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Crisis in SWP raises general issues for marxists

posted 3 Feb 2013, 04:40 by Admin uk   [ updated 3 Feb 2013, 04:52 ]
  A crisis has erupted within in the Socialist Workers Party, the UK'S largest left group and the main section of the International Socialist Tendency. We do not intend to enter into the inevitably messy debate over specific allegations. But the conflict raises many important questions about democratic centralism and revolutionary organisation so here are some documents and links which can help readers explore the general issues.

The opposition within the SWP has gathered most of the document and comments at http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/. The most prominent member is Richard Seymour who runs the well established Lenin's Tomb blog at htttp://www.leninology.com

SWP leader Alex Callinicos replied to the opposition in the following article and we follow it with contributions from leading Americans, blogger Louis Proyect and International Socialist Organisation intellectual Paul Le Blanc (the American ISO was expelled from the IST several years ago). 

Is Leninism finished?

Feature by Alex Callinicos, January 2013

Do revolutionary parties, like the Socialist Workers Party, that draw on the method of organising developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks still fit in the twenty first century? Alex Callinicos challenges the critics and argues that Leninism remains indispensable

The demise of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and of the political tradition that it seeks to embody have been widely proclaimed on the British left in recent weeks. Thus the columnist Owen Jones has announced that "the era of the SWP and its kind is over." Is he right?

The flood of attacks on the SWP originates in some internal arguments that culminated in our annual conference in January. The conference discussed a difficult disciplinary case. But wider political differences emerged. Two factions were formed in the lead-up to the conference to fight for changes in the model of democratic centralism - the system of decision making used by organisations in the revolutionary Marxist tradition - that the SWP has developed.

These issues were argued out in vigorous political debates at the conference, and the positions put forward on democratic centralism by the outgoing Central Committee (the main party leadership) were approved by large majorities. Unfortunately, a small minority refused to accept these decisions. Through a series of leaks and briefings some ensured that a highly distorted account of the disciplinary case was circulated on the web and taken up by some of the mainstream media.

The minority has used this coverage to argue that the SWP was now "toxic" and to make a variety of demands - for example, a special party conference to nullify the decisions just taken, the censure or removal of the newly elected Central Committee, and various changes to the party's structure.

One thing the entire business has reminded us of is the dark side of the Internet. Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated - unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don't have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.

Moreover, in this case a few individuals, some well known, others not, have used blogs and social media to launch a campaign within the SWP. Yet they themselves, for all their hotly proclaimed love of democracy, are accountable to no one for these actions. They offer an unappetising lesson in what happens when power is exercised without responsibility. All of this would be of interest solely to the SWP and its supporters, were it not for the political conclusions that are being drawn. Both Owen Jones and "Don Mayo", an ex-member of the SWP leadership who recently left the party, have targeted what "Mayo" calls "the orthodox Trotskyist model of Leninism". Like Jones, he says this is "an historically outdated model".

Marxist tradition

So what's at stake here? The SWP has sought, since its origins in a handful of people expelled from the Trotskyist Fourth International in 1951, to continue the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Started by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this tradition reached its highpoint in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, when the Bolshevik Party led the first and still the only successful working class revolution. Leon Trotsky, who with Vladimir Lenin headed the Bolsheviks in October 1917, then fought the degeneration of the revolution with the rise of Stalin's tyranny between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s.

What does continuing a tradition mean? There are plenty of sects, Stalinist as well as Trotskyist, who think this involves the mindless repetition of a few sacred formulas. But genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal. Marxism is about the unity of theory and practice so this process of renewal has both intellectual and political dimensions.

The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx's critique of political economy. His target was the capitalist economic system: in his masterwork Capital he uncovered its structural logic. But capitalism develops historically, and, as it does, so must Marxist analysis. In the SWP we have contributed to this process, most recently with Chris Harman's great last work Zombie Capitalism - not alone, however. There is a great renaissance of Marxist political economy under way at present that can help political activists understand what's happening to capitalism during its greatest crisis since the 1930s.

But Marx's political legacy - the necessity of working class organisation to overthrow capital - is less secure. In 1968 the SWP's predecessor the International Socialists decided to adopt a Leninist model of organisation. In other words, we decided to take our reference point in how we organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin's leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.

Flexible tactics

In fact, as Tony Cliff (the founder of the SWP) showed in his biography of Lenin, the Bolsheviks were very flexible in their political tactics and organisational methods. But there were some common factors. Most fundamentally, as has been confirmed by subsequent experience, workers' struggles have again and again developed into revolutionary movements that challenge the very basis of capitalist domination.

But the same experience also shows that these revolutionary movements tend to be held back by traditions that represent a compromise between resistance to and acceptance of the capitalist system. Historically the most important of these traditions has been reformism, whether in the shape of mainstream social democracy or the Western Communist Parties after Stalin's triumph. But there are other ideologies embodied in organisations that have played a similar role - social Catholicism in Poland during the great Solidarnosc movement in 1980-1, or variants of Islamism in Iran in 1978-9 and Egypt today.

The hold of these traditions on workers is reinforced by the way in which the workings of capitalism tend to fragment their consciousness and encourage them to think in terms of the interests of a smaller section rather than the class as a whole. And so major working class struggles, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-5 in Britain, have ended in heroic and inspiring defeats once the question of political power is posed. The reason why the experience of October 1917 is so significant is because here the Bolsheviks succeeded in breaking the grip of the reformists (in this case the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries), which had been overwhelming in the months after the overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917, and winning the active support of the majority of workers for the conquest of power.

What this involved was the Bolsheviks acting as what is sometimes called a "vanguard party". They represented for most of their existence before October 1917 a small minority of the Russian working class. But this minority was united by a shared Marxist understanding of the world. And, above all, it organised and acted on the basis of this understanding.

The Bolsheviks collectively intervened in the struggles of the Russian working class. In doing so, they put forward proposals that would help to advance the struggle in question. But they simultaneously sought to encourage workers to recognise that they had to fight for political power and, to achieve this, to support the Bolshevik Party itself.

So the Bolsheviks won the majority of the working class through a continuous process of dialogue between them and their fellow workers, in which they sometimes changed their minds, learning from workers who had actually moved ahead of them. But in this process the party sought to overcome the uneven experiences of different groups of workers and the way capitalism fragmented their consciousness.

How the Bolsheviks organised as revolutionaries became obscured with the degeneration of the October Revolution, which developed as a result of the isolation of the new workers' republic and the disintegration of the working class itself caused by civil war and economic collapse. When we rallied to Leninism in the late 1960s we were trying to apply this original model. But renewing Leninism wasn't simple. In the first place, we faced different conditions from those confronting the Bolsheviks: reformism, rooted in the trade union bureaucracy, was far more entrenched in Britain and the rest of Western Europe than it had been in Tsarist Russia.

Escalating struggle

Secondly, these conditions were changing. From 1968 onwards we were able to turn ourselves towards a wave of escalating workers' struggles that culminated in the fall of Ted Heath's Tory government in early 1974. The picture was the same in the rest of Western Europe: this was the era of May 1968 in France and the Italian "hot autumn" of 1969. But then in the mid-1970s everything began to change. The Labour government of 1974-9 was able to halt the rising tide of workers' militancy and to incorporate rank and file workers' leaders into managerial structures.

