CO2 emissions are right on target…

Earlier this week it was reported that carbon dioxide levels had hit a new high, not just in terms of human history but for hundreds of thousands of years – https://www.fin24.com/Economy/carbon-dioxide-levels-hit-800-000-year-record-20190509

As this chart from a 1982 Exxon report shows this was completely in line with the expectations of scientists working for this fossil fuel giant:

(Full 1982 report available at http://bit.ly/2W1bBDZ)

This is all explained in more detail in this analysis from 2015:




Bringing the revolution to the women of the East. The Zhenotdel experience in Soviet Central Asia through the lens of Kommunistka.

Anne Mcshane has recently completed a PhD thesis looking at the work of the Bolshevik’s women’s organisation, the Zhenotdel, in the early years of the Russian Revolution – with a particular emphasis on the experience in Central Asia.

I think her work highlights the importance of women’s liberation and how it needs to stand at the heart of the communist project.

I reproduce her introduction and chapter outline below. The full thesis is available to download as a PDF


In this thesis I consider the role of the Women’s Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Zhenotdel) in early Soviet Central Asia, and primarily in Uzbekistan. The historical period under examination begins in 1920, in the months leading up to the conclusion of the civil war and ends in March 1930 in the first years of Stalin’s Five Year Plan.1 This was a time of momentous change, not least for the women’s movement that had emerged after the revolution. The first leaders of the Zhenotdel believed that finally the time had come for them to lead the way in transforming the lives of Soviet women and thus provide an example to the wider world. It was a period when debate still took place within Communist Party journals, and when some of those debates centred on issues of sexual equality and the development of a new type of human relationships in a society free from capitalist repression.

My research is based on a close reading and original analysis of articles from the journal Kommunistka,2 the central organ of the Zhenotdel, which was the forum for theoretical debates, meeting and congress reports and discussion of strategy. It provides a window into the world of Zhenotdel activists in the first years of the Soviet Union. I initially considered exploring Russian archival materials on the Central Asian Zhenotdel, either as an alternative or a supplement to Kommunistka. However, I decided that a focus on Kommunistka was an important opportunity to obtain an insight into what was within the knowledge of activists and subscribers who did not have access to private meetings. It would also allow an understanding of the degree to which Zhenotdel activists were willing and able to publicly fight for and debate their ideas and the manner in which they expressed criticism. Finally, it would provide an opportunity to review previous analyses which drew on Kommunistka in a limited way as a supplement to other materials, by using it instead as a key source for extensive and targetted analysis of reports and articles concerning the Zhenotdel’s work in Central Asia over the entire ten years of its existence.

I initially planned to consider the entire region described in Kommunistka as the ‘East’. This encompassed the Caucuses, including Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, as well as the Tatar and Chuvash oblasts of Soviet Russia, the Soviet ‘Far East’ bordering Korea and China, the North Eastern region which included Siberia, and Central Asia. The peoples of this vast region had extremely diverse histories, languages, cultures and religions. The diversity was reflected in the position of women within those societies, from the relatively secular Tatar women who engaged in public life, to the secluded Uzbek women, to the semi-nomadic women of the Yakut peoples. Having translated a number of articles from across the entire region, I decided that the experiences were too varied to allow for a systematic analysis of the ideological and policy agenda of the Zhenotdel.

Another key reason for focusing on Central Asia, and particularly on Uzbekistan, connects with the reason for focusing on Kommunistka as my sole primary source. It was because of my wish to relate my research to existing literature on the role of the Zhenotdel in the region. I wanted to recontextualise existing studies which have focused in the main on the dramatic events of 1927 in Uzbekistan, when the Sredazburo (CPSU Central Asian Bureau) used the language of women’s liberation to launch an attack on the social fabric of that society.3The current literature on this attack on indigenous society, known as the Hujum (meaning ‘assault’ in Turkic); which was aimed primarily at the public unveiling of secluded women in Uzbekistan, has largely considered the Zhenotdel to be either a loyal ally, or a servant of the Central Party leadership during what was essentially a struggle for authoritarian domination. This seems to me to be a problematic analysis, especially when viewed in the wider context of literature on the Zhenotdel in other parts of the Soviet Union, which demonstrates a great deal of conflict between the Zhenotdel and the Party, both centrally and locally.4 Such analyses are limited, further, by their consideration of the Hujum as an isolated or abrupt moment of change; instead, mid-term patterns of change and continuity need to be explored. With this in mind, my research sets out to answer the question of how exactly the Zhenotdel approached ‘the woman question’ in Central Asia? This inquiry demands a study of the Zhenotdel’s key policies in the region from the outset of its involvement and an examination of how those policies were shaped by factors such as its relationship to the Party, by the political trajectory of its leading figures, and by its engagement with local women and local culture. It also necessitates an analysis of the Zhenotdel’s methods of transformation, economically socially and legally, and how they interacted with the Party, the state, and the indigenous population.

In her study of the Zhenotdel, Elizabeth Wood sets out how activists battled continually against attempts to close the organisation down.5 Barbara Evans Clements points to the disparity between the Zhenotdel’s conception of socialism and that of the Central Committee. She mentions Armand and Kollontai for their “distinctive form of utopianism…widely shared among less prominent zhenotdelovki”, and argues that these activists “crafted from the Marxist analysis of women’s emancipation a vision of the socialist future and the means to achieve it that diverged in very significant ways from those articulated by the Party’s male leaders”.6 Moreover, she argues that the Zhenotdel’s leaders and key thinkers believed in localised woman-centred co-operative economic forms, rather than the male-dominated large scale industrial model which was advocated by leading members of the Central Committee, including Lenin and Trotsky. 7 Richard Stites has observed:

The Zhenotdel represented a combination of class and sexual struggle and thus was a working out not only of Marxist notions about the female half of the labor movement, not only of the revolutionary Populist tradition of the “common cause”, but also, in some ways, of the much more feminist belief, given expression by Lenin in 1919 that “the emancipation of working women is a matter for working women themselves.”8

Others such as Carol Eubanks Hayden have highlighted the central contradiction at the core of the Zhenotdel, of attempting to combine a fight for women’s self-emancipation with loyalty to an increasingly authoritarian Central Committee.9 This contradiction seriously restricted the potential of a post-revolution women’s movement to act autonomously. Yet, as almost all of the above agree, the initial Zhenotdel leadership saw itself as a voice for those women and fought hard for its programme in difficult circumstances. Wendy Goldman has shown how this struggle was not confined to the leadership and how activists continued to battle on right up until March 1930 when the Zhenotdel was dissolved, while at the same time protesting its closure.10 Indeed, even after the Zhenotdel was shut down on the orders of Stalin, those same activists continued to fight for women’s rights within difficult and repressive conditions and without the aid of a journal. Studies of the struggle of the Zhenotdel within the CPSU have thus far been largely confined to experiences within European parts of the Soviet Union. My research therefore, aims to bring a much needed perspective from Central Asia, so as to add to the understanding of the scope and scale of the Zhenotdel’s work, and as outlined above, to challenge some assumptions about its role in relation to the Hujum and other CPSU campaigns in the region.

