially, Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela – Ben Rowswell – held an annual dinner and delivered a human rights award to people who amplified the voices of those opposed to the Bolivarian Revolution. “The tradition here,” Rowswell said sanctimoniously, “is that Canada believes in the principles of human rights and democracy and takes pragmatic measures on the ground to unblock political situations.” Unblock political situations is a uniquely Canadian way of saying promoting regime change.

Venezuela has been – as the most recent dossier from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research argues – the target of a hybrid war. Canada has not been a bystander in this hybrid war, but it has functioned to give the entire maneuver the sheen of Canadian liberalism. Read more…

What happened to the International Socialist Organization? by Paul Le Blanc

QUESTION: What is historical materialism?
ANSWER: A defeat we’re transforming into a luminous victory.
— Victor Serge, April 17, 1941 (in Notebooks 1936-1947, p. 72)

What happened to the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is that it self-destructed. The outgoing leadership of the outgoing organization presented this fact to the world in its statement of April 19, 2019, “Taking Our Final Steps”. For many who are committed to the socialist cause, whatever criticisms or reservations they might have had regarding the ISO, this is truly a defeat. One of the purposes of what follows is to explore how and why this happened, and what it means for those who take seriously the struggle for revolutionary socialism.

For some years the ISO had existed as the largest and strongest revolutionary socialist organization in the United States. As its foremost leader, Ahmed Shawki, emphasized more than once, the primary take-away from this indisputable fact was that revolutionary socialism was a pitifully weak force in the United States. And yet, the disappearance of this organization certainly merits more than a shrug.

Despite facile critiques of the ISO generated by sectarian hostility, and despite genuine weaknesses and limitations of the organization (to be touched on later), there is no denying that the ISO demonstrated certain genuine strengths. Those strengths were a focal-point of an article I wrote in 2009, explaining why, despite some disagreements, I was about to join the ISO – “Why I’m Joining the International Socialist Organization: Intensifying the Struggle for Social Change,” appearing in the online Links: international journal of socialist renewal. There is little I would change in what I wrote then. But now, obviously, there is more that must be said. Read more…

The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government

Text of the Communist International’s 1923 decision

CrossroadsReproduced below are a resolution and excerpts from a report adopted in June 1923 by the Communist International (Comintern). It took place at an enlarged meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI).

It is reprinted from The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923. That book, edited by Mike Taber and translated by John Riddell, is being published in a paperback edition  by Haymarket books, available June 18. (A hardback edition was published last year by Brill.) It is the eighth installment in the series on the Communist International in Lenin’s time that was launched in 1983 under the editorship of John Riddell. Read more…

The Comintern debates the United Front

Excerpts from the original leadership debate, 1922

Introduction by Mike Taber: Below are excerpts from the February 1922 debate on the united front that took place at an enlarged meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). The speakers include Grigorii Zinoviev, Karl Radek, and Leon Trotsky.

The excerpts are reprinted from The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923. That book, edited by Mike Taber and translated by John Riddell, will be appear in a paperback edition this summer by Haymarket books. (A hardback edition was published last year by Brill.) Read more…