Then in 1979 Thatcher came to office. She successfully renewed the capitalist offensive that Heath had attempted and defeated the miners and other key groups of workers. Her administration and that of Ronald Reagan in the United States marked a global turning point. The neoliberalism they pioneered sought to revive the profitability of capital above all by fragmenting the working class and weakening its organisations. Its effects were contradictory: as the present global economic crisis shows, it failed to resolve the underlying problems of profitability, but workers did emerge more divided and with less effective organisations.

This doesn't mean that resistance to capitalism has vanished - far from it. The Arab revolutions were fundamentally caused by the effects of neoliberalism in polarising societies such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. But certain trends are visible.

First of all, the mainstream political organisations of the working class continue to decline. The Italian Communist Party - in its prime the largest Western party - has vanished almost without trace. The social democratic parties have tried to adapt to neoliberalism by moving rightwards and embracing the market - the project of New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But not only did this end in disaster (Brown's devil's pact with the City helped to bring about the 2008 financial crash), but the base of the social liberal parties (as many now call them) in a more fragmented working class has continued to shrink. This doesn't mean that reformism is finished: François Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy in last year's French presidential elections and Labour is running ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls. But it's weaker.

Secondly, we have seen since the Seattle protests of November 1999 waves of political radicalisation directed at neoliberalism and sometimes at capitalism itself. The great protests against the invasion of Iraq whose tenth anniversary we are about to celebrate were a high point. In 2011 the Arab revolutions helped to stimulate first the 15 May movement in the Spanish state and then the Occupy movement that spread from Manhattan around the world.

These movements are tremendously important. But they have not led to or been sustained by workers' struggles that have reached a similar level of generalisation or intensity. Of course, workers have been playing an important role - think of the pensions strikes here in Britain on 30 June and 30 November of the same year, of the general strikes and other workers' struggles in Greece, or of the strike across southern Europe on 14 November 2012.

Streets or factories?

The fact remains that, while an insurgent working class was at the centre of the radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, so far this is not true today. Even in Egypt, where the struggle today is most advanced, the movement on the streets has been more central than the movement in the factories in the two years since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. What conclusions should we draw from this?

It would be ridiculous to assert that the working class is finished. The neoliberal era has seen a contradictory and uneven expansion of capitalism that has drawn wider social layers into the net of wage labour. The struggles that I have referred to (and there are many others - for example in the new centres of capital accumulation such as China and Vietnam) represent the learning experiences of a working class that has been restructured to meet the changing demands of capital. There's no reason why they should repeat the pattern of the upturn of the late 1960s and early 1970s, any more than they did those of earlier waves of working class struggle.

Nevertheless, one consequence of the form taken by the present radicalisation is that the centrality of workers' struggles in the fight against capitalism is less obvious than it was in the past. This is one reason why - along with the atrophy of the mainstream political parties as they are drawn deeper and deeper into the corporate world - contemporary anti-capitalist movements tend to be suspicious of political organisations. The burden of proof is on those of us who still think Leninism is the best form for revolutionary organisation to show why this is so.

This is the serious question raised by the polemic launched by Owen Jones and his like. Jones seems to be stating his alternative when he writes, "Britain urgently needs a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity, inflicted on this country without any proper mandate."

This sounds very nice but is quite misleading, since Jones is an increasingly high profile member of the Labour Party. And indeed he writes, "so long as trade unions ensure Labour is linked to millions of supermarket checkout assistants, call centre workers and factory workers, there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people."

In other words, although Jones is critical of Ed Miliband for failing to "offer a genuine alternative to austerity", he thinks that activists should devote their energies to pushing Labour leftwards. This is a project that generations of activists have pursued since the 1920s (indeed Jones says his parents met as members of the Militant Tendency, which fought valiantly to win Labour to socialism till most were expelled during the 1980s).

The nature of the Labour Party

The failure of the struggle to win Labour for the left isn't a matter of lack of effort or determination. The very nature of the Labour Party defeats its left wing challengers. It is geared to the electoral cycle, so that discussion of policy and support for struggle are subordinated to the effort to win votes on terms set by the Tories and the corporate media. Miliband's opposition to the pension strikes is just the latest in a long and sad story of betrayals by Labour leaders that goes back to Ramsay MacDonald during the 1920s and Neil Kinnock in the 1980s.

The power of the parliamentary leadership has historically been buttressed by the social weight and financial muscle of the trade union bureaucracy. Today the union presence still ties Labour to the organised working class, but at a price. The role of full-time trade union officials is to negotiate the terms on which workers are exploited by capital. Sometimes this leads them to take action, as they did on 30 November 2011, but only in order to improve their bargaining position. The subsequent betrayal of the pensions struggle is therefore absolutely typical.

So the trade union bureaucracy is a conservative force within the workers' movement. But, far from addressing this problem, Jones is currently campaigning for the re-election of Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite. McCluskey talks a good fight, but he sat by while other union leaders killed off the pensions strikes. He has also thrown Unite strongly behind Labour under Miliband. This is why the SWP conference voted to support the campaign of Jerry Hicks to challenge McCluskey as a candidate committed to strengthening the rank and file.

Despite his radical rhetoric and the excellent stance he takes in the media on specific issues, Jones is defending an essentially conservative position, lining up with Labour and the trade union leaders. "Mayo" represents an apparently more radical option. He aligns himself with some other former leading members of the SWP, Lindsey German, John Rees and Chris Bambery, in arguing that the mass movements that have developed since Seattle represent an alternative to Leninist politics.

But if we look at the movements against neoliberal globalisation and imperialist war that developed at the start of the millennium, we see that they had an astonishing global impact, but failed to sustain themselves. The same proved true of Occupy, which emerged very rapidly as a worldwide symbol of anti-capitalist resistance - and then equally rapidly dissipated.

There are various reasons for this pattern. Probably the most important is the absence of a sustained revival of working class militancy, which would give a social weight to the protest spectaculars offered by the movements. But the situation hasn't been helped by the domination of the anti-capitalist movement by "horizontalist" hostility to political parties and by unworkable (and ultimately undemocratic) methods of decision-making based on consensus.

When "Mayo" and his like renounce Leninist politics and uncritically embrace the movements they are evading these problems. They are equally shifty when it comes to confronting the biggest problem facing the progress of resistance to austerity in Britain - the role of the trade union leaders in blocking strike action. Like Jones, "Mayo" and his co-thinkers are backing McCluskey on the grounds that he "is no bureaucrat". Neither they nor Jones are offering an alternative to the dominant forces inside the British workers' movement.

United fronts

But maybe the SWP is just too hopelessly sectarian to provide the basis of this alternative. Yet Jones pays us a curious if back-handed tribute: "The SWP has long punched above its weight. It formed the basis of the organisation behind the Stop The War Coalition, for example, which - almost exactly a decade go - mobilised up to two million people to take to the streets against the impending Iraqi bloodbath. Even as they repelled other activists with sectarianism and aggressive recruitment drives, they helped drive crucial movements such as Unite Against Fascism, which recently organised a huge demonstration in Walthamstow that humiliated the racist English Defence League."

