Is Leninism dead?

Phil Gasper member of the editorial board of the International Socialist Review and is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document continues a discussion on Leninism, responding to a recent article from Ian Birchall.

lenin

What, if anything, do revolutionary socialists today have to learn from the experience and legacy of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks a century ago? In a recent thought-provoking article on this topic, Ian Birchall argues: “the term ‘Leninism’ may be a positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organisation we need for the coming decades.”

As Ian notes, the key question is not whether we should use the label ‘Leninism,’ but whether there is a coherent body of ideas in Lenin’s writings, and in the theory and practice of the Bolsheviks, that socialists can usefully draw on in the twenty-first century. But he seems to take the fact that “Lenin’s party varied enormously in form according to circumstances,” as a reason to conclude that with respect to questions of organisation, the answer should be in the negative.

It is undeniable that the Bolsheviks changed their organisation in response to specific historical circumstances. The way they operated before 1905, under conditions of extreme Tsarist repression, was very different from the revolutionary period of 1905-07. The years of reaction after 1907 were very different from the early years of the Russian Revolution, which were different again from the period after the Civil War.

In 1921, Lenin helped prepare theses on “The Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work” for the Third Congress of the Communist International, which explicitly state: “There is no absolute form of organisation which is correct for the Communist Parties at all times… [E]ach Party must develop its own special forms of organisation to meet the historically determined conditions within the country.”

Nevertheless, while there is no cookie-cutter Leninist model of revolutionary organisation, good for all times and all places, there is what we might call a more general Leninist project that involves a commitment to build a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class.

That project stands in opposition to the “common sense” of many – probably most – on the activist left, who reject the need for a centralised party, or the role of the working class, or both.

There are two main reasons why we need a revolutionary party if we want to see a socialist revolution. The first is quite practical: without a coordinated, disciplined revolutionary organization, it’s impossible to take on and defeat the power of the capitalist state.

Although there is no discussion of revolutionary organisation in State and Revolution, which Ian praises as Lenin’s most important theoretical contribution, this is surely one of the implications of his analysis of the class character of the state and its role in maintaining the capitalist system and the rule of the capitalist class.

Like clockwork, capitalism provokes acts of resistance, large and small. But without coordination and leadership, the resistance can’t defeat the whole system. In Trotsky’s memorable metaphor: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.”

The second reason why a revolutionary party is necessary is because of the highly uneven development of class-consciousness in the working class. Revolutionary organisation is needed to combat ruling class ideology and to overcome divisions between workers.

As we’re all too well aware, for most of the time revolutionary socialists are a small minority in capitalist society. But if the most class conscious, militant and politically advanced elements of the working class can be united in a revolutionary organisation, they can play a leadership role that in times of political and social crisis can attract much greater numbers.

That means revolutionary organisations have to play two related roles. One is participating in and, whenever possible, initiating struggles, both large and small. The second is the role of educating and training more socialists, while developing socialist theory to understand and explain a rapidly changing world.

Socialists have to spend years patiently engaging in smaller struggles, both to learn how to lead as individuals in their own workplaces and communities, and to build a party with the capacity to lead a successful revolution in the future.

That’s the Leninist project.

It’s important to emphasise that this is a project. We don’t have a revolutionary party consisting of the most advanced elements of the working class in Britain or the United States, and we’re unlikely to have one in the near future.

The main reason for this is that our side has suffered over 30 years of defeats. Moreover, the structure of capitalism and the composition of the working class have been transformed during that time. Whole industries have been wiped out or totally restructured. Unionised jobs have been replaced by low-wage service sector employment and contingent labour. And for 30 years there has been a right-wing ideological offensive that has disoriented and weakened most of the left.

The Leninist project involves bringing together the ideas of revolutionary socialism with the most advanced sections of the working class. When the socialist movement and the larger working class movement are both weak, that’s hard to do.

One of the biggest mistakes that relatively small groups of revolutionaries can make is to believe that they already constitute a revolutionary party, or that they will inevitably grow to become such a party. In his 1971 essay “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party,” Duncan Hallas, with his customary insight, put it this way:

“The relevance of a party is, firstly, that it can give … the more advanced and conscious minority of workers and not the sects or self-proclaimed leaders, the confidence and the cohesion necessary to carry the mass with them. It follows that there can be no talk of a party that does not include this minority as one of its major components.”

If you imagine that you have already created such a party, or that your political clarity and understanding means that you are preordained to become the leadership of the international working class in the future, it can rapidly lead to delusions of grandeur that may undermine the democratic culture that is an essential part of living revolutionary organisation.

Hallas again:

“unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

Here, Hallas is echoing ideas that Lenin articulated at the beginning of the twentieth century: “there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.” To that end the Bolsheviks explicitly defended the right of a minority “to advocate its views and to carry on an ideological struggle, so long as the disputes and differences do not lead to disorganisation.”

But while it is a serious error for any group of revolutionaries simply to declare themselves the leadership of the working class, the opposite mistake is to put off the task of building a revolutionary party into the indefinite future. Education is vital, but revolutionary socialists need to create more than just study groups. Activism is equally vital, but movements by themselves are not enough.

So how does a group of a few hundred people attempt to build a revolutionary party that will eventually need hundreds of thousands of members? It’s unlikely that we are going to grow ourselves there by recruiting a few members at a time. Most likely, the path will involve merging with other forces that are part of the working-class movement and the left, broadly conceived, but the specifics will vary greatly depending on the concrete situation that exists in different places and countries.

Ian Birchall is right that socialists today still have much to learn from Lenin’s writings. But to change the world, we also need to remain committed to the Leninist project of building a revolutionary party. In that sense we should say yes both to Lenin and to Leninism.

163 COMMENTS

  1. What is “incredible” about pointing out that organisations other than revolutionary socialist ones use the principles of democratic centralism to organise democratically? They may or may not use the slate system but they elect local, regional and national representatives in some form. Those who are elected to lead the organisation make decisions about strategy that is supposed to be but not always informed by that organisations members. The important point about political organisation are the politics that inform it.

    To carry on a theme, if ,as has been suggested, the concept of reform and revolution are anachronistic during this period then we might as well ignore Marx and start again. If the point is the get rid of capitalism then if reform is going to work there needs to be evidence for this but all the evidence shows that ultimately reform, especially during this period, is the real anachronism as austerity in the West claws back (and much more) any gains made in the past. What are the autonomous movements arguing for? While the rhetoric may sound revolutionary the demands ultimately are for reforming the system.

    As revolutionaries how do we bridge that gap between demands for reform from a system that is viciously clawing them back and our ultimate goal of getting rid of capitalism? Of course we have to work with others who have reformist illusions but we also have a responsibility to continue the task of Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin in building a revolutionary current. Without a revolutionary organisation of some kind embedded in the class then what other way is there to influence struggle so that, at decisive moments like 1917, it transcends the limited demands of reformism?

    During the 90’s there was a lot of “end of history” rhetoric which now looks ridiculous in the context of the recent revolutions in the Middle East. Rather than this being a period in which reform and revolution are anachronistic the argument that they no longer apply is completely out of step with the volatile nature of capitalism at this conjuncture. Everything capitalism represents is a testimony of its barbarism as well as its progressive achievements. The one is part of a dialectical relationship with the other as Benjamin argues. We need to question whether reforming capitalism (if that’s even possible at this moment) will end or reduce this barbarism or whether it will allow it to continue.

    I have no faith in reform that’s why we need a revolutionary alternative while at the same time trying to build unity among the left. So far I have not heard or read any convincing alternative to a revolutionary party to keep revolutionary politics alive but I’ve read and heard plenty of reformist strategies that pose as new and novel but really perpetuate the illusions that Benjamin (among others) contested.

  2. “The principles of democratic centralism as a way of organising are used in many organisations such as TU’s”
    This is a simply incredible claim.
    Incidentally that I’m not saying anything new is something I take for granted. Its those who write articles like the above and responses like Colin’s who are saying something new.
    And understanding why that is strikes me as important. Michael Rosen’s questions are as usual deeply pertinent and largely unanswered.