Marianne Kamp has studied the experiences of indigenous Zhenotdel activists in Uzbekistan and detailed the merger of their ideas with the national Zhenotdel programme.11 In contrast my research considers this history from the perspective of Zhenotdel leaders and activists as gleaned through their writings in the Russian language Kommunistka. Thus, rather than an examination of personal stories, my research presents an analysis of the political views, debate and methodology of the Zhenotdel. A close reading of Kommunistka from the inception of coverage of Central Asia, allows me to build on existing analyses by exploring the Zhenotdel’s own strategic priorities in the region in the decade from 1920.

Kommunistka has already been drawn on by a number of writers who have considered the role of the woman question within Soviet Central Asia. For example, Gregory Massell has referred to Kommunistka in some depth in his ground-breaking study of the imperatives of the CPSU Central Party leadership in launching the Hujum, and has connected it with a deepening authoritarianism within the Party.12 Douglas Northrop has drawn on Kommunistka in his examination of the imperialist attitudes of the CPSU in Central Asia and the backlash by the indigenous population against a deeply repressive mass unveiling campaign.13 Kommunistka has also been included as a component of other research, such as for example, a study by Shoshanna Keller of the role of the Hujum in a full-frontal attack on the influence of Central Asian Islam14and the research by Marianne Kamp into the views and political histories of the indigenous women who joined the Zhenotdel and Uzbek Communist Party and who rallied in their thousands in March 1927 to take part in dramatic unveilings.15

Notwithstanding the inclusion of Kommunistka in previous research, a systematic and detailed study of the journal from 1920 to 1930 has been lacking, in particular one that considers all aspects of the Zhenotdel experience in Central Asia in that period. Such a study is critical in order to see more precisely how the Zhenotdel interacted both with Soviet policy in the region and the local population. It can consider to what extent the ideological and programmatic tensions at the heart of the Zhenotdel expressed themselves in Central Asia, if at all. Furthermore, there has not been a study of the Zhenotdel’s role in the region from the perspective of its programme to achieve women’s liberation in the post-revolution period – for which I use the term ‘Zhenotdel socialism’.16 This is a useful definition in that it combines concepts of women’s emancipation and socialism within a state-building programme. Its support for the Soviet state can be distinguished from the policy of opposition of Bolshevik women to all state involvement in women’s lives prior to the revolution.17

Kommunistka began publication under the editorship of Nadezhda Krupskaya in June 1920 and the final issue was published in March 1930 when the Bureau was closed down by the CPSU Central Committee. The journal was published on a monthly or bi-monthly basis until 1929 when it became a fortnightly publication for the last year of its existence. It began with a reported print-run of 30,000 in 1921, which decreased to 20,000 by 1923. This drop was despite a drive launched in October 1923 calling on “every activist working with working class and peasant women to subscribe to Kommunistka”.18 The biggest slump in circulation occurred in 1926, from 24,000 in April to 11,000 in December of that year. This smaller print-run continued for the remainder of the journal’s existence, averaging between 10,000 and 13,000 per issue. The target audience was a layer of women activists in and around the Zhenotdel. In a special issue of the journal to mark the third anniversary of its launch, then national Zhenotdel secretary, Sofia Smidovich, wrote that “Kommunistka provides direction to activists on issues which are of importance to the mass of working class and peasant women” and “informs them on how to engage with mass work from a correct political positon”.19 It connected theory with practice, and “was prepared to discuss difficult questions like child mortality, abortion, birth control”.20 The editorial board aimed to “engage activists in local areas in developing resolutions for Zhenotdel and Party meetings”.21

Issues of the journal comprised on average between 50 and 90 pages of feature articles, theoretical contributions, reports, discussions of strategy, meetings and membership debates. This focused on discussion of the ‘woman question’ both in the wider Soviet Union and internationally, as the Zhenotdel sought to encourage other parties of the Comintern to follow suit and establish their own women’s departments.

Discussion of ‘women of the East’ did not properly begin until Kollontai took over as National Secretary of the Zhenotdel in late 1920. Coverage in the first issues of the journal had been limited to very short reports on work among ‘Muslim women’. Reportage increased significantly from October 1920 under Kollontai’s leadership, and from this point indigenous women were described as ‘Eastern Women’ or ‘Women of the East’.22 From then until early 1923, when Serafima Liubimova was appointed as Head of the Turkestan (Central Asia) Zhenotdel, the proportion of the journal given over to the topic was less than 10%. Liubimova’s appointment in February 1923 introduced more focus on the East, and particularly on Central Asia, with coverage averaging between 12-15% up until the end of 1924. This included specific articles on Turkestan or on specific questions for Eastern women, within which Uzbek, Kirghiz, Turkmen and Kazakh women were included.

From 1925, with the implementation of National Delimitation and the creation of Soviet republics and oblasts, Central Asia began to emerge more clearly from other discussion on the East. Between 1926 and 1927 there was a regular section of Kommunistka dedicated to work in the Soviet East, at times making up almost 20% of the journal. This development saw specific articles on Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and what was then known as Kirgizia (later Kyrgyzstan). A number of issues focused on organisational questions such as women-only clubs and delegate meetings. Others dealt with legal issues and the conditions of life of women in Central Asia or the East generally.

Reports of activist gatherings were described geographically or as all-Union meetings of activists among ‘Women of the East’. From 1927 until the end of 1928, articles focused mainly on Uzbekistan. Articles on Kazakhstan did not emerge in the journal until 1926 and became more prominent in 1928 and 1929, with the introduction of the Five Year Plan.

In 1928, Kommunistka featured a significant debate in the run-up to an All-Union Meeting of Activists among Women of the East in December of that year. Coverage on the Soviet East rose to almost a fifth of the journal that year. This pattern was reversed in 1929, with less than 10% of the journal dedicated to discussion of work among Eastern or Central Asian women. Also in 1929 there was a shift away from reports on Uzbekistan or other parts of Central Asia to themes concerned with the implementation of the Five Year Plan and the War on Religion throughout the Soviet East. In March 1930, the final issue of Kommunistka was published, with an article announcing the re-organisation of work and the closure of the Zhenotdel.

An analysis of coverage over the decade reveals that the Central Asian experience, though highly specific, was a microcosm of a greater, multi-layered history of how the new Soviet State attempted to transform local societies and cultures, specifically in relation to women and gender relations. This thesis demonstrates not only how Central Asian Zhenotdel activists tailored their strategy to the broader project of the Zhenotdel, but also, how they tried to impact on, and give specific meaning to that broader project. It shows how the Central Asian Zhenotdel’s attempt to articulate its vision interacted with local and central Party policy and the attitudes of the local and central male membership. Finally this thesis aims to demonstrate that, while the fundamental problems of male chauvinism and authoritarianism the Zhenotdel grappled with were not unique to Central Asia, they had a particular expression within a society deeply divided on grounds of gender.