So the SWP is awful, but it has played a crucial role in the most important movements of the past decade. How can this contradiction be resolved? In reality we are committed to the politics of the united front. In other words, we will work, in a principled and comradely way, with political forces well to our right to build the broadest and strongest action for common if limited objectives - for example, against the "war on terror" or the Nazis. We have followed the same practice in Unite the Resistance, an important alliance of activists and trade union officials to campaign for strikes against the coalition.

Moreover, what our critics dislike most about us - how we organise ourselves - is crucial to our ability, as Jones puts it, to punch above our weight. Our version of democratic centralism comes down to two things. First, decisions must be debated fully, but once they have been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members. This is necessary if we are to test our ideas in action.

Secondly, to ensure that these decisions are implemented and that the SWP intervenes effectively in the struggle, a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction to our party's work. It is this model of democratic centralism that has allowed us to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.

But this model is now under attack from within and without. Scandalously, a minority inside the SWP are refusing to accept the democratically reached conference decisions. What they, and some other more disciplined and more reflective comrades are arguing for is a different model involving a much looser and weaker leadership, internal debate that continually reopens decisions already made, and permanent factions (currently factions are only allowed in the discussion period leading up to the annual party conference). If they succeeded, the SWP would become a much smaller and less effective organisation, unable to help build broader movements.

The stakes in these debates are very high. The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France imploded in 2011-12, leading to a very serious breakaway to the Front de Gauche led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This has weakened the far left in Europe, and indeed the rest of the world. The implosion was caused by political differences and setbacks, but it was exacerbated by an internal regime very similar to the one advocated by some SWP members. All the debates within the NPA went through the filter imposed by the struggle between four permanent factions. Members' loyalties focused on their factional alignments rather than the party itself.

I am confident that the SWP is politically strong enough to overcome its internal differences. Our theoretical tradition and our democratic structures will allow us to arrive at the necessary political clarity and to learn the lessons of the disciplinary case. But if I am wrong and the SWP did collapse, this would not solve the political problem that it exists to address. The anti-capitalist struggle won't be advanced by relying on Labourism and the trade union leaders or by uncritical worship of the movements. If the SWP didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

Published online on 28 January 2013. This article will be in the February issue of Socialist Review http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12210

Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos

by Louis Proyect

After a month’s worth of attack on the SWP leadership, including from its own members, Alex Callinicos has taken to the pages of Socialist Review (“Is Leninism Finished?”) to frame the fight in terms of a defense of Leninist orthodoxy. I think this is useful since it helps to crystallize the broader issues facing this fairly important group in Britain and the socialist movement internationally: is the “democratic centralist” model that is the hallmark of aspiring “vanguard” parties appropriate to our tasks today?

Just over 30 years ago the American SWP was going through a profound crisis involving the democratic rights of its membership. The Barnes leadership had decided to dump Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution overboard in a bid to make itself more acceptable to what it saw as an emerging new revolutionary international with Havana functioning as a pole of attraction. When many long-time members, including those who had worked closely with Trotsky, fought to have a debate over this change, Barnes decided to forgo a constitutionally mandated party convention and began expelling members on trumped-up charges.

I had left the SWP by this point but was so disturbed by these developments that I began calling comrades I respected. Les Evans was a member of a group of expelled members who hoped to resurrect the “good, old SWP”, a task tantamount to reassembling Humpty-Dumpty.

My next phone call was to Peter Camejo, who had been expelled mostly because he was an independent thinker popular with the membership–a terrible threat to the SWP’s leader. After he began figuring out that the party he had belonged to for decades was on a suicidal sectarian path, he took a leave of absence to go to Venezuela and read Lenin with fresh eyes. This was one of the first things he told me over the phone: “Louis, we have to drop the democratic centralism stuff”. That is what he got out of reading Lenin. I was convinced that he was right and spent the better part of the thirty years following our phone conversation spreading that message to the left.

In the early 80s it was a tougher sale to make. Back then orthodox Trotskyist parties, and ideologically heterodox parties like the British SWP, did little investigation into the actual history of the Russian social democracy and were content to follow organizational guidelines based on what someone like James P. Cannon filtered down to them through books such as “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” or Tony Cliff’s Lenin biography.

Largely through the efforts of Lars Lih, it has become more and more difficult to ignore the historical record. The publication of his 808 pageLenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context was like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in 1517, except in this case it was the door of the Marxist-Leninist church. Unlike Peter Camejo or me, Lih was not interested in building a new left. He was mainly interested in correcting the record. As a serious scholar with a deep command of the Russian language, he was quite capable of defending his thesis, namely that Lenin sought nothing more than to create a party based on the German social democracy in Russia. There was never any intention to build a new kind of party, even during the most furious battles with the Mensheviks who after all (as Lih convincingly makes the case) were simply a faction of the same broad party that Lenin belonged to.

The British SWP has been deferential to Lih, whose scholarship was beyond reproach, but at pains to dismiss its implications. The September 2010 issue of Historical Materialism organized a symposium on Lih’s research in which they made the case for “Leninism” as they understood it. While HM is largely inaccessible to the unwashed masses (where was Aaron Swartz when we needed him?), you can read SWP’er Paul Blackledge’s contribution at http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=218. We can assume that he was speaking for Callinicos and the SWP leadership when he wrote:

The novelty of this form of organisation was less than obvious in the early part of the last century, and Lih is right to point out that Lenin was attempting to build something like the German SPD in Russia. Nonetheless, it is also true that Lenin did succeed in building something different, and better, than the SPD. It is in this respect, I think that Lih is wrong to reject Georg Lukács’s interpretation of Lenin, upon which many of the activists have based their analyses.

When I first ran across the British SWP on the Internet back in the early 90s, I never would have dreamed that they would have ended up with such a horrible scandal on their hands. I was impressed with both their theoretical prowess and with their work in the British antiwar movement. My only caveat was that their organizational model would prevent them from breaking through a glass ceiling imposed by their sectarian habits. I put it this way:

I believe that the methodology of the [American] SWP was flawed from the outset. In its less lethal permutations, such as the Tony Cliff or Ted Grant variety or the SWP of the early 1970s, you end up with a “healthy” group but one that is destined to hit a glass ceiling because of its self-imposed “vanguardist” assumptions. In a nutshell, the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc. In its more lethal versions, you end up with Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes where megalomania rules supreme.

Apparently some SWP members were grappling with the same problem as I discovered from a document written by Neil Davidson for their 2008 convention (it can be read on a blog devoted to a discussion of the SWP crisis. Davidson writes:

The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”.

I imagine that if Martin Smith had not been such a sexist pig, the SWP would have meandered along in this fashion for a number of years. Like a match thrown into a room filled with gasoline fumes, the rape incident and the Central Committee’s role in covering it up has provoked a crisis threatening the very existence of the party.

Returning to Callinicos’s article, I was struck by his exasperation over how “internal” party matters have spilled over into the Internet:

One thing the entire business has reminded us of is the dark side of the Internet. Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated – unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don’t have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.