  3. The most important thing for you Ray is for you to think that it’s all been settled and put back in the box. And you’ve proved that that’s what’s happened.

    Meanwhile, ‘out there’ people are experimenting with different forms: Stop the War, Counterfire, rs21, and so on. I didn’t think I needed to spell that out when deliberately ducking coming up with ideas of my own.

  4. As I stated, all sides engaged in numerous debates and presented written documents explaining their point of view and how to resolve the issue, including the CC.

    I don’t agree with the argument that the strategy and form of political organisation that became known as “Leninism” was an exception that suited the period and is now an anachronism. The difference between the Bolshevik party and it’s strategy pre and post Stalin has been discussed and debated extensively so simply equating the two is untenable. If the basis for legitimisation of a political strategy and form of organisation is its prevalence and success at any given period then social democracy would also be under scrutiny but it isn’t because it doesn’t advocate getting rid of capitalism and proposes a gradualist strategy of reform. The nub of the issue is not “Leninism” or something else – it’s reform or revolution. That’s as relevant today as it was in Lenin and Marx’s time.

    Concerning the truism that capitalism has changed, without an analysis of those changes and developing an appropriate practice and theory to address them, simply stating that truism isn’t very helpful in working out successful ways of organising politically.

  5. Ray, I wasn’t referring to the various oppositions’ explanations, I was referring to an official worked out final explanation. And of course the oppositions’ explanations and views were heard. They escaped. As you are acknowledging by coming to this site, one of the places they escaped to was here. Nice, isn’t it? It’s actually a ‘form of organisation’, being created by people talking to each other…not by a ‘me’ or a ‘you’. Perhaps, when you feel like it you’ll also apply the same criterion of ‘success’ that you applied to everyone else to post-1917 Leninism.

  6. Several points occur reading Phil Gasper’s piece and the discussion below. I will address just a few.

    I think ‘Leninism’ is superannuated – that post-war social developments completed the work of the violent break of fascism and Stalinism in the 1930s. When I say superannuated I mean in a quite specific way. I don’t mean all the problems ‘Leninism’ was supposed to address are no longer operative in the universe of late capitalism simply that some of its answers are anachronistic, some are partial and some are not relevant. But most of all there is a problem with the idea of ‘Leninism’ and the whole model as it was understood by the broad Trotskyist tradition that I will return to below.

    “There are many problems with the left but to understand them we have to understand more then the left. We have to understand the changes in the nature of the system and society we inhabit. Too often all this talk about Leninism is a substitute for this.”

    I could not agree more with johng’s sentiment here. I think it should be our touchstone. I think the ‘moment of Leninism’ rested on a profound working class challenge to the bourgeois order in Western, Central and Southern Europe during several years of acute crisis after 1917 that saw mass or near mass based Communist parties emerge. In other words, transcending capital’s horizons as a practical collective project was a real historical possibility. But the whole universe of the Third International (and the Second International) is long gone, entirely obliterated.

    Evidently this is not our situation. That is why we can’t proceed from “the actuality of the revolution” (Lukacs) as Colin W proposes in determining the sort of organisation socialists should be laying the foundations for in our present. We have been hurled back and regressed years. At one level our situation is more like the First International or even before though social and historical development never simply rolls back along the path it moved along. Ironically Lukacs coined the term “the actuality of the revolution” in 1924 shortly after Lenin’s death as an example of the Bolshevik leaders genius. Bear in mind that Lukacs sincere tribute to Lenin was part of the codification of ‘Leninism’ in the campaign to ‘Bolshevise’ the Communist parties and marginalise Trotsky and his supporters in the Russian party.

    In contrast to Lukacs’s quite abstract notion of “the actuality of the revolution”, Lenin had quite concrete conception of the nature of the epoch that underpinned the politics and strategic orientation of the Third International. This orientation sprang from Lenin’s attempts to understand the origins of the First World War and the Second International’s betrayal of proletarian internationalism in 1914. The war signalled the end of the epoch of the “organic growth” of capitalism. This period roughly 1870-1914 had also seen the relatively pacific growth of the labour movement when imperialist super profits had allowed labour bureaucracies to entrench themselves in the workers movement. Inter-imperialist slaughter meant the arrival of the epoch of wars, national liberation struggles and social revolution. Though proletarian victory was not inevitable, capitalism was in decline. The national accumulations that provided the “crumbs” for sustaining a privileged layer of workers would be progressively eroded thus undermining the possibility of reforms.

    Essentially this picture shaped the strategic conceptions of the early years of the Third International. Temporary stabilisations were possible as Trotsky argued, for example, pointing to the ebb tide of the spontaneous revolutionary offensive in 1921 at the Third International’s 3rd Congress when pressing the case for the United Front. But the dominant belief was that despite the complications of the split between Social Democracy and Communism the revolutionary offensive would soon be renewed. This basic idea of capitalism’s decadence was a red thread that could be traced from Lenin’s imperialism writings after 1914 to Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme. It represented a specific periodisation of capitalism.

    What Michael Kidron described as the IS’s “insights” in 1977 when he bid adieu to the tradition, represented responses to the novel post-war realities that orthodox Trotskyism refused to face. These were also a specific attempt to periodise capitalism anew – to face changed social and historical realities. We may argue how successful these “insights” were in explaining the post-war world of late capitalism but they did allow the IS a modest implantation in a militant working class with some sort of road map for breaking the grip of reformism based on shop floor rank and file struggle.

    Clearly neo-liberalism, globalisation, working class retreat and the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ has created a new terrain, new realities. Again we have to periodise capitalism and attempt to grasp the social world around us – a task that the IS/SWP signally failed to do for a variety of reasons.

    In this context I am tempted to argue that dichotomous arguments about reform or revolution are not very helpful or enlightening in helping us grasp our present situation. But that is because we need to refuse the sort of useless hobby horse fundamentalism or orthodoxy that is simply not serious about reconstructing a viable, serious revolutionary socialist politics.

    On the question of ‘Leninism’ – I think it was to a large degree a fable embraced by the second wave of Trotskyists in the early years of the Left Opposition that also called into existence something called ‘Trotskyism’ (originally a slander aimed at Trotsky and his supporters. As Al Richardson notes in ‘Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism’ “fake ‘Leninism’ and ‘Bolshevism'” was constructed by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin in the course of the inner party struggle that broke out shortly before Lenin’s death in January 1924. Lukacs’s Lenin brochure was an innocent part of that campaign. Richardson notes there were two waves of ‘Trotskyists’ in the 1920s. The first was a modest cohort, relatively shortlived like Max Eastman (US) and Arthur Reade (Britain) who were Trotsky’s early defenders but quickly fell away. The second wave were more proletarian and more rooted in their local Communist parties. This second wave became oppositionists during the period of the Joint Opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev) but had earlier been shaped by Zinoviev’s ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Communist parties in the mid 1920s as well as playing a part in excluding the first wave of ‘Trotskyists.’ This second wave would subsequently provide the backbone of ‘Trotskyism’ like James Cannon (an admirer of Zinoviev) and uncritically accepted Zinoviev’s codification of ‘Leninism’ during the years of the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Communist parties that aroused the opposition of leaders like Paul Levi in the German KPD.

    The early Left Opposition defended this new ‘orthodoxy’ of ‘Leninism’ and in doing so lost sight of the fact that there had been a wider European socialist, Social Democratic tradition in which many different currents had swam but which more importantly had embraced the overwhelming majority of the politically awakened working class.

  7. There are different articles that address different things. In the ISJ and the bulletins there were explanations from different groups about the way the allegations were handled. There were also articles in the ISJ and contributions in the bulletins about the relevance of Leninism in relation to other forms of political organisation.