In using Kommunistka to trace the experience of the Zhenotdel in Central Asia, I should stress that I am not treating this journal as an unbiased reflection of historical reality. While it published statistical material on the way of life, social and economic interaction of indigenous women, analysis of the relevance of this material varied according to the individual author’s own views or the agreed line of the Zhenotdel or Party on schools, women’s clubs, childcare provision etc. At times claims of the “potential for revolution” among indigenous Central Asian women or of their support for Soviet and Zhenotdel policies were clearly exaggerated – along with a minimisation of the hurdles which needed to be overcome. This does not lead to the conclusion that there was any deliberate motivation to mislead. Instead, the articles on Central Asia and Kommunistka itself must be seen as the voice of an organisation committed to bring about what it described as the “emancipation” of women against the odds. It was a partisan project, committed to the programme of introducing Zhenotdel Socialism to Central Asia, and the analyses and views published in Kommunistka were situated within the parameters of this programme.

An analysis of the Zhenotdel activist base in Central Asia illustrates some of the contradictions at the core of its project. The regional department was initiated by Russian female members of the CPSU, dispatched there by Alexandra Kollontai to “awaken” the women of the East to the news of the revolution and their impending liberation.23 These women were relatively recent recruits to the Party, and came from urban working class or middle class backgrounds. Women like Serafima Liubimova and Zinaida Prishchepchik had worked in the Central Department of the Zhenotdel before being sent to Central Asia. They were young women who burned with enthusiasm for the challenge ahead, but had little or no experience of working with Muslim women, or within a peasant community. They did not speak indigenous languages and had to engage translators.24

From 1924 there appears to be a shift within the Russian speaking activist base in Central Asia. While Kommunistka does not distinguish between those sent from Moscow and those from the local Russian population, a number of writers emerge who focus on local issues alone and appear to have a more nuanced understanding of local culture. A recruitment drive to train Uzbek, Kirghiz and Turkmen women as Zhenotdel organisers coincided with a reported increase of Russian speakers who could also speak indigenous languages.25 However, this appears to have been simply a secondary layer of leadership, and the Central Asia Zhenotdel continued to be dominated by women from outside the region.

A major boost to the organisation of indigenous women came in 1924, with the launch of an Uzbek language journal, Yangi Yol (meaning ‘New Life’) by the Zhenotdel. Sobira Xoldarova, a young Jadid radical was appointed as its first editor.26 In terms of age and social profile Xoldarova reflected a group of urban based Jadid women who merged their aspiration for modernity with the Soviet project. Kamp describes how Xoldarova was unique among them in being able to speak Russian and how, as editor, she translated articles by Russian Zhenotdel leaders into Uzbek as the lead articles in Yangi Y’ol. Unlike Kommunistka, Yangi Yo’l was a mass popular journal and aimed to win the female population over to uniquely indigenous notions of modernity.

The divisions between Russian and indigenous Zhenotdel activists were based on nationality, ethnicity, language and political ideas. Having two separate journals in different languages did not assist the overcoming of divisions. And while Kommunistka was aimed at educating activists, it could not reach the majority of indigenous women. The lack of indigenous women who joined the Communist Party was an additional barrier. The percentage of women members of the Party in the CPSU as a whole was tiny, remaining below 10% before 1927 then rising to 13.9% in 1929.27 As I discuss in Chapter 6, this number was even smaller in Central Asia, in large part because of the seclusion of women within that society. Of the 12,401 members of the Uzbek Communist Party, less than half were of indigenous origin. Women of both Russian and indigenous origin – comprised less than 3% of that membership in 1927, with approximately 400 female members. No official membership figures appear to be available, but from an analysis of Kommunistka and secondary sources, it seems that less than a dozen of Communist Party members were Uzbek women.28 The indigenous membership of the Kirghiz Party was 80%, with 1,401 members. Of these only three were women.29 I will explore the reasons behind these low figures in chapter 6, along with a discussion of debates and conflicts around the failure to recruit indigenous women to the Communist Party.

Kommunistka provides fascinating insights into the conflicts engendered by the issues of nationality, race and gender described above. And, as well as reflecting the tensions, it reveals surprisingly creative approaches taken by Russian activists in adapting their methods of work, and in learning from indigenous activists. It also reveals the frequent frustration of activists at lack of support from the Central Committee and local Party organisations.

Kommunistka also has a wider significance in reflecting the fluctuating political climate of 1920s Soviet Union, from the confusion and indifference of the NEP years to the instigation of dictatorial methods to mobilise women in 1927. Kommunistka illustrates how Stalin’s growing dominance over the Central Committee impacted on Zhenotdel activists and how they responded to the increasing interventionism of the Central Committee and Sredazburo in their work. Through the publication of a range of views, from both Party loyalists and more oppositional voices, Kommunistka provides unique insights into the Zhenotdel’s struggle for change in Central Asia.

My research methodology involves following the focus of debate and work in Central Asia reflected in Kommunistka over the decade of its existence. Thus, after reading the initial articles on Muslim women, I moved on to consider discussion of Central Asia within articles on the Soviet East, and then to examine Central Asia specifically, as it emerged more clearly within coverage of the Soviet East. In 1927 and 1928 I concentrated on articles which dealt with Uzbekistan or the debates around questions which involved that region. This approach was prompted because the majority of coverage focused on Uzbekistan during this period and I was able to follow the main themes in the debate. I did consider including other parts of the Soviet East within my research and translated articles on Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tartaria. Azerbaijan also experienced the unveiling campaign in 1927. However, I finally decided to narrow my research to Central Asia, because the Zhenotdel’s experience in that region has been at the centre of significant academic debate and is of great interest in terms of the treatment of the ‘woman question’ in the Soviet Union.

I accessed the majority of Kommunistka on microfilm with the assistance of Glasgow University Library. There were a number of significant gaps in the earlier years of the Zhenotdel and I obtained access to these issues at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. I began translation from a broad chronological perspective. I considered Central Asia through the prism of the Soviet East and mapped the shifts in the views and work of the Zhenotdel over the decade. On completion of translation, I pinpointed the themes which reflected the experience of the Zhenotdel in the region. I reconsidered translated articles a number of times in order to explore these themes more fully and to ascertain if there were other matters which could throw light on the views of leading activists and the interaction with the Soviet project as a whole. I focused in particular on the views of Liubimova, because of her centrality to the project, and also because of the overlap between many of her views and those of Alexandra Kollontai, the driving force behind the Zhenotdel and initiator of its work in Central Asia.

Thesis Structure

In chapter one of this thesis, I consider the secondary literature on the Zhenotdel’s genesis as an organisation and the main influences on the ideas of its leading members. I consider, in particular, the views of Alexandra Kollontai, the most important proponent of Zhenotdel Socialism as well as the most pro-active advocate of a separate women’s bureau within the Party. I then examine the resistance of Zhenotdel activists to being described as feminists and their fears that advocacy of women’s rights would be dismissed because of this apparent association in the minds of Bolshevik leaders. I then proceed to consider the contradictory position of the Zhenotdel as a self-appointed voice for women’s rights within a Party that was extremely dismissive of practice around the ‘woman question’, despite its formal programmatic adherence. This chapter concludes with a summary of the experiences of Zhenotdel Directors and what this reflects regarding their struggle for autonomy throughout the decade.