In a nutshell, this is the same mindset that is on display at MIT, the elite institution that insisted on prosecuting Aaron Swartz for purloining JSTOR documents. Like the Gutenberg printing press that made possible generations of revolutionary-minded print publications like Iskra, the Internet is the communications medium for 21st century socialism. If anything has become clear, the “internal” documents of the SWP cannot be bottled up behind a firewall. In the same way that a Madonna video will make its way into Pirate’s Bay, some controversial SWP document will get leaked to the wretched Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity website. I am not even taking a position on whether this is reflecting the “dark side” of the Internet–only that this is the reality we operate under.

But more to the point, there really is no basis for revolutionary socialist organizations to keep their business internal. This was not the case in Lenin’s day, nor should it be the case today whether we are communicating through the printed page or on the Internet. This idea that we discuss our differences behind closed doors every couple of years during preconvention discussion was alien to the way that the Russian social democracy operated. They debated in public. We are obviously more familiar with Lenin’s open polemics with the Mensheviks that some might interpret as permissible given that a cold split had taken place (a false interpretation as Pham Binh and Lars Lih have pointed out.) But even within the Bolsheviks, there was public debate as demonstrated over their differences on whether the bourgeois press should be shut down.

In John Reed’s “10 Days that Shook the World”, there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” He continues: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.”

Get it? Lenin and Riazanov debated at a mass meeting and then voted against each other. This was normal Bolshevik functioning. All discipline meant was a deputy voting according to instructions from the party’s central committee, etc. For example, if Alex Callinicos was elected to Parliament and instructed to vote against funding the war in Iraq, and then voted for funding, the party would be entitled to expel him.

Instead, democratic centralism in the Fourth International parties, and in parties following such a model like Callinicos’s International Socialist Tendency, has meant something entirely different. Discipline has meant enforcing  ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.

Keeping watch on the ideological purity of the group leads to the formation of a priesthood that is in the best position to interpret the holy writings, whether of Trotsky, Tony Cliff, Ted Grant, or whoever. When they are also full-time functionaries, their power is magnified. For a rank-and-file member of such parties to raise a stink over some questionable strategy or tactic is almost unheard of. It takes something like a rape to get people mobilized apparently.

Virtually none of the latest thinking on the problematic of “democratic centralism” is reflected in Callinicos’s article. Instead he uses the term “Leninism” as a kind of shorthand for revolutionary politics that the SWP is defending against what he views as Owen Jones’s Labourite opportunism. Callinicos describes Jones as a “an increasingly high profile member of the Labour Party.” This is the same party that rests on a trade union leadership that “is a conservative force within the workers’ movement.” To cap it off, Callinicos draws from the same poisoned well that goes back to the Soviet Union of the 1920s:

Despite his radical rhetoric and the excellent stance he takes in the media on specific issues, Jones is defending an essentially conservative position, lining up with Labour and the trade union leaders.

In other words, Callinicos is resorting to the “scratch to gangrene” method of attack that is the hallmark of the Trotskyist movement going back to the late 1930s and to the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model. It is basically a way of stigmatizing your adversary as reflecting “alien class forces”. To protect the integrity of the party, you must ward off the disease-carrying agents of the ruling class.

Jones has it right. This kind of disgusting “Leninist” politics belongs not only to the twentieth century but a socialist politics debased by the USSR’s “dark side”. We need a new way of functioning, one that is free from the sectarian “us versus them”, small proprietor mentality of groups like the SWP as currently constituted.

In Jones’s Independent article—as opposed to the straw man that Callinicos erected–he called for the following:

What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger. Until now, I have struggled with an answer.

This is simply another way of stating that something like a British SYRIZA is necessary. Perhaps anticipating the struggle that has broken out now, Richard Seymour defended the Greek multi-tendency electoral formation in an open challenge to the SWP leadership.

I have no idea how the fight in the SWP will be resolved but I have a strong feeling that if the current gang is removed from the leadership, the party can be a powerful catalyst in moving Britain in the direction that Owen Jones outlined and that the revolutionary left contingent of SYRIZA in Greece is working toward. And if they are defeated, I would only hope that the comrades consider becoming part of a broad initiative that aims to unite the left on a nonsectarian basis.

In a post I wrote on the debate over SYRIZA on the left, I offered this conclusion. I think it is worth repeating:

Finally, I want to suggest that SYRIZA has much more in common with traditional Marxist concepts of a “revolutionary program” than many on the left realize. (I will be elaborating on this at some length in a pending article.) Our tendency is to mistake doctrine with program. For example, not long after I joined the SWP of the United States in 1967, I asked an old-timer up in party headquarters what our program was. (A Maoist friend had challenged me about our bona fides.) He waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, “It’s all there.” This meant having positions on everything from WWII to Kronstadt. Becoming a “cadre” meant learning the positions embodied in over a hundred pamphlets and books and defending them in public. Of course, this had much more in common with church doctrine than what Karl Marx had in mind when his Communist program sought, for example:

  • Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  • Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

When you stop and think about it, this is sort of the thing you can find in SYRIZA’s program. Maybe it is time for the left to rethink the question of how we demarcate parties? Instead of demanding that new members learn the catechism on controversial questions going back to the 1920s, they instead would be required to defend a class orientation in their respective arenas, like the trade union movement or the student movement, etc. That would make us a lot stronger than we are today. We need millions united in struggle, especially since the death rattle coming out of capitalism’s throat grows louder day-by-day.


Leninism is unfinished

The crisis in the British SWP has stirred a sharp debate among party members about the allegations of sexual harassment and rape at the center of the crisis and about how a revolutionary organization deals with disputes and disagreements among its members and leaders. In response to an article titled "Is Leninism Finished" by SWP leader Alex Callinicos,Paul LeBlanc, author of numerous books, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, commented both on the article and the resulting discussion.

A TRAGIC development has unfolded on the British left--the destructive crisis of that country's Socialist Workers Party (SWP). People have been hurt and humiliated, the organizational measures taken (and not taken) have aroused fierce controversy, there have been expulsions and resignations, after a narrow vote at a party congress there has been an unsuccessful internal ban on further discussion of the matter, and serious damage has been done to one of the most important organizations on the global revolutionary left.

A public intervention in the discussion by the SWP's most prominent theorist, Alex Callinicos, has posed a key question--in part as a defense of the decisions implemented by the leadership of his organization--as the title of his article: "Is Leninism Finished?"Responding to him, a U.S. socialist blogger, Louis Proyect, has affirmed: "Leninism Is Finished."[1] The question and answer would seem to have great significance for revolutionaries of all lands.