    The debate about Leninism has been going on in various forms in the SWP since it was formed and long before in the IS and other left organisations. Apart from the bulletins, almost all this information is available online or in book form.

    There is also a tradition of debate about Leninism in SWP branch meetings and the meetings of other left organisations, debates at Marxism and other left events nationally and internationally. There is also Historical Materialism Journal and its yearly event to name but one academic arena of debate.

    The various faction meetings, websites, Facebook and twitter pages channelled a huge amount of debate about the allegations and about the relevance of Leninism. Various allegations were even published in the Daily Mail and the CPGB website.

    Regardless of whether I agree with some of the versions of events and allegations written about and discussed I don’t accept that this issue has been suppressed either in the SWP or generally. Even though I struggled to read every single contribution to the bulletins some of which had a large number of very long contributions about these issues I made the effort to get as many sides of the story as possible. Likewise, even though I agree with Callinicos on the relevance of Leninism I’ve spent a lot of time learning about alternative forms of political organisation.

    I don’t agree that debating forms of political organisation is up to others. Even those who claim not to have a standpoint on these issues actually do and in any debate it’s much more helpful to understand the roots of those ideas and the implications of applying them. Even if you don’t have an opinion others will and, as the debate over political organisation is ultimately a hegemonic struggle, those who sound convincing even when their strategy is full of contradictions, will take positions of influence. I saw this happen, for example, in a limited way while involved in the Occupy movement and Bank of Ideas, also during the Poll Tax campaign and numerous other struggles. Abstaining from taking a position, especially at decisive moments, is handing over control to others.

  8. “You know full well that these debates have been covered in great depth…”
    Yes I do. I also know – as do many people outside of your circles – that what is lacking is a full explanation for why and how what happened, happened. If you think you have at hand a full explanation of what happened could you please either state it or provide a link? Yes, other people have provided explanations. I’ve read some of those. In case you’re wondering, I thought Alex’s articles on the matter were not explanations. They were surveys of the contemporary radical left scene.

    I have explained why the matter of coming up with alternative structures is not down to me, nor should it be. It can only be worked out by groups of people in action.

    The matter of anonymity is serious. If you don’t think it is, you should say so. The matter of you participating in an open forum here but not being able to over at SW is also serious. I can see that you don’t think it is. So be it.

  9. Do you really think that by continually misrepresenting people you are “arguing” with that this encourages debate? You demand answers and when they’re not to your liking or they don’t cover every minute detail of your denunciations which are often utter fabrications posed for the umpteenth time you revert to all or nothing mode with more moralistic condemnations about cover ups and evasion. You know full well that these debates have been covered in great depth in SWP publications over the party’s history that are freely available on the internet and in bulletins that have been distributed to all members before every conference. Not to mention the various factions over the years who have had their own extensive offline (and more recently) online debates about these issues.

    Yet you, on the other hand, offer no comparative debate about alternatives to Leninism. If it has failed so badly, according to you, then surely the point is, in any debate about how to rebuild the left, you have to offer alternatives? You don’t appear to have any critical analysis of any of them. I doubt anyone is going to be any the wiser about the pros and cons of Leninism if all you do is run down the SWP. All the jibes about anonymity and whether the SWP (or other Left organisations) should have forums doesn’t address this.

  10. No, Ray. From your base in anonymity, it’s not simply questions about the SWP you repeatedly fail to answer. It’s also your sneers about any alternative or supposed lack of alternative to the SWP. You do this through repeatedly using success as the criterion. So down through the years, I and others have challenged you to explain or delineate the relative success of your (or other Leninist organisations). As I’ve asked you to do this several times, presumably you don’t want to answer that one. Sorted.

    As for simply telling me that the comparison is ‘specious’ between the ‘Minority Report’ of 1957 and what people have said about the SWP and other Leninist organisations – and indeed in terms of how the CPGB leadership behaved and how the SWP leadership behaved – this is just another old dodge. Label it, drop it. It enables you to ignore the textual similarities and hide behind the dogma you peddled about the comparison being ‘ahistorical’. Sorted.

    Then you typify me as ‘browbeating’. I guess you mean that I argue with you. I know this is distasteful for you. So be it. Sorted.

    Meanwhile, you’ve even got some cock and bull about why it’s OK to come here and talk (anonymously) about whatever you want to but why this should not be permitted on your organisation’s sites. Do you seriously think that anyone outside of your mates that anyone is convinced by this?

  11. Michael, I have answered your questions about democratic centralism, why the left hasn’t grown and sundry other ones in previous threads about Leninism on this blog. As have others. I had hoped this thread would turn into a debate about different forms of political organisation but you seem intent on turning any thread about Leninism into a rehash of mistakes made by the SWP. The crisis on the left (and among the movements) is so much more than that particular example. Your analogy between the CPGB and the SWP is specious as I’ve pointed out in the past. So you don’t get to set the agenda of this debate based on a false analogy even when you attempt to browbeat people who disagree with you.

  12. It is true that in recent years there has been a lot of banging on about “Leninism”in the SWP. Alex Callinicos argues that this is because Lenin is coming under attack from those that want to bury socialist ideas. To a certain extent this is true, but I think there is another reason why the Party intellectuals push a distorted version of Lenin’s politics, to attempt to cover up their political mistakes and retreats.

    When a few years ago Martin Smith talked about how is was good mates with Mark Serwotka, but he was mistaken to call off strike action he was departing from the political tradition under Tony Cliff. Cliff recognised that when Capitalism is in crisis there is little difference between the left and right of the trade union bureaucracy. He showed how in the 1926 General Strike, the “lefts” of Purcell, Hicks, Swales (and to a lesser extent AJ Cook) all supported the right wing of the TUC in selling out the workers. The key is pressure from below, the building of the rank and file, not acting as a ginger group to trade union left leaders. Of course this does not mean we just denounce all trade union leaders as the enemy, but it does mean at the appropriate times we explain to workers that these union leaders do not want an active rank and file that can challenge their authority.

    Lenin had very little to say about the trade union bureaucracy, because he had little experience of it. Under the Czar reformism was not permitted. So the slogan in the Petrograd soviet in 1905 was not “a fair days wage for a fair days work* but instead was “8 hours and a gun!”.

    So the repositioning of the SWP politics in a centrist direction is helped by arguing that Lenin is always the guide. Trotsky and Cliff had a lot to say about the bureaucracy in the unions in Britain, so they have to be labelled “out of date”.

    If you disagree with the Central Committee of the SWP you would be called “not a Leninist”. If you are critical of the trade union leaders you are “ultra-left”. The line that you have to accept what the “committee men” say, was completely alien to Lenin.

  13. This may seem incredible to you, Ray, but it’s not for me as an individual to come up with some alternative form of organisation. That’s for people acting together to figure that out. In the meantime, you’ll have noticed I’m sure that you always refuse to answer any questions that I put to you in reference to whatever it is you’ve claimed. So, going back over your posts, you’ll see that you’ve talked about e.g. success and failure of different forms of organisation. I therefore put to you a direct and concrete question about what you thought of this relative success and failure in reference to the organisation you seem to support. No answer forthcoming.

    Try your latest: you describe the weaknesses of the social media method of discussion, even though you clearly love it yourself. You seem to have an ideal in mind which you express as ‘a time or place where arguments can be expressed ‘more fully and are accountable for what they write’. First of all, I’m the non-anonymous one here. You’re the anonymous one. So I guess we don’t need lectures from you about accountability. Then, one of the criticisms levelled at democratic centralist organisations and the SWP of recent years is precisely that people have on occasions felt that they could NOT express what they thought, they said they were ‘bullied’ by full-time organisers (who, as with the CPGB in 1957) were (are?) heavily represented at the centre of the organisation, and that accountability is a serious issue in the organisation largely because to date, everything has been apologised for but no one is accountable for what was apologised for! Will you be answering that one?