In chapter two, I consider the existing literature on the role of the CPSU in Central Asia, and, in particular, the various attempts to politically and socio-culturally incorporate the region into the Soviet Union. I analyse the views of the Zhenotdel on indigenous women and the organisational initiatives that it was involved in prior to 1927. I argue that I believe there is a contradiction between the methods of the Zhenotdel before 1927 and the claims made by some historians that it was an enthusiastic supporter of the Hujum. To this end, I refer to existing studies, in particular that of Marianne Kamp, which shows the disquiet of Russian activists when informed that they were to lead a mass unveiling campaign.30 I then explore existing literature on the call for a ban on the veil in the aftermath of the Hujum, and the fact that despite apparent support from the Uzbek government, no decree was ever passed. I point to the various inconsistencies in accounts that see the Zhenotdel as a voice of the Central Party leadership, before turning to the articulation of my original view on the organisation’s role in the events, discussed in the following chapters.

In chapter three I consider the views on and strategy for women’s emancipation of Zhenotdel members as expressed in Kommunistka. I look initially at the difficulty of adapting its core programmatic goal of transcending the traditional family to the conditions of Central Asia. I analyse how the Zhenotdel originally believed that the Russian revolution would spread to the region and inspire indigenous women to rise up against their oppression. This conviction connected with its establishment of non-Party forms of organisation among indigenous women in this period, as the Zhenotdel leadership hoped that indigenous women would develop their own forms of struggle. I explore the loss of the initial leadership with the deaths of Inessa Armand in 1920 and Konkordiia Samoilova in 1921 and the expulsion of Alexandra Kollontai in 1922, and the shift to a more paternalistic approach to indigenous women. I illustrate how the Zhenotdel’s methods connected with the view that there should be incremental change that did not put indigenous women in any jeopardy from their family and community. This culturally sensitive approach contrasted with a continuing negative interpretation of indigenous society and the manner in which women lived. I then consider the response to the Hujum as reflected in Kommunistka and the various problems which this campaign presented for the Zhenotdel, not least the destruction of its existing work.

In chapter four I undertake a detailed examination of reports of the organisational initiatives developed by the Zhenotdel. I consider the discussions on how to develop economic independence among indigenous women and how to provide them with a support system to allow them to become involved in Soviet society. I consider the various problems encountered by the Zhenotdel in developing these initiatives, the breakthroughs that began to emerge after 1924, and the growing involvement of indigenous women. I then explore the impact of the Hujum on this work and the continued efforts to sustain earlier initiatives despite the odds. Finally, I discuss the new situation which emerged in 1929 and the forced collectivisation of indigenous women.

In chapter five, I consider the legal strategy of the Zhenotdel and how it sought to implement a programme of transformation through Soviet law. I trace how activists began with interventions in the indigenous Court system and then rejected this work because of the obstacles involved, only to face the same problems in the Soviet People’s Courts. I explore the contradiction between facilitating women’s economic and social engagement in a culturally sensitive way, while at the same time attempting to impose a European family form on them. Returning to a central theme of the thesis, I consider claims made by Gregory Massell and Douglas Northrop that the Zhenotdel’s legalism and negativity toward indigenous culture led it to embrace the Hujum.31 I show that this is not evidenced in my study of Kommunistka and that, in fact, the Zhenotdel wanted to use legislation in an incremental way and believed that it could provide indigenous women with safety. Thus, the debate in the aftermath of the Hujum reflects calls for a legal ban on the veil in order to send a message out that indigenous women were protected by Soviet society.

In chapter six, I explore the difficult and contradictory relationship with the Central Committee, Sredazburo and the local indigenous membership. I show how the Zhenotdel was able to act with a degree of autonomy precisely because of its isolation from local Party organisations. I also discuss the continued struggles for support and the refusal to accept that the Central Committee had no genuine interest in advances for indigenous women. The negative attitudes of Zhenotdel activists toward indigenous Party members and the frustration with the obstacles to the recruitment of women are also discussed. I then analyse the debate on autonomy which emerged in 1928 and the struggle over that question within the Zhenotdel. Finally I explore the clampdown on debate within Kommunistka and the consequent involvement of the Zhenotdel in a purge of male communist party members in the region.

In each of the chapters outlined above, I note the significant shifts in the final year of the Zhenotdel’s existence and how Kommunistka changed from being a journal where criticisms and debate could be expressed to one where the only issue was the successful implementation of the Five Year Plan. The Zhenotdel went from being of no interest to the Central Committee to being forced into giving up its own programme and instructed to lead a campaign which many members opposed.

Overall, the material presented in this thesis demonstrates that, rather than being willing servants of the Central Committee, Zhenotdel activists in Central Asia had their own independent aspirations which were generally in conflict with, or of no interest to, the Central Party leadership. Their work was based on a commitment to incremental change. However their simultaneous commitment to the Soviet project and the belief that the CPSU represented the only way forward meant that they would find themselves in perpetual conflict. By the end of the 1920s, in a situation where the balance of forces was ranged against them, Zhenotdel activists were finally forced to give up on their programme of transformation and, instead, to try to survive the dictatorial environment of 1929 and 1930. It was only in these years, when all avenues for discussion were closed, that the Zhenotdel eventually suspended its criticism of the Central Committee and its separate approach to the woman question in Central Asia. Thus, an in-depth study of the Zhenotdel and Kommunistka does much more than simply offer an organisational history: it maps the tensions inherent in the early Soviet ambitions to enact profound socio-cultural change; it traces what became of such aspirations in the context of turbulent political upheaval across the USSR and in the Party; and it explores the complex local impacts of attempts at utopian construction and destruction.

I use the term ‘activist’ to describe members of the Zhenotdel. While Zhenotdel leaders were undoubtedly members of the CPSU, it does not appear that all members of the Zhenotdel were members of the Party. Being a journal for activists, Kommunistka assumes a level of knowledge on the part of the readership about general events in the Soviet Union at that time. It therefore does not always provide background and context in the way a more general publication might. It does not provide a great deal of information on the Communist Party sections in the region, perhaps because of its general isolation from those organisations. Finally, I use the term ‘Hujum’ and ‘unveiling campaign’ interchangeably throughout this thesis, denoting that in my view they were essentially the same policy. I have translated the Russian word ‘soveshchanie’ as ‘meeting’ throughout this thesis, making it clear when these are all-Union or local meetings.