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The British SWP

The scandal and subsequent organizational developments and measures within the SWP, together generating the crisis, have been discussed at length and in depth by others. Some of the Internet discussion is saturated with voyeuristic speculations, rumor-mongering and sectarian gloating far removed from serious, genuinely progressive or revolutionary politics. Some of it, coming from members of the SWP, has been informative and thoughtful. Anyone with access to the Internet can easily read it all, if they have the time and the inclination. Since both Callinicos and Proyect cite an article by Owen Jones, a left-wing columnist in the pages of The Independent, I will allow him to summarize what seems to have happened:

The largest far-left organization in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, is currently imploding in the aftermath of a shocking internal scandal. After a leading figure was accused of raping a member, the party set up a "court" staffed with senior party members, which exonerated him. "Creeping feminism" has been flung around as a political insult. Prominent members, such as authors China Miéville and Richard Seymour, have publicly assailed their party's leadership. Activists are reported to be in open rebellion at their autocratic leadership, or are simply deserting en masse.

This might all sound parochial, the obscure goings-on out on the fringes of Britain's marginal revolutionary left. But the SWP has long punched above its weight. It formed the basis of the organization behind the Stop The War Coalition, for example, which--almost exactly a decade ago--mobilized up to two million people to take to the streets against the impending Iraqi bloodbath. Even as they repelled other activists with sectarianism and aggressive recruitment drives, they helped drive crucial movements such as Unite Against Fascism, which recently organized a huge demonstration in Walthamstow that humiliated the racist English Defense League. Thousands hungry for an alternative to the disaster of neoliberalism have entered the SWP's ranks over the years--many, sadly, to end up burnt out and demoralized.[2]

The first paragraph tells us that the SWP is "imploding," which is really not clear as of this writing, but to say that it is currently wracked by crisis is to state the obvious. Nor is it necessary to take sides in regard to the charge of "sectarianism and aggressive recruitment drives" (and also to the assertion that many SWPers "end up burnt out and demoralized"). All the more impressive, in the face of these criticisms, is the acknowledgement that "the SWP has long punched above its weight," with a capacity to organize impressive struggles and to mobilize thousands and even millions. This cannot be said about most left-wing groups in Britain or the U.S., and Callinicos makes the obvious point:

What our critics dislike most about us--how we organize ourselves--is crucial to our ability, as Jones puts it, to punch above our weight. Our version of democratic centralism comes down to two things. First, decisions must be debated fully, but once they have been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members. This is necessary if we are to test our ideas in action.

Secondly, to ensure that these decisions are implemented and that the SWP intervenes effectively in the struggle, a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organization to give a clear direction to our party's work. It is this model of democratic centralism that has allowed us to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.

In fact, there is an overly expansive aspect to Callinicos' definition of democratic centralism--a point to which we will need to return. But there does seem to be some correlation between the way the SWP seeks to organize itself (consciously drawing on the Leninist tradition) and its political effectiveness.

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Leninism Is Finished?

Louis Proyect has long wrestled with the question of revolutionary organization, driven to do so in large measure because of his own traumas (shared by others, including myself) in the SWP of the United States a quarter-century ago. The political traditions of the U.S. SWP and its crisis of the 1980s (and consequent implosion) are not exactly the same as the traditions and crisis of the British SWP--but there are certainly parallels.[3] Proyect focuses his attention on these, for the purpose of making what he hopes will be useful generalizations for the left as a whole. Yet there seems to be a serious contradiction in the line of argument that he puts forward.

Early in his article, Proyect tells us that he was especially influenced by former SWPer Peter Camejo:

After he began figuring out that the party he had belonged to for decades was on a suicidal sectarian path, he took a leave of absence to go to Venezuela and read Lenin with fresh eyes. This was one of the first things he told me over the phone: "Louis, we have to drop the democratic centralism stuff." That is what he got out of reading Lenin. I was convinced that he was right and spent the better part of the thirty years following our phone conversation spreading that message to the left.

The contradiction is that for much of his article, Proyect insists that Lenin's own organizational thinking (including on the matter of democratic centralism) is consistent with the thinking of Proyect himself, not with the thinking of Callinicos and others whom he accuses of following in the footsteps of Gregory Zinoviev and Leon Trotsky. Callinicos' conceptions, he insists, are rooted not in Lenin, but in "the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model." But this means a more appropriate title for his essay would be: "Cominternism is Dead, Long Live Genuine Leninism!"[4]

It may be, however, that Proyect's position is similar to that of Charlie Post, who argues that there was nothing in Lenin's thinking to distinguish him from Karl Kautsky (of pre-1914 vintage), and that "Leninism" is an invention of Zinoviev and other leaders of the Comintern of the 1920s.[5]

Among the many problems with this, however, is the fact that the 1920s Communist International of Zinoviev and Trotsky was also the Comintern of Lenin himself. (There is also a reality highlighted by the immense, very rich contributions of John Riddell and others, that there was much more of value in the early Communist International than one would be led to believe by superficial attacks on "Zinovievism.")

There is no question that Lenin was profoundly influenced by other comrades in the pre-1914 Socialist International, particularly George Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky. But his thought cannot be reduced to that. Nor did his thinking stop in 1914. In fact, the 1921 Comintern theses "The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work" were put forward at Lenin's insistence. Not only did Lenin help to shape the theses (which included a substantial emphasis on democratic centralism), he also defended them after they were adopted.[6]

Apparently to present a Lenin more consistent with political points he wishes to stress, Proyect chooses to leave this and much else out of his account of the history of the Bolsheviks. Yet a fairly selective reading of Lars Lih's contributions cannot render more than a fragmentary understanding of Lenin, Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. This is not to deny an important point that Proyect makes:

Lenin sought nothing more than to create a party based on the German social democracy in Russia. There was never any intention to build a new kind of party, even during the most furious battles with the Mensheviks who after all (as Lih convincingly makes the case) were simply a faction of the same broad party that Lenin belonged to.

In elaborating on this, however, Proyect tends to play fast and loose with the historical evidence in order to "prove" that Lenin himself was no "Leninist" (when, as we shall see, Lenin actually was an approximation of what we would call a "Leninist"). Such dilution results in the loss of ideas and historical experiences that we really cannot afford to lose. It is unfortunate that a selective utilization of John Reed's classic Ten Days That Shook the World serves to push aside, for all practical purposes, what is presented in Trotsky's classic History of the Russian Revolution. Consider the complex and dynamic notion which Trotsky advances in his preface:

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses....Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves can we understand the rôle of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.[7]

We need to wrestle with the meaning of this dialectical passage if, as revolutionary activists, we are to make our way through the no less dynamic complexities of our own time. Proyect presents as the "essence" of Lenin's approach the fact that he and other Bolsheviks could publicly argue against each other and openly vote in opposite ways. But this draws us away from the actual Leninist "essence" that Trotsky points us to. This is especially unfortunate because it can obscure the positive contribution Proyect actually makes in his article.

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Revolutionary Vanguard and Mass Struggle

Proyect argues that revolutionary socialist organizations must stop giving in to a fatal sectarian temptation, the false vision that they are the "revolutionary vanguard," or perhaps the nucleus of the revolutionary vanguard party of the future. Even in its less pathological variants, he warns, revolutionary socialist groups can thereby create for themselves a vanguardist "glass ceiling." The problem is that "the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc." At some point, the perceived necessity of preserving and advancing the group's special role as "nucleus" will nurture fatally sectarian dynamics within the group and between that group and other forces.