    Yes, I did compare you to Gove for using the same silly method as he used which I’ve been yawning over since 1968. This is where in argument or discussion, the arguer (in this case you) takes time out to make what is thought to be a meaningful allusion to the organisation that one (in this case me) belongs to. In nine times out of ten occasions, this method is used, I don’t actually belong to the organisation being cited. Excuse me for yawning. Excuse me for finding parallels.

  14. I stand corrected but my question was an attempt to find out where you stand instead of reacting to your tactic of escalating confrontation by using absurd denunciations like the Michael Gove comparison. Usually a debate about most things, including political forms of organisation, occurs when one person puts forward their strategy and someone with a different strategy responds. This invariably involves supporting arguments for each strategy and a critique of other strategies including the opposing one being put forward in the debate.

    Of course, you are entitled to argue how you like but without putting forward an alternative to DC it’s very difficult to have a meaningful debate. I think this highlights one of the weaknesses of social media where the atomised, non-realtime and often politically anonymous nature of engagement makes it very easy to slip into ad hominem retorts rather than a much fuller discussion that might occur at a meeting or in a journal where the contributors are able to set out their argument more fully and are accountable for what they write.

    I don’t think it’s impossible to have fraternal debates on social media but judging by the way individuals have conducted themselves on various left blogs (including myself at times) that rarely happens. These social media debates often escalate until someone is compared to Hitler and then it’s game over. So I’ll content myself that you’ve only compared me to a dogmatic philistine like Gove and await your response.

  15. I’m not a ‘member’ of Left Unity. I gave support when it was set up as it seemed like a possible umbrella organisation for the left. That’s the first and last thing I did for them or with them. The ‘you’re a member of that lot’ way of arguing is interesting. The last person who did that to me was Michael Gove. Rock on.

  16. Democratic centralism and the slate system can be democratic despite what you claim. This debate has been had many times in SWP publications with those who disagree with Lenin and the Bolsheviks for what ever reason. These journals are edited and are not open access just like virtually all other left publications including those of Left Unity of which you are a member? No doubt Left Unity’s website is edited and not open access either. Just because you don’t agree with DC or can find examples of where it hasn’t worked for obvious political reasons, such as Stalinism, doesn’t make it automatically undemocratic. This is a political issue not simply one about forms of organisation as you would have it.

    Sadly, you can never resist resorting to silly, spiteful slurs like calling people “sheepdogs” when they disagree with your very particular concept of democratic organisation. Your denunciatory method of debate has more in common with the period you use as testimony for DC’s failings then the democratic way you claim we should all uphold. Your concern about democratic forms of organisation seems really disingenuous when you have nothing critical to say about the ones you like. In all the posts you’ve made about this subject on this forum, not once have you questioned other forms of organisation which will clearly need to replace DC if it is, as you claim, untenable. So it does follow that to have a critical political debate about forms of organisation we need to contrast and compare them.

    Yes I use social media. I also text and still send letters. In what way does that discredit any of my criticisms about it? I also don’t share your cavalier attitude to personal information.

  17. I have re-printed Ray’s previous with comments in caps throughout that post:

    The principles of democratic centralism as a way of organising are used in many organisations such as TU’s so a judgement as to whether they’re democratic depends on the specific circumstances of their application.

    THIS IS PRECISELY WHAT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN DOING FOR THE LAST 50 YEARS AND IT’S PRECISELY WHY PEOPLE KEEP FINDING ITS SPECIFICS UNSATISFACTORY. SO FOR EXAMPLE WHERE HILL ET AL FOUND THE ‘PANEL’ A METHOD THAT DISCOURAGED DEMOCRACY IN THE CPGB, WE FIND THE SWP CONTINUING IT WITH THE ‘SLATE’.

    It’s always a political question rather than simply organisational. As far as revolutionary organisations as opposed to reactionary Stalinist ones are concerned (which are bureaucratic reformist in nature) I think revolutionary organisations have a good record in terms of championing the oppressed and organising among the rank and file.

    WELL, SO IT WOULD HAVE SEEMED UP UNTIL THE ORGANISATION ITSELF WAS BEING ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW TO HANDLE AN EXAMPLE OF ALLEGED OPPRESSION WITHIN ITS OWN ORGANISATION. APPEALING TO A REAL OR MYTHIC ‘PAST RECORD’ IS NEITHER HERE NOR THERE.

    A much better record than reformist organisations which often have democratic centralist forms of organisation but are anything but democratic.
    SO WHAT? THE ISSUE IS WHETHER THE SWP LIVED UP TO ITS OWN STANDARDS.

    A critique of autonomist movements has to go hand in hand with a critique of the ideology that’s used to promote these so-called “new” forms of organisation. The origin of current horizontal theories of organisation owes a great deal to Foucault’s “biopolitics” and Deleuzian “nomadism” which in practice are anything but democratic. These ideas were influenced by pseudo-sciences such as systems theory and cybernetics which have been utterly discredited when applied to social organisation. But when revolutionaries point out the contradictions in these theories and the long history of anarchism that underpins them a convenient amnesia appears to manifest among those who promote them.

    NOT SURE WHY LENGTHY AND ELABORATE REFUTATIONS OF THE THEORY ACTUALLY OR SUPPOSEDLY UNDERPINNING AUTONOMISM LEAVES THE FIELD OPEN TO SAYING THE DC IS THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE. THAT’S A NON-SEQUITUR.

    While Facebook, a multinational corporation for profit that shares information with the secret services of many states, may offer a space for revolutionaries to discuss ideas, it doesn’t replace face to face contact.
    NOT BUT IT DOES ACTUALLY DO WHAT YOU JUST SAID IT DID…IE PROVIDE A SPACE FOR DISCUSSION OF IDEAS! CLEARLY SOMETHING THAT IS NOT ALLOWED OVER AT ISJ AND SW. MODERATION IS THE SIMPLEST WAY TO WEED OUT THE NUTTERS AND RACISTS.

    Despite the US and Chinese governments being given access to user information, many SWP members are on Facebook and use Twitter so the argument that there is a blanket rejection of social media is nonsense.
    NO ONE SAID IT WAS ‘BLANKET REJECTION’ . CHRISTIAN SAID IT WAS CONTRADICTORY WITH SW MEMBERS ARGUING ALL OVER THE INTERNET BUT NOT ALLOWED TO ON ITS OWN WEBSITE. EITHER YOU KNOW THAT OR YOU’RE JUST TRYING TO PUT UP A SMOKESCREEN. (DO YOU EVER WONDER WHY YOU ARE SO UNCONVINCING?0

    I wonder how many members of a revolutionary organisation would be happy to have their details held in that organisations Facebook account for example?
    TOO LATE. EVERYTHING IS KNOWN EVERYWHERE.

    A reliance on social media to conduct debate is very one sided and ultimately undemocratic not only because it requires access to online resources that not everyone posesses but because it’s very easy to exclude people from these debates and regulate any discussion that doesn’t fit a particular political remit.
    THEN WHY ARE YOU HERE ARGUING ABOUT IT ALL?

    It’s important to acknowledge that almost 90% of individual traffic to news sites on the internet is to a small number of huge commercial news conglomerates. Independent news on the internet is shrinking not growing despite claims of a twitter revolution.
    THANKS FOR THE INFORMATION.

    I see little point in opening blogs or Facebook pages when they invariably either receive little participation like this one (unless it’s attacking the SWP or questioning revolutionary socialism) or they become targets for reactionaries and sectarians which I assume would be the case with UAF or the SWP. When there are few resources spread over a range of interventions I think it’s false economy to employ full time moderators to maintain a forum that becomes a target for those who are intent on disruption rather than debate. But never say never, eh?
    WELL, I DON’T SUPPOSE THE DECISION TO BAN COMMENTS OVER AT SW IS DOWN TO YOU, IS IT? SO YOU’RE JUST BEING THE SHEEPDOG HERE, JUSTIFYING WHAT THE LEADERSHIP HAS DONE, WHILST COMING AND HERE AND USING THE INTERNET AND COMMENTS COLUMNS THAT ARE ‘ALLOWED’.