1 S. Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 68-92 for a summary of that period.
2 The articles which are the subject of this research do not always have the full name of the writer and this is reflected in the fact that generally surnames, rather than full names, are used.
G. J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Muslim Women & Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia 1919-1929 (Princeton University Press 1974); D. Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Cornell University Press 2004); S. Keller, To Moscow not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign against Islam in Central Asia, (Praeger Press 2001) and M. Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam Modernity and Unveiling Under Communism (University of Washington Press 2006) are central contributions on the woman question in 1920s Central Asia which focus on Uzbekistan and on the Hujum (unveiling campaign)
4 W. Z. Goldman, Women at the Gates Gender & Industry in Stalin’s Russia (Cambridge University Press 2002); E. A. Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender & Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Indiana University Press 1997); R. Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia – Feminism Nihilism & Bolshevism 1860-1930 (Princeton University Press 1990) and B. Evans Clements, Bolshevik Women (Cambridge University Press 1997) are just four examples of an extensive literature on the relationship of the Zhenotdel to the Party as a highly contradictory and problematic one
5 E. A. Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender & Politics in Revolutionary Russia
6 B. Evans Clements, ‘The Utopianism of the Zhenotdel’ in Slavic Review Vol 51 No 3 (Autumn 1992), pp. 485-496 pg. 485.
7 B. Evans Clements, ‘The Utopianism of the Zhenotdel’, pg. 488.
8 R. Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia, pg. 345.
9 C. Eubanks Hayden, ‘The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party’ in Russian History Vol. III, 2 (1976), pp.150-173
10 W. Z. Goldman, ‘Industrial Politics, Peasant Revolution and the Death of the Proletarian Women’s Movement in the USSR’ in Slavic Review Vol 55, No 1 (Spring 1996), pp.46-77
11 M. Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan.
12 G. J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat.
13D. Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Cornell University Press 2004)
14 S. Keller, To Moscow not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign against Islam in Central Asia, (Praeger Press 2001)
15 M. Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan.
16 B. Evans Clements, ‘The Utopianism of the Zhenotdel’ where Clements describes the Zhenotdel’s vision as utopian.
17 C. Porter, Alexandra Kollontai A Biography (Merlin Press 2015)
18 ‘Dorogie toverishchi’, Kommunistka 10 (1923) pg. 1
19 S. Smidovich, ‘Znachenie Kommunistka dlia raboty sredi zhenshchin’ Kommunistka, 7 (1923) pp. 7-9
20 Quote from N. Krupskaya in ER ‘Nesmeniaemyi pedaktor Kommunistka N.K Krupskaya’, Kommunistka 7 (1923) pp. 6-7
21 S. Smidovich, ‘Znachenie Kommunistka dlia raboty sredi zhenshchin’ Kommunistka, 7 (1923) pp. 7-9
22 All references in this section to Kommunistka
23 A. Kollontai, ‘Posledniaia rabynia (k s’ezdu zhenshchin narodov Vostoka)’, Kommunistka, 7 (1920), pp. 24-26
24 M. Kamp, The New Woman of Uzbekistan p. 267, where she identifies Oiposho Jalilova, a prominent Jadid and teacher from Tashkent as one of Liubimova’s translators.
25 E. Butusova, ‘Zhenskie lavki v Uzbekistane’, Kommunistka, 9 (1927), pp.62-67
26 M. Kamp, The New Woman of Uzbekistan pg. 100-107 for a history of the leading women involved in Yangi Yol
27 T.H Rigby, Communist Party Membership in the USSR 1917-1967 (Princeton University Press) Princeton New Jersey, 1968 pg 361 table 31 Sex Structure of CPSU Membership 1922-1967
28 A. Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, Nation Empire and Revolution in the early USSR (Cornell University Press), Ithaca & London 2015, pg. 176
29 T.H. Rigby, Communist Party Membership, pg. 360 note 16
30 M. Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan, pp.164-165.
31 G. J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat, pp. 185-212 and D. Northrop, Veiled Empire, pp. 46-68

The full thesis is available to download as a PDF


The Impending Climate CATASTROPHE & How to Combat It

I support the perspective outlined in this new leaflet by the Bolshevik Tendency


The Impending Climate CATASTROPHE

& How to Combat It

The 2018 update on the 2016 Paris Agreement published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that humanity is facing an extremely serious and rapidly accelerating crisis. Time is running out. Yet despite repeated appeals for governments to “declare a state of climate emergency,” no substantial section of the world’s capitalist rulers has shown a commitment to seriously address the problem. There have been lots of gatherings, declarations and paper agreements but very little real progress since 1992 when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in Rio de Janeiro (for a partial list see the Environmental and Energy Study Institute website: https://www.eesi.org/policy/international).

The 154 signatories to the initial UNFCCC pledged to stabilise “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.” The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, signed by over 190 countries, called for reducing greenhouse gas to five percent below the 1990 level by 2012. Instead emissions have risen steadily: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/mar/11/kyoto-protocol


The current rate of climate change exceeds previous projections according to the World Meteorological Organisation’s “Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2018” (see: https://static.rasset.ie/documents/news/2019/03/wmo-report.pdf). The International Energy Agency has come to a similar conclusion regarding carbon-dioxide emissions: https://www.sciencealert.com/coal-plants-are-emitting-more-than-ever-and-we-are-headed-for-disaster.


In “The Uninhabitable Earth” (a book which should be required reading for all those concerned with climate change), David Wallace-Wells explains that even if all the 2016 Paris Agreement targets were met, humanity would still be facing major climatic challenges due to a projected temperature rise of 3°C by the end of this century. The disastrous consequences of global warming are already being experienced by the tens of millions of (mostly poor) people who have been victims of the accelerating tempo of natural disasters, ranging from floods to droughts, hurricanes, typhoons and wild fires.

Climate change & ecological collapse

In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, other major environmental degradations are combining to pose the threat of a generalised ecological collapse. We are currently living through what has been called Earth’s sixth mass extinction event marked by the disappearance of huge numbers of animal and plant species. The resulting reduction in bio-diversity has already produced problems for some agricultural sectors.

Deforestation continues apace. The destruction of the jungle in the Amazon basin and the rain forests of Indonesia are best known but as this report shows (http://climate.org/deforestation-and-climate-change/) it is actually a wide-spread phenomenon. The link to climate change is obvious: tropical forests hold more than 210 gigatons of carbon and deforestation is currently estimated to account for as much as 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions (https://www.saveearth.info/deforestation/).

Water pollution caused by excess phosphorous has reached dangerous levels internationally: https://m.phys.org/news/2018-01-phosphorus-pollution-dangerous-worldwide.html. Another element in the toxic mix pushing the planet in the direction of ecological collapse is the dumping of vast quantities of non-degradable plastics into the seas which negatively impact the life cycles and habitats of marine life already threatened by warming of ocean waters and the resultant de-oxygenation: https://www.earthday.org/2018/04/05/fact-sheet-plastics-in-the-ocean/. While the issue of reducing single-use plastics is currently a hot topic, it seems rather obvious that the best way to tackle the problem would be to end the production of all non-recyclable plastics.