In criticizing the relatively healthy pre-crisis British SWP and the relatively healthy pre-1980 U.S. SWP, Proyect makes the point that "it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP's and vice versa." He tellingly adds that this is "a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right." To the extent that he is right (as I know he is about the U.S. SWP and suspect he may be about the British SWP), this suggests an issue that defenders of any kind of "Leninism" (and of political-organizational coherence in general) must wrestle with.

No serious socialist group can afford to abandon the education of its members around theory and history ("indoctrination") in the form of lectures and classes. Nor can any human group abolish "peer pressure." But what healthy countervailing tendencies can be nourished that will help overcome the negative tendencies to which Proyect usefully directs our attention?

Proyect tells a story from the late 1960s of his discussion with an older veteran of the Trotskyist movement when both were members of the SWP. After a Maoist friend had challenged him, the young recruit asked what the SWP's program was. The old-timer "waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, 'It's all there.'" It is interesting to consider Proyect's interpretation of this--that it "meant having positions on everything from WWII to Kronstadt. Becoming a 'cadre' meant learning the positions embodied in over a hundred pamphlets and books and defending them in public." This was, in fact, the conception of many (not all) comrades of that time--but there is another, quite different way of understanding the old comrade's comment.

It is not the case that SWP bookstores were simply stocked with pamphlets and books outlining positions on everything from the Second World War to the Kronstadt uprising of 1921. Rather, they contained a rich array of material--accounts of labor struggles, anti-racist struggles, women's liberation struggles, the history of the revolutionary movement, writings by Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, (in some cases, also Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Sheila Rowbotham), as well as some of the most creative thinkers in the SWP--not simply James P. Cannon (worth reading despite the criticisms made of him), but people like George Breitman and Joseph Hansen who developed insights and innovative formulations incompatible with any closed "orthodoxy."

To say "it's all there" could be seen as reference not to a closed system of Truth, but to a rich and multifaceted tradition, an approach that is rigorous but also open, critical-minded and revolutionary, with theory and analysis rooted in the actual mass struggles of one's own time. This may not be what that particular old comrade meant, but I did know some old comrades who happened to think this way.

The proposed political orientation that emerges from Proyect's piece could be stated, I think, with four basic and interrelated points:

1. There is a revolutionary vanguard layer that is part of the working class (broadly defined) and of the workers' movement. This layer consists of those who have more information, analyses, organizing know-how, a sense of how to get from the oppressive "here" to the more desirable "there," and a greater conscious political passion than the majority. It has the capacity to connect with and help radicalize and mobilize growing sectors of that working-class majority. But this vanguard is multifaceted, not concentrated in a single organization, and some who are part of it are not necessarily in any revolutionary organization.

2. Only through the coordinated efforts of different components of this broad vanguard layer will it become possible to mobilize tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people in serious challenges to the capitalist status quo, which should be the primary goal of revolutionaries today.[8]

3. Mass action coordinated by the broad vanguard layer obviously must go parallel with--and is inseparable from--efforts to nurture revolutionary consciousness within more and more of the working class as a whole. Various groups and individuals can and should feel free to develop theoretical perspectives, share their ideas, disagree with each other, engage in debates, etc., while continuing to collaborate closely in building the mass struggles. This is the pathway to revolution.

4. If one or another segment of this broad vanguard layer--under the banner of some spurious "Leninism"--seeks to dominate the broader effort at the expense of other segments, the result would be fragmentation and defeat. Along with this, the program of the Communist Manifesto should be the decisive element in the programmatic orientation of these unified vanguard elements. There is no need for "programmatic agreement" on such historical matters as analyses of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, or the Second World War, or the nature of the former USSR.

This approach, which I think Proyect is advancing, makes sense to me. It projects the seasoning and tempering, through mass struggle, of substantial layers of activists who are part of the broad working-class vanguard, helping prepare the social base and organizational experience that are preconditions for the crystallization of a genuine revolutionary working-class party, or the practical equivalent of that party.

Owen Jones similarly seems to get it right when he argues for "a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the [neoliberal] Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens and independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I've met thousands who want to do something with their anger."

A broad left front, agreeing on certain basic programmatic principles, "could link together workers facing falling wages while their tax credits are cut; unemployed people demonized by a cynical media and political establishment; crusaders against the mass tax avoidance of the wealthy; sick and disabled people having basic support stripped away; campaigners against crippling cuts to our public services; young people facing a future of debt, joblessness and falling living standards; and trade unions standing their ground in the onslaught against workers' rights."

The way Alex Callincos dismisses this seems odd to me. "This sounds very nice but is quite misleading," he tells us, "since Jones is an increasingly high-profile member of the Labour Party." He then goes on to repeat the traditional SWP critique of the British Labour Party, counterposing this to the tradition that the SWP is attempting to continue: "Started by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this tradition reached its high point in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, when the Bolshevik Party led the first and still the only successful working class revolution. Leon Trotsky, who with Vladimir Lenin headed the Bolsheviks in October 1917, then fought the degeneration of the revolution with the rise of Stalin's tyranny between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s."

All of which is fine--and which could be quite consistent with responding positively to the Left front for working-class mass action that Jones is proposing. It seems obvious to me that the SWP could make powerful contributions to the process being projected here.

If, however, instead of seeing the revolutionary vanguard and its organization(s) as being forged through actual mass struggles, one sees the Socialist Workers Party as the true, already-existing revolutionary vanguard organization, making its way through a morass of flawed competitors, then perhaps one can afford to be dismissive. Is that what Callinicos actually believes? If so, then the parallels Proyect is drawing between the two SWPs and his warning about a "vanguardist glass ceiling" may be appropriate.

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Boundaries of Democratic Centralism

If something approximating a revolutionary vanguard party, with good politics and a mass base, can actually be forged by different currents joining together in the class struggle, then the question is posed as to how such a formation can hold together and be an effective force for the advance of the working class and the revolutionary cause. And this brings us back to the question of democratic centralism.

In their different conceptions of what this meant for Lenin and what it should mean for us, it seems to me that Proyect veers off the path of historical accuracy and political logic, while Callinicos traps himself in a problematical formulation that may be related to the present crisis of the British SWP.

Here is how Proyect explains the meaning of Lenin's conception of democratic centralism and relates it to our own time:

[According to John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World, in a 1917 public discussion on freedom of the press for capitalist newspapers] Lenin and Riazanov debated at a mass meeting and then voted against each other. This was normal Bolshevik functioning. All discipline meant was a [parliamentary] deputy voting according to instructions from the party's central committee, etc. For example, if Alex Callinicos was elected to parliament and instructed to vote against funding the war in Iraq, and then voted for funding, the party would be entitled to expel him.

This very narrow interpretation, however, is not the way the Mensheviks (Lenin's factional adversaries in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party) understood democratic centralism --and they were the first ones to introduce the term into the Russian revolutionary movement. The term involved much more for them than simply control over parliamentary delegates.