  18. The principles of democratic centralism as a way of organising are used in many organisations such as TU’s so a judgement as to whether they’re democratic depends on the specific circumstances of their application. It’s always a political question rather than simply organisational. As far as revolutionary organisations as opposed to reactionary Stalinist ones are concerned (which are bureaucratic reformist in nature) I think revolutionary organisations have a good record in terms of championing the oppressed and organising among the rank and file. A much better record than reformist organisations which often have democratic centralist forms of organisation but are anything but democratic.

    A critique of autonomist movements has to go hand in hand with a critique of the ideology that’s used to promote these so-called “new” forms of organisation. The origin of current horizontal theories of organisation owes a great deal to Foucault’s “biopolitics” and Deleuzian “nomadism” which in practice are anything but democratic. These ideas were influenced by pseudo-sciences such as systems theory and cybernetics which have been utterly discredited when applied to social organisation. But when revolutionaries point out the contradictions in these theories and the long history of anarchism that underpins them a convenient amnesia appears to manifest among those who promote them.

    While Facebook, a multinational corporation for profit that shares information with the secret services of many states, may offer a space for revolutionaries to discuss ideas, it doesn’t replace face to face contact. Despite the US and Chinese governments being given access to user information, many SWP members are on Facebook and use Twitter so the argument that there is a blanket rejection of social media is nonsense. I wonder how many members of a revolutionary organisation would be happy to have their details held in that organisations Facebook account for example? A reliance on social media to conduct debate is very one sided and ultimately undemocratic not only because it requires access to online resources that not everyone posesses but because it’s very easy to exclude people from these debates and regulate any discussion that doesn’t fit a particular political remit. It’s important to acknowledge that almost 90% of individual traffic to news sites on the internet is to a small number of huge commercial news conglomerates. Independent news on the internet is shrinking not growing despite claims of a twitter revolution.

    I see little point in opening blogs or Facebook pages when they invariably either receive little participation like this one (unless it’s attacking the SWP or questioning revolutionary socialism) or they become targets for reactionaries and sectarians which I assume would be the case with UAF or the SWP. When there are few resources spread over a range of interventions I think it’s false economy to employ full time moderators to maintain a forum that becomes a target for those who are intent on disruption rather than debate. But never say never, eh?

  19. Christian writes:

    “And it is with great irony and frustration that I enjoy reading all the comments here, and contributing to them, while realizing that the International Socialist Review itself (and Socialist Worker) refuses to put comments sections beneath its articles- which is something almost every news site of every political persuasion has figured out how to do.”

    The Minority Report on the CPGB from 1957 wrote:

    “‘Since the Twentieth Congress there have been many complaints about the handling of discussion in the ‘Daily Worker’, particularly of the refusal of the editor to publish correspondence on various subjects at different times, or correspondence from groups of readers on the ground that a number of signatures to a letter constitutes a “faction”.’ (p.52)

    ‘We cannot expect the Party to win a mass membership of workers or intellectuals, on the basis of a proscribed list of forbidden literature, with freedom of expression limited to an occasional contribution to the Party press.’ (p.53)

  20. Ray, you used the phrase ” past experience shows that it doesn’t work.” applied to left reformism and autonomism. Can you tell us how that phrase does or does not apply to democratic centralism since 1917?

  21. I like this article. I completely agree with Duncan Hallas, and Phil Gasper, editorial board member of the International Socialist Review, that “Internal democracy is not an optional extra.” And it is with great irony and frustration that I enjoy reading all the comments here, and contributing to them, while realizing that the International Socialist Review itself (and Socialist Worker) refuses to put comments sections beneath its articles- which is something almost every news site of every political persuasion has figured out how to do.

    You get more horizontal communication between rank and file socialists on the privacy-invading, megacorporation Facebook than you do in most of the existing “socialist” groups today. That needs to change, if we really want our “tribunes of the oppressed” to be sites of serious intellectual engagement.

    It was there I thought of the following comment, which I will paste in here as my $0.02 as someone who spent a lot of time thinking about and working through the issue raised by this article:

    I think the basic idea of Leninism is that there is an objective social fact called ‘the vanguard’, which waxes and wanes in size, confidence, and political engagement, and is made up of the most militant, angry, creative, curious, compassionate, and able leaders of working people. The idea is you get them in a party, talking to each other, reading books, studying the world, and coordinating the best ways they figure out to do things. When objective situations get a lot of people angry and interested in changing the world, the influence of this leadership network is of decisive significance.

    I suspect that this idea only works if you have a high level of internal democracy and transparency. The strength of the idea, in my understanding of it, comes from the ability of the organization to draw on the thoughts and opinions, knowledge and experience of a diffuse network of leaders, who have a grass roots perspective on the reality and possibilities of working class struggle. If you don’t have that level of rank and file control and democracy, you get leaders becoming out of touch, dreaming up task they send followers to do which don’t connect with the audience and wind up leaving them demoralized.

    My understanding of the problems of Leninism is that instead of the above scenario happening, you frequently get incumbent leaders forming who train grassroots activists to always look to ‘the center’ for the right way to do things. People joining the group learn that new ideas aren’t welcome, and the only way to be a revolutionary is to do whatever a small group of self proclaimed leaders who have run the same organization for decades think is a good idea.

    Of course people who are self sacrificing dreamers and fighters for a more empowered humanity get naturally repelled at that way of doing things, and soon leave.

    Either that is what is good and problematic about applied Leninism (and I look forward to being a part of doing it right!), or after being in the ISO for 8 years and reading shelves of Cliff, Lenin, and Trotsky I still have no idea what Leninism is. In the latter case I suspect Leninism must indeed be so complex and mysterious a philosophy that decades of study must be necessary to grasp it.

  22. I’d say the Russian Revolution was 10/10 but as Sparky points out it failed to spread because there wasn’t an established revolutionary organisation in Germany at the opportune moment. This led to isolation for the Bolsheviks which facilitated the rise of Stalinism. But as Walter Benjamin expresses in his Concept of History, Stalinism was just one outcome in a range of potentialities. Revolutionary organisation does not automatically equate to undemocratic practice just as autonomist movements are not automatically democratic.

    Reformism, on the other hand, has failed miserably, to such an extent that social democratic parties now don’t even dare to propose it and parrot market canards. Workers are now poorer than they were in the 70’s and the gap between rich and poor is even greater. 18 of those years since the 70’s had Labour governments!

    If there are alternatives to revolution or reformism (of which autonomism is a variant) I’d like to know what they are because, rather than offering any new theoretical or concrete alternatives the autonomists and left reformists, who hope to co-opt them, are offering reheated ideas from the past. Nothing wrong in that when it works in practice but let’s not make a virtue out of the new when past experience shows that it doesn’t work. When revolutionaries refer to the past they’re accused of being anachronistic but when autonomists or left reformists do it it’s called blue sky thinking. The only reason for this is because they don’t or won’t acknowledge the precedents for their ideas and they don’t like being reminded by revolutionaries that they owe a debt to those who developed the foundations of their ideas and practice.

  23. Lenin has a head start on alternative revolutionary theories because he led a successful revolution, albeit he recognised that a genuine Socialist society could only be formed if it spread to the more advanced countries like Germany.
    When an organisation like the SWP abandons it’s belief in the Centrality of the working class, it is the responsibility of the intellectual leadership of that organisation. Lenin cannot be blamed for the mistakes of the CC.

  24. On my way through London this morning, the phrase ‘false dichotomy’ keeps surfacing. I can’t be the only one to think that ‘autonomous movements’ and ‘democratic centralism as practised by the organisation beloved of Ray B’ are the only alternatives available to worldwide humanity. Do these two forms represent the only ones?