Capitalism can’t be fixed; production for profit must be eliminated

A growing number of people are becoming alarmed by the situation and pushing for immediate action to stave off the looming danger of ecological collapse. The first step in solving any problem is obviously to identify the factors that have created it. It is very clear that the danger caused by greenhouse gas emissions is not caused by bad choices by individual consumers—it is the result of the profit priorities that drive the entire system of corporate agricultural and industrial production, marketing and waste management.

While there have been some attempts to curb the worst excesses by pressuring the most egregious offenders to cut their emissions, introducing carbon taxes and issuing “cap and trade” licenses to polluters, these measures have had negligible impact. Despite what governments and corporate media would have us believe with their incessant talk about “individual responsibility,” the primary source of greenhouse gases is not atomised consumers but the processes of production – both industrial and agricultural.


Successfully addressing the climate emergency requires drastic measures that must be undertaken on a global scale including, but not limited to, a crash programme to insulate existing housing and commercial structures while mandating that all future construction must meet the highest quality insulation standard. A related measure would be to carry out a rapid transition from gas and oil-based heating systems to geo-thermal, solar and other forms of renewable energy. There must also be a large-scale programme of planting of indigenous species of trees and other vegetation to expand the plant-based carbon sink while increasing the range of environments within which threatened species can be re-established.

A critical component of this programme would be the creation of a dense network of free (or nominally priced), effective, convenient public transportation (powered by electricity rather than fossil fuel) in order to dramatically reduce dependence on private automobiles. In the meantime we reject the “carbon tax” strategy because it has little real impact on the problem and chiefly serves to antagonise ordinary citizens who depend on their cars to get around—raising fuel costs inevitably leads them to identify with the oil and gas lobby. Alongside a vast expansion of high-speed electrified rail, developing alternatives to fossil fuel powered air travel must also be a high priority.

While the response of the dominant sections of global capital to the growing crisis has combined hypocrisy and indifference, an influential section of the U.S. ruling class, represented by the odious Koch brothers, has countered by funding pseudo-scientific “research” to refute the idea that climate change is actually underway. U.S. President Trump, who not surprisingly is part of this cohort, idiotically denounces attempts to reduce global warming as “bad for business,” and characterises proposals for investments to ensure that humanity has a future as “unrealistic” and “economically unviable.” Only slightly less short-sighted are those elements in the ruling class which acknowledge the problem but concentrate on finding funding for a few minor tweaks like building seawalls to protect low-lying areas of New York and the U.S. capital in Washington D.C. The New Orleans’ levees built in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 took a decade to construct and cost an estimated $14 billion—but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now admit they “may not be able to keep up with climate change and rising sea levels” because “It’s happening a little bit faster than our projections in 2007” (https://weather.com/news/news/2019-04-15-new-orleans-levees-rebuilt-no-protection).

Most of the studies produced by deep state thinktanks and intelligence agencies of the major powers are far less complacent—they project a future marked by mass population transfers, social upheavals and military conflicts over increasingly scarce resources resulting from famines, floods and other calamities produced by climate change. This has yet to make much impression on big business. Between 2016 and 2018 thirty-three of the world’s largest banks boosted financing for fossil fuel production to US$1.9 trillion (https://www.ran.org/bankingonclimatechange2019/). While publicising relatively trivial investments in the development of “green energy,” the major energy corporations are planning to increase fossil fuel extraction over the next few decades.

“According to ExxonMobil, global oil and gas demand will rise by 13% by 2030. All of the majors, not just ExxonMobil, are expected to expand their output. Far from mothballing all their gasfields and gushers, the industry is investing in upstream projects from Texan shale to high-tech deep-water wells.”


“Far from abandoning them, the shareholdings of the world’s 20 largest institutional investors in big oil companies climbed from 24% in 2014 to 27% in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency.”

“While oil companies plan to grow, trends in cleaner energy are moving in the wrong direction. Investments in renewables fell as a share of the total in 2017 for the first time in three years, as spending on oil and gas climbed.”

The big oil corporations and the financial “rulers of the universe” are unable to respond intelligently to the looming threat of ecological collapse because they are captive to the “logic” of short-term profit maximisation. Capitalism is a global system driven by competition for resources and market share in which those with the lowest costs bankrupt their rivals. Given that fossil fuels are currently the cheapest form of energy, and that energy is a critical input in production, the pursuit of competitive advantage between individual corporations (as well as rival nations), necessarily impels each producer to use the cheapest possible inputs and minimise investment in processing toxic bi-products. Firms which spend time and money on socially beneficial activities that make no positive impact on the “bottom line” put themselves at a huge disadvantage in the “free market.”

Capitalist economic theory starts from the premise that each corporation has one central responsibility: maximising profits. Things like increasing human suffering or contributing to rendering the world uninhabitable are dismissed as “externalities” which lie outside the mandate of corporate decision makers. Eventually of course the situation will become so dire that even the dimmest billionaires will come to realise that a course correction is necessary. But by that time it will almost certainly be too late.

Capitalism is the problem—Socialism is the solution

Many of those genuinely concerned about this disastrous predicament cling to the hope that somehow the existing governmental and social structures can be pressured into acting in humanity’s long-term interests. This, unfortunately, is a debilitating illusion. Staving off ecological collapse requires that the mass of humanity takes control of the natural resources and the machinery of production that human life depends upon. This means expropriating the corporations and the billionaires. Only by making the essential resources required for the survival of humanity the common property of the working people of the world, can coordinated international economic planning on the scale necessary to address the crisis be undertaken.

The potential ecological catastrophe confronting us today is an entirely logical bi-product of the capitalist social system of production for profit, rather than use. This system developed over several centuries. For much of that time capitalist competition was a dynamic and historically progressive factor, but for the last century—roughly since the outbreak of World War One—it has become an impediment to human development and even survival. It must be transcended through a wholesale, global reorganisation of production and the creation of a collectivised, socialist economic order. The central agency of such a revolutionary transformation can only be a politically conscious working class—i.e., the people who operate the global systems of production, distribution, transportation, communication and perform every other essential social function. This will require going beyond the kind of coordinated action taken in the student strikes and Extinction Rebellion disruption stunts to take more significant direct action, including industrial actions, occupations, general strikes and other forms of mass popular mobilisation which can shake the rule of capital and begin to lay the basis for its overthrow.

The interests of working people around the world, unlike those of their capitalist masters, are fundamentally identical. This common interest provides the objective basis for a rational, global world economic order in which human need, and the protection of the natural biosphere, will determine social priorities.

The capitalists will of course stop at nothing to maintain their rule. A successful movement to depose them must therefore be broadly based among the globe’s billions of working people and organised in such a fashion that it can effectively counterattack the capitalists’ repressive state machinery (police and military) and their fascist auxiliaries. The leadership of such a movement must be composed of the most dedicated and selfless militants organised in a disciplined revolutionary workers’ organisation capable of undertaking the seizure of state power, and thereby beginning to lay the basis for a new, egalitarian social and economic order that goes beyond the limitations of capitalist parliamentary democracy. The political supremacy of working people would be expressed through a network of decision-making bodies integrated on local, regional, national and international levels. Such bodies would be composed of representative delegates paid no more than the average wage and recallable at any time by those who elected them.