According to their resolution of November 1905, "decisions of the guiding collectives are binding on the members of those organizations of which the collective is the organ. Actions affecting the organization as a whole...must be decided upon by all members of the organization. Decisions of lower-level organizations must not be implemented if they contradict decisions of higher organizations." The Bolsheviks fully accepted the term. In a 1906 discussion, Lenin explained: "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out allcriticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided by the Party."[9]

At this point, it is time for us to turn our attention back to the formulation of Callinicos that we questioned earlier--that "our version of democratic centralism" involves two key points: 1) "decisions must be debated fully, but once the vote has been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members," and 2) "a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual congress, campaigns within the organization to give a clear direction to our party's work."

This two-point definition is different from the way Lenin and his comrades defined the term. Missing in what they put forward is Callinicos' emphasis on "a strong political leadership...giving clear direction to our party's work." But also missing is the broad insistence that "decisions" as such "are binding on all members."

In fact, Lenin was absolutely resistant to the efforts of some of his Menshevik comrades to establish "limits within which decisions of Party congresses may be criticized." As he stressed:

In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the Party are most ruthlessly criticized by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the Party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social-Democratic proletariat....

We are profoundly convinced that the workers' Social-Democratic organizations must be united, but in these united organizations, there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.[10]

Lenin went on to argue that "criticism within the principles of the Party Program must be quite free,...not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings."[11]

One might expect a change in the way Lenin and his comrades discussed the concept of democratic centralism in the 1921 organizational resolution on organization--but the section of that document dealing explicitly with democratic centralism contains nothing to contradict what Lenin was saying in 1906.

In fact, the document contains warnings regarding efforts by Communist Party leaderships to go too far in the direction of centralization. "Centralization in the Communist Party does not mean formal, mechanical centralization, but thecentralization of Communist activity, i.e., the creation of a leadership that is strong and effective and at the same time flexible," the document explained. It elaborated: "Formal or mechanical centralization would mean the centralization of 'power' in the hands of the Party bureaucracy, allowing it to dominate the other members of the Party or the revolutionary proletarian masses outside the Party."[12]

Freedom of discussion, unity of action remains the shorthand definition of Lenin's understanding of democratic centralism. The creation of an inclusive, diverse, yet cohesive democratic collectivity of activists is something precious and necessary that serious revolutionaries must continue to reach for. It is not clear that the world can be changed without that.

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Unfinished Leninism

As a serious Marxist theorist and educator, Alex Callinicos, in explaining the SWP commitment to the Leninist tradition, asks: "What does continuing a tradition mean?" He answers quite aptly that "genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal." This dovetails with points made by the organizational resolution which Lenin helped to prepare for the 1921 congress of the Communist International:

There is no absolute form of organization which is correct for all Communists Parties at all times. The conditions of the proletarian class struggle are constantly changing, and so the proletarian vanguard has always to be looking for effective forms of organization. Equally, each Party must develop its own special forms of organization to meet the particular historically-determined conditions within the country.[13]

Both the 1921 resolution and Callinicos' article, each in their own way, make the point that there has not arisen some qualitatively new form of organization--whether reformist or "movementist" or anarchist or syndicalist--that makes unnecessary the kind of revolutionary organization that Lenin sought to build. We will need something like that kind of organization in order to challenge capitalism effectively and to replace it with socialism.

Some of the formulations Callinicos advances seem to indicate such an organization already exists in the form of the British SWP. To question whether that organization is actually the party of the revolutionary vanguard (as opposed as an element of the future organization that has yet to be forged) does not eliminate the underlying point: the centrality of revolutionary organization.

If there is truly the need for such a revolutionary organization--inclusive, diverse, democratic, cohesive--then it seems clear that Leninism is far from "finished" in any sense of the word. It is something that is needed, it still has relevance.

More than this, the organizational forms and norms associated with Leninism must be applied creatively and flexibly, continually adapting to the shifting political, social, cultural realities faced by revolutionaries. These forms and norms must never become a final, finished, closed system--they are necessarily open, fluid, unfinished. In seeking to accomplish what the Bolsheviks accomplished, but to do it better, we need to engage with the praxis (thought and practical experience) of Lenin and his comrades, making use of it in facing our own realities. Much work remains to be done--the struggle continues.

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Notes

1. Alex Callinicos, "Is Leninism Finished?" Socialist Review, January, 2013, and Louis Proyect, "Leninism is Finished: A reply to Alex Callinicos," The Unrepentant Marxist, January 28, 2013.
2. Owen Jones, "British politics urgently needs a new force--a movement on the Left to counter capitalism's crisis,"The Independent, Sunday, January 2013.
3. For a massively documented account of the U.S. SWP experience in the 1980s, see Sarah Lovell, ed., The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party, 1979-1983, and Paul Le Blanc, ed., Revolutionary Principles and Working-Class Democracy, especially my introductory essay to the latter, "Leninism in the United States and the Decline of the Socialist Workers Party."
4. In fact, a day later, Proyect posted a communication from some dissident SWPers that approximates such formulations, in a response to Callinicos entitled "Is Zinovievism Finished?" The Unrepentant Marxist, January 29, 2013, and which concludes: "The time for Leninism to be tried is now long overdue."
5. Charles Post, "Lenin Reconsidered" (review of Lars Lih's Lenin), International Viewpoint, November 3, 2011. It seems to me that this is challenged by a serious examination of Lenin's thought--– for example, in V. I. Lenin,Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings, edited by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008). For a response to Post, see "The Enduring Value of Lenin's Political Thought," Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, 8 February 2012.
6. I touch on this in footnote 12 of my essay "The Great Lenin Debate – History and Politics," Links, September 1, 2012, criticizing an interpretation by Paul Kellogg, which led to a clarifying interchange between myself and Kelloggthat provided substantial documentation.
7. Leon Trotsky, "Preface," The History of the Russian Revolution, Marxist Internet Archive.
8. Proyect sees this as being related to the experience of SYRIZA in Greece. The meaning of SYRIZA is a focus of debate on the revolutionary left±see the presentation of Strathis Kouvalakis, "On tasks facing SYRIZA," Links, December 10, 2012, and Nikos Tamvlakis, "Could SYRIZA Become a 'new PASOK'?" International Viewpoint, November 26, 2012.
9. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993, 128, 130. The Menshevik quote is taken from Ralph Carter Elwood, ed., Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vol. 1: The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, 1898-October 1917 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974), 93-94. The Lenin quote is from Lenin's Collected Works, Vol. 10, 442-443.
10. Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 130; Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, 310-311.
11. Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 131; Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, 442-443.
12. "The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work: Theses," in Adler, ed., Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London: Ink Links, 1980), 235.
13. Ibid., 234.

A reply to Paul Le Blanc

by Louis Proyect http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/a-reply-to-paul-le-blanc/

Paul Le Blanc of the International Socialist Organization just wrote an article titled “Leninism is Unfinished” that tries to circumnavigate the differences between my approach, that of Alex Callinicos, and his own.

I will turn to Paul’s article but only after providing some background. I have been debating these questions with him since 1998 when he still shared the perspectives of The Fourth Internationalist Tendency, a small group that had recently disbanded and entered Solidarity as a group. The FIT had operated as an expelled faction trying to persuade the SWP of the United States to return to its gloried past. I certainly hope that the British comrades don’t get any silly ideas in the course of reading back issues of the FIT’s magazine about wooing their own leadership back to Planet Earth.