  25. Conceiving of revolutionary organisation on a wider basis is fine. That isn’t new or novel and had been happening before the concept of Leninism even existed. But there is a difference between that debate and one that dismisses democratic centralism out of hand – often because it conflicts with the agenda of other political currents such as reformism.

    The revolutionary tradition would have been dealt a blow if Trotsky hadn’t endeavoured to carry it on even at midnight in the century. Despite having Stalinists pitted against him and hostility from the West he campaigned against the revolutionary tradition being appropriated by Stalinism while at the same time defending it from reactionaries who wanted to discredit it. We owe him a debt which is why I think it’s important that alternative forms of organisation are tested in practice.

    The evidence in the last couple of decades is that autonomous movements do not have the capacity to sustain themselves or develop a revolutionary strategy. Without the influence of a revolutionary organisation I seriously doubt they will ever offer a serious challenge to capitalism.

  26. Ray I think Lenin himself would not have enjoyed a defence like that: I keep coming back in my mind to passage in that much misused passage in “what is to be done?” where Lenin talks about how real worker militants aren’t concerned with labels. The notion that reality has failed Leninism is much more unLeninist then the notion that just perhaps the revolutionary tradition needs to concieve of itself as a bit wider then Leninism. Which in reality most of those indulging in what strike me as ludicrously defensive and conservative arguments actually do anyway: Rosa Luxemberg would never at any point have described herself as a Leninist. Those who do describe themselves as Leninists but arn’t labouring under Stalinist delusions would never describe Luxemberg as anything but a revolutionary. For whatever reason many in this debate are really doing a disservice to themselves. Which is something that saddens me more then anything else.

  27. Interesting to note that apart from parliamentarianism, not mentioning the Holocaust and wearing suits the far Right has barely modified any of its organisational forms and is growing rapidly in Europe even where adopting the overt tactics and aesthetics of the Nazis. The racist popularism of UKIP seems not to be hindered by their very traditional parliamentary form of organisation. Could this be because 30 years of neoliberalism and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’ has exponentially increased the space for rule and divide politics among the general population and to some extent, workers, leading to the scapegoating of minorities rather than the failure of Leninism?

    As for the undemocratic nature of the SWP when did this happen? When it became the SWP as IS claim, when we initially took the wrong position on the miners strike and poll tax campaign, during the SA or Respect period, when Cliff died or recently and even if this had an impact on the left in the UK why has the left across Europe failed to grow apart from in Greece? Could this have anything to do with the betrayal of the social democratic parties rather than Leninsim?

    The radical populist movements like Occupy appear spontaneously and last a year if they are lucky. I was involved with the Bank of Ideas and it was very easy for the Tories to shut this down. They even went to the extent of bulldozing the school it moved to after being kicked out of Finsbury Sq. If the autonomous model is the way forward then how can it be sustained and move toward a revolutionary direction? There is no meaningful strategy among the left being devised to sustain these movements. The referendum in Scotland shows the power of radical popularism but the real divide among the left in the UK, left reformism, reared its head there when socialists campaigned alongside Labour and the Tories. While these significant political divisions exist within the left and until we can find some way to work together it makes little difference whether revolutionaries denounce Lenin, wear party hats or dance around the may pole.

  28. Did the SWP really grow to 10,000 members? (I was a member during this period and I have my doubts). In any case the post-68 Leninist left does appear to have confronted a glass ceiling: it could get so big and no bigger. By the early noughties I have serious doubts whether any senior party members really believed in a mass Leninist party anymore. How much any of this has to do with universal laws about the conservatism of committee men and Lenin’s struggle to use the middle levels against the upper levels..again I have my doubts. All this seems to be a kind of ready made theology which could be used at any time and in any place about almost anything. Do we really believe anymore that younger comrades are going to buy into any of this? The post-68 left played a real function: it grouped together militants to the left of Labour (and the left of the CP). In that sense it was a living current with a real if tenuous relationship with a section of the class. This is no longer true. Hence the degeneration. There are many problems with the left but to understand them we have to understand more then the left. We have to understand the changes in the nature of the system and society we inhabit. Too often all this talk about Leninism is a substitute for this.

  29. Seems a bit strong to blame Lenin for the break up of the International Socialist Tendency!
    Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is definitely a bad idea.
    The covering up of sexual crimes goes together with a top down secretive organisation, with an abandonment of the aim of a Party of leaders.
    I can remember when I joined back in 1984 debate in the SWP was welcome. At the time I was not a very confident member and did not read very much. But still I was pushed to be a speaker at meetings. In discussion with other RS21 members I was reminded in years gone by, oppression of women was taken far more seriously. Any male who was believed to use violence against women was asked to leave.
    Of course it was not a perfect Socialist Island in a sea of Capitalism, but the degeneration of the organisation has been a gradual process.

    It has been an extremely difficult period for Socialists for decades, but that did not stop the IS/SWP growing from nothing to 10,000 members. (They did this while the rest of the left shrunk in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism). The few good years of 1968 and after I am too young to remember personally. It was not pre-ordained that the organisation would suddenly go into terminal crisis.

    As Cliff wrote about Lenin, at sharp turning points he relied on the lower strata of the Party machine against the higher, or the rank and file against the machine as a whole. A conservatism always arises amongst the “committee men”. Leading members become set in there ways, become used to operating in certain ways. When the major political mistakes were made, there was not a Lenin to correct them, nobody to be the voice of the revolutionary class.

    When the leadership of the SWP hid the political differences/disagreements in the movements, hid the arguments on the central committee and abandoned Tony Cliff’s analysis of the trade union bureaucracy in a Capitalist crisis they dug a grave for the organisation.

    Lenin showed the importance of the revolutionary party – with Capitalism in crisis, with have to build a new one.

  30. I suspect Michael that much of this was ad hocary (and some of it was well intentioned ad hocary). But I also think for anyone serious reading through your summation of the 1956 debate there are some really serious questions that are inevitably raised. First of all whilst Trots would have supported the minority against the executive many would not have had significant differences with the executives definition of democratic centralism. In fact it was the IS who would have originally picked up those who did (they didn’t pick up many which is one of the tragedies at the time: people will tend to go with what is closest to which they’re familiar: in this case very unfortunately Gerry Healy’s organisation).

    Now one ‘orthodox’ response to this is that the CP managed in later years to combine a relatively more liberal take on Democratic Centralism with wholly more rotten politics. I wholly accept this. But comrades. The fact that today forty years later with all of the water under the bridge, that some comrades are still defending a version of democratic centralism *indistinguishable* from that associated wth the CP of 1956: this is a horror. A real horror. Especially for anyone familiar with the contours of contemporary movements. Its simply indefensible. And comrades are better then this (I still believe they are). They need to think very seriously about the implications of what they’re saying.

    There is a massive (and global) crisis of the post-68 Leninist left. What matters is not the fact that there is a crisis but how we approach it. Simply regurgitating old ad hoc arguments from the 1970s (when to be honest we got some of it wrong: check Sue Sparks contribution) is not good enough. Be a bit braver. Be a bit bolder. Please. We’re in a bad enough mess that the responses have to be a bit more serious then they are at present.

  31. I don’t see where the dogmatics is in the article. It doesn’t argue that we should build a micro-party now, only that we can learn something from history about what it will take eventually to make a revolution. The discussion in the comments about appropriate organizational forms in the present and what we can learn from the history of non-revolutionary times is good and important, but I’m not sure it’s fair to demand all these questions be taken up at once.

  32. “Phhil Gasper, can you honestly think of any reason at all why anyone inside the SWP, anyone who is an ex-member or anyone who has been sympathetic to the SWP who might possibly for any general or specific reason find that the SWP has not managed to live up to the idea that:

    “there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.” (as you quote it)”

    The ISO, the US version of the SWP until 1999, has not lived up to it either. Look at the vile and disgusting way that they treated the Renewal Faction. Look at the numerous sexual assaults that Ahmed Shawki knew about and kept from membership. When North Star reported on this in the early summer, ISO members did not even try to find out what Ahmed knew because they take everything that leadership says at face value.