No more should so many of the decisions that affect our lives take place behind the façade of “commercial secrecy” in the board rooms of competing corporations. No more government for, by and of the rich. No more unplanned growth and planned obsolescence. No more squandering valuable resources on marketing, packaging and advertising. No more hunger, no more war, no more homophobia, racism or sexism. What is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed are decisions that must be balanced against their impact on the environment and evaluated on their contribution to meeting human need. This is essential not only to combat the looming threat of ecological collapse but will make it possible to establish a social order which can guarantee peace, plenty and freedom for the world’s working people.


Where is Extinction Rebellion going?

You will regularly see comments from Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists about the need to fundamentally change, or even sometimes to “overthrow”, the existing capitalist socio-economic system as a necessary pre-requisite for preventing catastrophic ecological collapse.

And yet what is actually happening behind that radical rhetoric?

The latest update on the central XR web site refers to a proposal that has been circulated “for entering a ‘negotiations’ phase” – https://rebellion.earth/2019/04/22/update-6-a-new-phase-begins/

Despite the assurances that this is just a proposal it seems that the leadership (of this movement with no leaders!) is already fully committed to implementing this new phase:

Farhana, the group’s political circle co-ordinator said: “Today marks a transition from week one, which focused on actions that were vision-holding but also caused mass “disruption” across many dimensions (economic, cultural, emotional, social).

“Week two marks a new phase of rebellion focused on “negotiations” where the focus will shift to our actual political demands.”

She added: “We want to show that XR is a cohesive long-term, global force, not some flash in the pan.

“We can do that by showing we are disciplined and cannot only start disruptive actions but also end these when needed. We are not a rabble, we are rebels with a cause!

“Being able to “pause” a rebellion shows that we are organised and a long-term political force to be reckoned with.

“This will give XR leverage as we enter into negotiations with those in power to make headway on our three demands.”

The update also refers to XR having “received almost £300,000 in crowdfunding”. Given the decentralised nature of XR, with no democratic accountability of the central organisation to the mass of activists on the ground, it is unclear who will make the decisions about how to use this large, and presumably growing, amount of money.

There is also a new web site XR Business (https://xrbusiness.org) which describes itself as “an evolving platform for people in business who understand that business as usual is not going to work any more.”

At first glance this looks like a group of entrepreneurs, probably with no direct links to the worst corporate polluters, seeking to appeal to this new market of climate change activists.

However the letter to The Times announcing the launch of this new venture (copy at https://jeremyleggett.net/2019/04/22/letter-to-the-times-by-business-leaders-supportive-of-extinction-rebellion-of-which-i-am-proud-to-be-one/ for those not paying to get through The Times paywall) includes among the signatories “Gail Bradbrook (co-founder)  Extinction Rebellion”.

While the formally decentralised structure of XR will allow a defence of “this is only the view of one individual” anyone who is an active part of XR, or even just follows them closely, will know that to the extent there are leaders of XR Gail Bradbrook is definitely one of them.

Bradbrook’s endorsement of XR Business is a very strong indication of the direction the key players in XR are wanting to take the project. It is therefore a very worrying development for all those in the movement who will have taken the comments about “ending capitalism” or “overthrowing the system” seriously.

The idea that our capitalist rulers, or their puppets in capitalist governments, are suddenly going to enter negotiations with the aim of them committing to the massive changes required in society is farcical. As the latest map of the state of play in meeting the targets of the Paris Accord shows – no matter what they may say the capitalist system remains woefully incapable of doing what is necessary. It must be overthrown!



Bolshevik Tendency web site…

… is now live




George Monbiot calls for overthrowing the system?

The 11 April 2019 episode of the BBC2 show “New World Order” hosted by comedian Frankie Boyle included liberal media commentator George Monbiot saying “What we have to do is the big structural, political, economic stuff. What we’re being told to do is ‘change your cotton buds’ and all this sort of pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks, which just isn’t going to get us anywhere” and “We can’t do it by just pissing around at the margins of the problem. We’ve gotta go straight to the heart of capitalism; and overthrow it.”

See Monbiot’s call to overthrow the system at 23:50 in this video of the show (and the loud applause the audience responded with):

This call to “overthrow the system” is something I would obviously agree with, at least in abstract, but I must confess I take Monbiot’s comment with a very large grain of salt.

To the extent he has made any concrete proposals for how to deal with the threat of ecological collapse that is facing the planet they all seem to be within the context of supporting those who are merely proposing reforms to the existing capitalist system rather than pointing to its overthrow (see his blog https://www.monbiot.com).

For example in his blog post “First Strike” on 22 February 2019 he argues:

I believe a successful movement should also define a clear and tangible objective, perhaps a date by which nations achieve a zero carbon economy. It could recommend a pathway, such as a ramped-up version of the Green New Deal proposed by the most progressive Democrats. If so, it will need to set a series of waymarks, by which it can judge whether or not governments are on track. This ensures that the activists, rather than the government, keep setting the agenda.

and more generally he supports the campaigns of these “progressive” capitalist politicians:

Successful movements also need an organisational model, that allows them to keep growing. One promising approach is Big Organising, that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take her seat in the US Congress.

If this more recent television appearance represents a change in Monbiot’s perspective then I look forward to seeing him outlining some ideas for how we can actually “overthrow the system” – but the truth is I am not holding my breath.

What I think this really represents is Monbiot’s recognition that within the environmental movement there are an increasing numbers of young people who are starting to recognise the reality that continuation of the existing socio-economic system is incompatible with saving the planet from ecological collapse.

But while coming to that realisation is an important step towards developing realistic solutions to the dire crisis facing humanity it doesn’t in-of-itself lead to a programme for how to overthrow the system.

Monbiot, and his ilk, are responding to this upswell in support for the idea that something fundamental has to change in the way society is run by. However they are presenting this “overthrow of the system” in terms of radical reform within capitalism to curb its excesses rather than the actual overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a new socio-economic system. So we see demands like calling on capitalist governments to “declare a climate emergency” – as if this would result in anything more than fancy talk and a bit of tinkering around the edges. They have been having international conferences to discuss the danger of climate change for decades now and nothing has changed.

What the Monbiot’s of the world are worried about is that young people involved in the environmental movement might be open to ideas which really do challenge the capitalist system – something the reformists are desperate to avoid.

For instance see Monbiot’s call (also in his “First Strike” blog post) for the climate change movement to police itself by excluding or “containing” (whatever that means) those whose anger at the inaction of our leaders results in actions which go beyond the boundaries of acceptable protest:

I would suggest that the climate strikers develop clear rules of engagement, in order to give their opponents no ammunition. In my view, the global justice movement was gravely damaged by its failure to exclude or contain the Black Bloc: people dressed in black, some of whom came to protests tooled up for a fight, and often smashed up random local businesses, denting support for the mobilisation with every blow. Some people in the movement believed that everyone had a right to join it on whatever terms they wished. I see this as an unaffordable indulgence.