Unlike me, Paul viewed the American SWP’s collapse as a function of a radicalization that had run out of steam combined with Jack Barnes’s abnormal psychology. Although I put little stock in the psychological angle, I did get a smile when reading this:

The impact of Barnes in the SWP is a reflection not of Leninist principles or the tradition of Cannon, but of basic human psychological dynamics. The functioning of some SWP members, responding to the powerful personality and tremendous authority that Barnes assumed, brings to mind Freud’s insights on group psychology: ‘the individual gives up his ego-ideal [i.e., individual sense of right and wrong, duty, and guilt] and substitutes for it the group-ideal as embodied in the leader.’ The authority of the leader (in the minds of at least many members) becomes essential for the cohesion of the group, and the approval of the leader, or a sense of oneness with the leader, becomes a deep-felt need that is bound up with one’s own sense of self- worth.

But why do we have so many crazy Trotskyist leaders? Were they crazy to start with or does the burden of being “the Lenin of today” make people crazy? When you get Pablo, Posadas, Moreno in Latin America, and Gerry Healy, Jack Barnes, and now Charlie Kimber in the English-speaking world carrying on like the cast of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, you have to wonder if it is something in the way these organizations are structured rather than their qualification to be listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.

I want to start off with a clarification. Paul states my article contains a contradiction, namely that I defend Lenin’s approach even though I blame “the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model” for the British SWP’s problems, as well as the American group of the same name that is virtually extinct. He wonders if a more appropriate title for my essay would have been: “Cominternism is Dead, Long Live Genuine Leninism!” and drives the point home with this: “Among the many problems…is the fact that the 1920s Communist International of Zinoviev and Trotsky was also the Comintern of Lenin himself.” So how can I be critical of Lenin when he launched the Comintern, not Zinoviev?

I don’t expect Paul to be familiar with my thinking on Lenin’s role in all this, but I have written:

There are no shortcuts in building revolutionary parties, but the overwhelming tendency in “Marxism-Leninism” is to do things in the name of expediency… Unfortunately, this type of behavior is deeply ingrained in the Communist movement and got its start in the very early days of the Comintern, even when Lenin was in charge.

This is an excerpt from my article on The Comintern and German Communism that takes pretty strenuous exception to how Lenin treated Paul Levi, despite being applied in the name of “democratic centralism”. If Lenin’s organizational principles of the early 1920s represent the fruition of some sort of breach with the Kautskyite orthodoxy of “What is to Be Done”, then I’ll stick with the old soft drink rather than the new and improved formula.

What the Communist Party of the Soviet Union tried to do immediately after taking power was to create a model that other parties could follow. The first clear statement on organizational guidelines appeared in July of 1921. They stipulate: “to carry out daily party work every member should as a rule belong to a small working group, a committee, a commission, a fraction, or a cell. Only in this way can party work be distributed, conducted, and carried out in an orderly fashion.” It is not hard to understand where this kind of mechanical application of the Bolshevik experience was coming from. When you have a successful revolution, there is a tendency to write cookbooks with recipes for every occasion. That happened with the Cuban Revolution as well, the sad evidence being Che’s ill-fated venture in Bolivia based on Regis Debray’s “Revolution in the Revolution”.

Lenin was uneasy with these guidelines, writing “At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions.” I think if he had lived longer, he might have dumped them altogether. Indeed, the fact that he was considering moving the Comintern to another country showed his grasp of problems that would only deepen.

The remainder of Paul’s article gets into the minutiae of how democratic centralism was understood variously by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. I would prefer to deal with a question that is not addressed in the article but one that is essential to the tasks that face us today. Ironically, they are very much bound up with the opening words of Leon Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” that are embraced by some of the worst sectarians on the planet: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” The sectarians feel that forging a revolutionary program and recruiting cadre around it can resolve the crisis. This is how James P. Cannon, Tony Cliff and every other Trotskyist of note started out.

But I don’t think that Trotsky really understood how the crisis could be resolved. It was not by launching small propaganda groups that competed with each other, like small businesses each advertising its unique product line. Instead it requires building a framework that will allow the natural leadership of the working class to come together in a common framework.

Here is the problem. Ever since I have been involved with the left, there have been exceptional individuals who have emerged in the mass movement with socialist politics but who belong to no group. For example, many of the left wing leaders in the trade union movement are unaffiliated. The same thing is true with the Black, Latino, women’s and gay movements. I estimate that the layer of revolutionary leaders steeled in the struggle numbers in the tens of thousands.

The same situation confronted Lenin in 1903. He proposed that a newspaper be created that could provide a framework for the already existing working-class leadership that had no party. When there was a massive social democratic consciousness in Czarist Russia that had spread like a wildfire from Western Europe, the primary task was to help link up people like Kamenev, Bukharin, Trotsky, Plekhanov and Martov.

For example, Bukharin’s political life began at the age of 16 when he and his friend Ilya Ehrenburg built support for the 1905 revolution in student circles. The leadership of the Russian social democracy was men and women who had proven themselves in battle long before a party existed.

The problem with groups like the British SWP, the American SWP, the ISO et al is that they can never hope to attract the broad layers of such a leadership even though occasionally someone as talented as a Peter Camejo or a Richard Seymour is drawn into their ranks.

If you had visited Nicaragua in the 1980s, you would have met FSLN members who were neighborhood leaders of the fight against Somoza. They were leaders before they joined the FSLN. All the FSLN did was give the natural leadership of the Nicaraguan working class a vehicle for their aspirations. The same thing was true of the July 26th movement in Cuba. Ironically, despite the hatred directed against Stalinism from the Trotskyist movement, the Vietnamese CP was far more like the Bolsheviks than any section of the F.I. in this regard. I opposed the repression of the Trotskyists in Vietnam after WWII but like most of their co-thinkers they had no possibility of ever reaching the masses. Ho Chi Minh understood better.

In the final analysis, I don’t have any problem with the ISO being constituted as it is at present. They have little interest in the kind of approach I am laying out and know that if anybody spoke this way to me in 1969 when I was in the SWP I would have denounced them as petty bourgeois centrists, swamp dwellers, talk shop kibitzers, etc.

My appeal is really to independent-minded young people (and even some old fogies) in the tens of thousands who are sick and tired of the capitalist system and have learned to fight. They—we—need our own organization that can allow everybody to thrive within it and to draw upon each others’ abilities to move the struggle forward. I have seen encouraging signs of movement toward such a new approach and am sure that by the time my life is over a new period of revolutionary history will have begun.

I want to conclude with an article I wrote about a decade ago. I have posted it before but feel it is worth posting again since I have attracted many new readers since the last time it was posted. Instead of dealing in abstractions about how reach the workers, etc., it is a pretty specific set of proposals. I am no Lenin but I think the SWP would have been a lot better off if it had followed them.

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year that in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.

A) THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT

While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.

B) THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT

We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.

C) THE ANTI-IMPERIALIST MOVEMENT

This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.

D) RELATIONS WITH THE REST OF THE LEFT

One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.

E) REDEFINING OUR ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES

Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.

F) CONCLUSION

As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.

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