    Goodbye Lenin!

  33. Is it well documented and minuted what Cliff et al said in order to metamorphose IS into SWP? Has anyone gone through this with a fine-tooth comb in order to critique it? Did anyone at that time refer to anything other than Lenin? Did anyone refer to other parties that had tried democratic centralism and in so doing suggest why and how this brand new version was going to be different? Did anyone refer to previous critiques of post-Lenin experiments with democratic centralism e.g. the Minority Report of 1957 – or any others. After all, let’s not get too bloody fancy about all this. All we’re talking about is bunches of people trying to figure out the best ways to move from towards and achieve socialism. No one is a god. No one is permanently, essentially, incontrovertibly right. Indeed anyone who takes up that attitude to someone else is probably tying themselves into a knot of wrongness anyway.

  34. It’s downright mind-boggling that a member of the International Socialist Organization — an organization that is virtually devoid of internal democracy — would have the audacity to appropriate the following quote from Duncan Hallas:

    “[U]nless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

  35. The difficulty Colin is that whilst no-one would dispute that we need co-ordination in the class struggle. this rather begs the question of what kind of co-ordination? (it is after all hardly the case that Leninism is the only form of co-ordination that has ever existed-without getting into the in’s and out’s of what it actually meant and when). It’s also true that what being a revolutionary means today might be profitably discussed, given the number of movements and currents that have existed since the Russian revolutionary tradition made its impact on the rest of the world in the 1920s. Is it the case that, for example, anyone who doesn’t see themselves as standing in the Bolshevik tradition can’t logically be a revolutionary? Surely not-even in the early comintern people didn’t believe this. Its also true that the problem of putting off questions of revolution and reform can cut both ways-an endless deferral of what forms of organisation we need today for a form appropriate in the (how?) distant future not only divides our theory from our practice (in ways not unfamiliar to students of the second international) but ignores most of the very pertinent points Ian actually made in his interesting article. As Sue Sparks pointed out the idea of Leninism as a key shibboleth is not one which was charecteristic of the IS tradition until (relatively) recently: it does seem to me to be increasingly associated with a kind of totemism rather then that most Leninist of things concrete analyses of concrete situations and the tasks that flow out of them.

  36. There’s a bigger problem here than the recent crises in the SWP. Let’s assume for the moment – although I think this is actually true – that the IS/SWP interpretation of ‘Leninism’ corresponds most accurately to Lenin’s thought (or at least his thought at certain periods in his career). Why then have groups in this tradition failed to build revolutionary parties of any size across a range of different countries, in quite different conditions? Let’s further assume – and again, I think this is true – that it would have been impossible during the Great Boom. But why not in the period 1968-1975, when there was a global revolutionary upheaval? Well, lets say that the groups were too small at the beginning of the period to grow sufficiently before the period was brought to an end by a series of defeats, and the dominance of Stalinism and Social Democracy is obviously an important factor in this outcome. I think there’s a good deal of truth in this explanation also, although parties – not least the Bolshevik party in 1917 – have been known to grow rapidly in revolutionary situations. But since then we’ve had two great economic crises, the collapse of Stalinism, the abandonment of the most basic reformist aspirations by Social Democracy, levels of inequality unknown in the West since the mid-19th century – and the revolutionary left still has not only not grown, but is more fragmented, more weak than at any time since the early 1960s. If revolutionaries can’t grow in these conditions, then three possible explanations suggest themselves. One might be that revolutionaries haven’t been working hard enough or selling enough papers, but I’m not even going to treat this as worthy of comment. A second might be that revolutionary socialism is a utopian fantasy: Marx’s claims were a hypothesis which has now been falsified. I think this is a much more serious argument than comrades are usually prepared to admit (although Trotsky was prepared to countenance it),but I nevertheless don’t agree with it. Third…maybe the organisation forms (‘Leninism’), and the strategies that tend to be associated with them, are simply inappropriate, inadequate to our time, whatever might have been the case in the 1920s, and have to be thought anew. This does not mean abandoning all positions associated with Lenin (the need to destroy the bourgeois state, the contradictory nature of working class consciousness, etc) – its simply to accept that the answers cannot all be found in what was done or written 100 years ago. Otherwise, what is the explanation for the failure of revolutionary politics qua revolutionary politics (i.e. not as revolutionaries being ‘the best reformists’)? It can’t simply be ‘bad objective conditions’ – because if these aren’t ‘good objective conditions’, then what would be?

  37. I assume that we stand in the tradition of the October revolution – for example, its mass involvement and democracy, its important attacks on racism and women’s oppression. And I assume we acknowledge that the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, played a key role. So the question is, what can we learn from their complex historical experience that is useful today? Nobody has successfully built a mass revolutionary current in Britain in the last forty years, so no one can say dogmatically that their position is right: it’s an open question. Which bits of Lenin are still valid and useful, which bits are out of date after a hundred years and in a very different country?
    On the one hand, we have to reject some current versions of “democratic centralism” as currently practised. The SWP used a bureaucratic version of it in a very destructive way during the faction fight. Part of the issue, as Sue Sparks mentioned, is that the SWP hasn’t always been like this. Members have told me that in the early 70s lots of people joined who had led strikes at work: they were confident to disagree with the leadership. Now an older and demoralised membership looks more for reassurance. It’s about the decline in struggle as much as the internal regime.
    On the other hand, it seems clear that we need coordination. The referendum in Scotland showed clearly that the ruling class coordinate their side, so we need to coordinate ours, and have structures so that we can democratically decide what to prioritise. And those decisions have to be based on a clear understanding that we are revolutionaries. I take a different approach from some groups, such as Socialist Resistance, which say that questions like revolution or reform can be put off to another day. It seems to me that you can only start to build a political current if you agree on some things – not everything – and the “actuality of the revolution” is one of those. So some key aspects of Lenin remain important.

  38. At the risk of being like those poor old folks who repeat over and over again the same story, here is my summary of the ‘Minority Report’ and its critique of the CPGB in 1957
    (authors, Christopher Hill, Peter Cadogan and Malcolm McEwen)

    ‘…the unity of the Party has rested too often on an uncritical acceptance of a “line” handed down from above. This is never likely to be the case again; [Oh really? M.R.] the Party has to find a new way to ensure unity in action.’ (p.47)

    Further on ‘iron discipline’ the Minority suggests that it ‘might be possible in a small party of professional revolutionaries, but it is unobtainable in a mass party such as we hope to build, and it is unrealisable in practice in our conditions.’ (p.48)

    ‘We do not think that members of the Party should carry on a campaign against every decision with which they disagree.’ (p.48)

    ‘[Not] every member can be expected to fight for a policy to which he is deeply opposed on principle, such as the Executive Committee’s statements on the Twentieth Congress fo the CPSU or on the Soviet intervention in Hungary.’ (p.48)

    ‘How can it be suggested that Party members, who have publicly expressed their disagreement with the Party Policy on Hungary have a duty to support that policy in their trade union branch?’ (p.48)

    ‘One reason why Communists are suspected of being dishonest is because they sometimes appear to be putting over a “line” in which they have no sincere belief. And this is actually acclaimed as a virtue by the majority of the Commission, which fails to see the damaging blow that this strikes at the integrity and reputation of Communists and of the Communist Party, particularly when the “line” changes overnight, and Party members are expected to argue the reverse of what they were saying the day before. (p.49)

    ‘If the leadership of the Party is honest and true to principle, if it tells the members the whole truth, or all it knows, about the situation, if by its record it earns the respect, affection and loyalty of the Party membership, if it refrains from using its control of the Party machine and press to smack down those who are seeking for information or expressing honest criticism then in critical siutations where it has to take quick decisions and appeal for a quick response, the response will be given instantly, unanimously and enthusiastically – particularly of the leadership is always ready to look at the decisions again in the light of the results, and to lay bare any mistakes that have been made. But insistence on the duty automatically to accept and fight for policies in which there is no confidence, can only have bad results.’ (p.49)

    On p. 50 they talk of the famous Pollitt and Campbell affair at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Pollitt and Campbell didn’t support the CPGB’s policy on not supporting the War.