Discussion on issues such “overthrowing the system” need to be central to the environmental movement as we look to develop solutions that can really halt the march towards ecological collapse.

The danger is that who present too radical a vision of what “overthrowing the system” means will also be excluded from participation in the discussion. That should not be allowed to happen.




James M. Robertson: A Balance Sheet

The recent report of the death of Spartacist League (SL) founder James Robertson on 7 April has occasioned considerable discussion within the shrinking milieu of leftists interested in the fate of the group he led for more than fifty years. In a lengthy article entitled “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra,” published in the Summer 2017 issue of Spartacist (No. 65), the SL capped several decades of revisionist departures from its Trotskyist past with a wholesale renunciation of Leninism on the national question—an issue which had historically set the SL apart from its centrist competitors who tended to adapt to petty-bourgeois nationalism. The revolutionary SL of the 1960s and 70s, according to the Hydra account, had been guilty of a “perversion of Leninism on the national question, particularly in relation to oppressed nations within multinational states.” This newly discovered deviation, which was attributed to Joseph Seymour, the SL’s leading theorist, resulted in the explicit repudiation of several of his most notable contributions.

Tom Riley of the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) penned two documents in response to this grotesque and incoherent revisionism. The first, entitled “In Defense of (Seymour’s) Marxism,” which originally appeared in 1917 No. 40, addressed the “theoretical” arguments advanced in the Hydra document. Riley’s second document, “From Trotskyism to Neo-Pabloism,” posted on the website of the International Bolshevik Tendency (which had been initiated by a 1990 fusion between the BT  and the New Zealand-based Permanent Revolution Group) dissected the multiple factual errors and political distortions presented in the Hydra document’s account of Spartacist history. Riley discussed Robertson’s central role in the SL’s rise and fall and contrasted the group’s new-found enthusiasm for combatting chauvinism with the founder/leader’s unpleasant proclivity for “pejorative ethnic jokes.”

The following excerpt sketches  Robertson’s valuable contributions and his ultimate failure as a revolutionary leader:

“Robertson is not the first former revolutionary who proved unable to remain true to the ideals of his youth. As a key figure in the Revolutionary Tendency of the SWP [Socialist Workers Party], and the central leader of the Spartacist tendency in its best period, he made some vitally important contributions; but, on balance, his record is not an honorable one – he was too petty, too self-indulgent, too cynical, and inflicted too much gratuitous pain on many who trusted him. His worst crime was the willful and capricious destruction of dozens of dedicated revolutionary cadres.

“Robertson was always good at sizing up people and was attuned to detecting human weakness. He generally took a conservative approach to building the Spartacist tendency; tended to avoid taking too many chances and preferred to avoid risk rather than pursue opportunity. He wanted to scale up the operation, but was very reluctant to lose tight personal control. This is why, even in its best period, every foreign section of the iSt had one or more trusted American cadres in its top leadership.

.                       .                       .

“In his youth, in the 1950s, Robertson was a serious and self-sacrificing revolutionist whose careful study of the history of the Trotskyist movement propelled him steadily to the left in an arid period when almost everyone else was moving rightward. Although he ultimately proved unworthy of the big ideas he once ably defended, he, more than anyone else, shaped the politics of the Spartacist tendency which, during the 1960s and 70s, had the distinction of being the world’s only authentically Trotskyist organization.

“In its best period the SL under Robertson’s leadership not only defended the Trotskyist program, but also made some important contributions to it, including the now repudiated approach to the national question, particularly the difficult and complicated challenges posed by situations of ‘interpenetrated peoples.’ The renunciation of much of this history cannot detract from the clarity of the analysis put forward by the revolutionary SL in the 1970s.

“Robertson lacked the character necessary to sustain revolutionary activity as American society drifted relentlessly to the right from the mid-1970s. As prospects of imminent revolutionary breakthroughs receded, he opted for the petty pleasures available to the big frog in the little pond of the Spartacist tendency. Gradually the unaccountable founder/leader’s materially privileged lifestyle was normalized within the group, while other full-timers were expected to eke out an existence on minimal subsidies. This all went hand in hand with the effective elimination of any real internal democracy in the iSt.

“James M. Robertson will end up with a footnote in the history of American Trotskyism, but it will not be one he would have wanted. He will be remembered as a capable, but small caliber, person who, for a time, played a vital role as a link in the chain of revolutionary continuity. But also as someone whose intelligence and strong personality was combined with personal insecurities that led him to abuse many vulnerable, and often very young, revolutionaries, and ultimately to undermine the revolutionary program he once championed.”

Robertson’s role in transforming the once revolutionary Spartacist tendency into a political obedience cult is discussed in some detail in “The Road to Jimstown,” a May 1985 document published by the comrades who founded the BT.  

Robertson’s centrality to the entire Spartacist operation has naturally given rise to considerable speculation about the group’s future without him. “From Trotskyism to Neo-Pabloism” made a few projections about how things may unfold:

“Once Robertson departs this mortal coil we expect to see the ICL [International Communist League, formerly the international Spartacist tendency] membership immediately unite as one to mourn his passing and celebrate the genius of their deceased chieftain. Yet, even as tears flow, paeans of praise are heaped upon the blessed memory of the deceased el supremo, and pledges of eternal fealty to his work ring out, it seems likely that in the background knives will be sharpened and other preparations made for all the horse-trading, double-crossing and backstabbing that will likely accompany the determination of a new pecking order.

“It is hard to imagine the ICL finding a viable niche in the already crowded ecosystem of pro-nationalist pseudo-Trotskyist flora and fauna. Presumably, for a period, it will continue to go through the motions of holding meetings and issuing propaganda. But the chief axis of any struggle for supremacy in the post-Robertsonian ICL seems less likely to focus on programmatic issues than gaining control of the group’s accumulated material assets, which are substantial enough to motivate a few rounds of an in-house ‘game of thrones.’

“Such a struggle is not likely to be particularly edifying, nor would we expect a whole lot of ‘Trotskyism’ to remain once the dust settles, outstanding legal challenges are resolved, the real estate portfolio liquidated and final payouts disbursed. Our hope is that in such an event someone in or around the Prometheus Research Library retains enough interest in Trotskyist history to find a new home for its valuable holdings. It would be a real tragedy if they were to simply be chucked into a dumpster in front of the headquarters, as happened with many SWP materials after Jack Barnes wrote off Trotskyism in the 1980s.”

For all his shortcomings, Robertson, who SWP leader Joseph Hansen once dismissed as a “talented archivist,” remained throughout his life a serious student of Trotskyist history. The Prometheus Research Library, which grew out of his personal library, is probably one of the few things that remains of any real political value in the thoroughly degenerated ICL. Its preservation would not only be a service to the international workers’ movement but also an appropriate tribute to its profoundly flawed founder.

–Bolshevik Tendency, 14 April 2019