    ‘Since the Twentieth Congress there have been many complaints about the handling of discussion in the ‘Daily Worker’, particularly of the refusal of the editor to publish correspondence on various subjects at different times, or correspondence from groups of readers on the ground that a number of signatures to a letter constitutes a “faction”.’ (p.52)

    ‘…when the Party extends its control to the entire press, all independent political publication comes to an end, and the press becomes in politics at least a gramophone sounding the official Party policy.’ (p.53)

    ‘We cannot expect the Party to win a mass membership of workers or intellectuals, on the basis of a proscribed list of forbidden literature, with freedom of expression limited to an occasional contribution to the Party press.’ (p.53)

    Under the section ‘Methods of Election’, (p.54-58) the Minority proposed an end to the ‘panel’ system, citing examples of lack of information about the candidates on the panel who members were voting for.

    In this section, there is a critique of the ‘Political Committee’: one of the members of the Minority tried and failed to get info on how the Political Committee of the Party arrived at picking the panel up for election. The Political Committee, they say, ‘consists of the full-time Party leadership, and this appears to have the biggest voice in the selection…we gathered the impression that in the course of the preparation of the Political Committee’s list there are confidential discussions between the General Secretary of the Party and individual members of the retiring Executive Committee on whether they should, or should not, stand again.” (pp54-55)

    There follow recommendations about altering the composition of the Executive in terms of full-timers, representatives of the districts who would ‘be known to those who elect them’. (p.57)

    Then, under ‘Pre-Congress Discussion’ (pp.58-60):

    ‘The major conflict [in the Party], as it is disclosed by the correspondence in the Party press and the discussion at aggregate meetings, concerns the relations between the British Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A growing minority believe that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee to Soviet policy divides, discredits and isolates the Part, identifies Communism in the minds of British people with the denial of personal freedom and with certain indefensible policies, and renders ineffective the Party’s efforts to combat anti-Soviet tendencies.’ (pp58-59)

    Also on p.59 is an account of Malcolm McEwen (one of the Minority) being forbidden to speak ‘outside his own branch’. On p. 60, there is the recommendation that the policy of preventing members from speaking to other branches should be discontinued, the ‘Party press’ should open its columns to controversy and allow it to be circulated.

  39. Perhaps others will dispute my memories but I think the notion of those of us in IS/SWP defining ourselves mainly as Leninist crept up on us, along with the idea that we should adopt democratic centralism. I don’t mean we found no value in Lenin’s writings, but I remember most people being more than happy with the idea that say, State and Revolution had a lot to offer, but What is to be Done was far more problematic and Imperialism the Highest Stage was largely wrong. There was simply no dogmatic attachment to Lenin or Leninist forms of organisation in my early years in IS. Asked to describe ourselves, we would say, revolutionary socialists, or revolutionary socialist internationalists. I think that ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism’ and ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself’ would have been the most resonant defining characteristics of our politics. They remain so today for me, even if Moscow has changed a bit – for me those two things are two sides of the same, anti-substitutionist, self-activity coin of the politics we stood for – no-one else, no party, no elite, no regime somewhere else in the world, is going to achieve socialism on behalf of the working class. But equally, we certainly did not resist enough the later imposition of ‘Leninism’, especially the model of the Leninist party, and I suppose it was because we hadn’t formulated a clear alternative. I’m aware that using ‘we’ here is a bit problematic – I mean the people I saw as comrades with the same politics as me, embodying the organisation I thought I’d joined. (Quite possibly lots of other people will say, I don’t recognise that, I always thought I was a member of a rock hard Leninist party). So in a way, back to the drawing board, since although things have changed a great deal in the long years of defeats, I don’t actually think the Leninist party fitted 1972 much better than it fits 2014.

  40. Final bite at the apple: What’s disapointing is that Ahmed Shawki did in fact recognise some of this problem in a talk he gave a few years back (I remember it made me think quite hard at the time). Briefly summarising how I took his remarks: The internegum has in fact not been an internegum but is now a longer historical period then the long boom or indeed the inter-war period. 1968 is today coming up to being as long ago for us as the 1920s were for them (sobering thought huh?).

    Its why I’ve been much taken with the idea that we should stop waiting for times that will justify our theory and start working a bit harder on theories that fit our times.

  41. The other interesting thing about these dogmatic defences called forth by Ian’s article is that there is an endless deferral going on. Our politics is ultimately not to be linked to our practice. The times are not right for Leninism (there have been defeats, the working class is on the defensive, there is no clearly identifiable vanguard), we are not the finished product-BUT-at some undefined point in the future the time will be right etc: But what about now? What form of organisation is suitable for now? How can you have a politics based entirely around a loyalty to an organisational project that is for the moment utopian. And which has apparently been utopian ever since 1923? Its becoming more and more incoherent.

    Ian’s version of deferral is at least coherent in that he, quite properly, leaves to the future the tasks of the future, and tries to talk about our tasks today (ie rebuilding a revolutionary left). This task is not helped at all by this kind of talismatic obsession with Leninism-it is no longer the case-and has not been for a very long time-that you can tell much about someone’s politics by whether or not they call themselves Leninists. It is an artificial way to make judgements about peoples politics and a barrier not only towards possible unity but also theoretical clarity.

    In the 1940s the Trotskyist movement went into deep crisis and the best sections of it recognised that the ‘Bolshevik-Leninist era’ was over. It was only out of a discussion of the changed conditions of production, of imperialism and above all of capitalism that a sensible orientation could be constructed. This in reality the origins of our own (and not a few other) revolutionary traditions (with more or less disengenuous theological discussions of the old 1920s tagged on).

    We’re in the same situation today. And need to once again confront new realities, new movements and new organisational tasks. Its an enourmous and daunting task and we are in many ways greatly weakened: mainly by the length of time it took us to wake up to it. But its a hell of a lot better then incantations and continued sleep.

  42. Bloody hell, what a conservative load of old hackery.

    Absolutely nothing on the failure to build parties out of tiny sects of the last 60 years.

    Absolutely nothing on the penetrating criticisms of the Leninism model by Castoriadis, Brinton, Debord et al.

    Absolutely nothing worth reading.

  43. We’ve had projects rather then parties since the 1930s (if one takes a dim view as I do of Stalinism). There are wider questions about what such a project might look like today and whether it ought to be described as Leninist which the above approach simply rules out of discussion. That’s the real problem with it. Ian Birchall’s sensible but actually pretty moderate document ought to have been a signal for a further discussion of these issues as opposed to being treated as a kind of terrifying pandora’s box which ought to be shut. If there is to be any future for the post-68 far left at all.

  44. With a low level of class struggle over a period of many years, enormous pressure is put on a revolutionary organisation. In the SWP many of its best militants were victimised by the bosses (sometimes with the help of the trade union bureaucracy).
    With confidence low, the temptation for the leadership, is to substitute both for the class and Party members.
    But doing this stifles debate and free comradely criticism.
    For a genuine revolutionary Party there must always be an attempt to create a Party of leaders, not an irreplaceable leadership.
    A failure to listen to the class, has sadly created a top down sect which is likely to continue to decline.

  45. Phhil Gasper, can you honestly think of any reason at all why anyone inside the SWP, anyone who is an ex-member or anyone who has been sympathetic to the SWP who might possibly for any general or specific reason find that the SWP has not managed to live up to the idea that:

    “there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.” (as you quote it)

    If not, then fine. All’s well

    If you can think of any situation in which there hasn’t been ‘wide and free discussion, comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life’, do you have an analysis for why or how this could have happened? If you do have an analysis, is it one that you can share with us?

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