A lifetime ago, when I was a new member of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., I attended my first convention in New York City in 1967 at a small run-down hotel. I don’t remember much except party leader Harry Ring getting up during one discussion and explaining emphatically that it was not wrong to describe the Vietnam war as “illegal, unjust and immoral”, words that some party members apparently considered a concession to the middle-class left that it was working with in the antiwar movement.
The other thing I remember vividly was the need to keep “internal documents” out of the hands of non-party members. It was explained to me that this was part of the norms of “democratic centralism” that had been handed down since 1903 or so, like your grandfather’s antique pocket watch. The party had free-wheeling debate and discussion in the months leading up to the convention, where delegates would finally vote on the resolutions and counter-resolutions. Once that vote was taken, the new “party line” would become the official position of the party and henceforth its public face.
We understood that it was necessary to keep our debates a secret from the outside world, because the outside world was a transmitter of “alien class influences.” It was only within the party that a germ-free, sterile environment could be maintained. After the party had decided on its new positions at the convention, it could henceforth go out into the world and defend them before the masses. This, we understood, was how the Bolsheviks operated.
There were obvious differences between “Leninist” functioning and that of the bourgeois parties. Unlike us, the Democrats and Republicans used their quadrennial conventions to air out their differences before the public, just as they are doing now. Ron Paul makes no secret of his opposition to the war in Iraq, while Mitt Romney defends it openly; etc. You can go to the candidates’ websites and see all their primary platforms. Unlike them, Leninists were bent on keeping their differences a secret. During one pre-convention discussion, our branches were instructed to number a resolution under debate and return it at the end of the meeting, just to make sure that it wouldn’t get smuggled out like somebody making a video copy of a new movie at the local Cineplex for sale on the street. At the time, I found this process quite exhilarating as if I had joined some kind of leftwing version of the CIA, which also liked to stamp documents Top Secret.
Despite being strongly influenced by these rather puzzling norms, the Democratic Socialist Perspective, the largest “Leninist” group in Australia has broken with tradition, and made opposing resolutions public. If you go to http://www.dsp.org.au/site/?q=node/185, you will be able to read three contending resolutions. The first was drafted by the current party leadership and has a strong orientation to Venezuela. The second is put forward by the “Leninist Party Faction” (LPF). Leaving aside the politics, I find their nomenclature to be a bit troubling. It smacks of the kind of “orthodoxy” that has been a hallmark of Trotskyism from its inception. One would think that it would be high time to be dropping this kind of posturing, whatever the merits of the actual program being put forward. The third resolution, being put forward by one Clare Middlemas, shares the Leninist Party Faction’s discomfort with what appears to be a departure from orthodoxy and particularly the DSP’s work in the Socialist Alliance, about which I will have more to say momentarily.
But first I want to deal with the question of how Lenin’s party carried out debates, which ironically turns out to be not that different from the bourgeois parties, even under conditions of Czarist repression. It turns out that not only did the Bolsheviks carry out their debates in public; they also did not wait for conventions to do so. If I could have been expelled for denouncing party positions in public back in 1967, then surely the Bolsheviks were remiss in not following suit with Lenin himself who wrote a stinging attack on his party in an article titled “Heroes of Fraud and the Mistakes of the Bolsheviks” in September, 1917. It is commonly understood that Lenin was to the left of his central committee on the question of seizing power in Russia, but it is not so commonly understood that he took his differences with them to the public.
Lenin’s article appears in Rabochii ‘put (The Workers Way), a party newspaper. He writes:
And now I come to the errors of the Bolsheviks. To have confined themselves to ironic applause and exclamations at such a moment was an error.
The people are weary of vacillations and delays. Dissatisfaction is obviously growing. A new revolution is approaching. The reactionary democrats, the Lieberdans, Tseretelis and others, wish only to distract the attention of the people with their farce of a “conference”, keep them busy with it, cut the Bolsheviks off from the masses, and provide the Bolshevik delegates with the unworthy occupation of sitting and listening to the Zarudnys! And the Zarudnys are not the least sincere of them!
The Bolsheviks should have walked out of the meeting in protest and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions. The Bolsheviks should have left two or three of their 136 delegates for “liaison work”, that is, to report by telephone the moment the idiotic babbling came to an end and the voting began. They should not have allowed themselves to be kept busy with obvious nonsense for the obvious purpose of deceiving the people with the obvious aim of extinguishing the growing revolution by wasting time on trivial matters.
There are a couple of things that should pop into the head of those who are accustomed to thinking of Lenin as having unquestioning authority. If this was the case, why would he have to hold the feet of his central committee to the fire in this fashion? Can one imagine an Alex Callinicos writing an article in Red Pepper castigating the British SWP for dragging its feet on some question? Of course not. Furthermore, if he did, we know that he would be expelled immediately for violating “Leninist norms”, even if Lenin himself did so in 1917.
How these “Leninist norms” evolved is a question beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that they should be called “Zinovievist norms” instead. In the early 1920s, Zinoviev used his authority as one of the key leaders of the CP to codify “democratic centralism” in a kind of blueprint fashion. His norms were adopted by the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern and its sister parties throughout the world, including the CP in the U.S., which included future SWP leader James P. Cannon. After Cannon was expelled for supporting Trotsky, he set up a new party that challenged Kremlin orthodoxy across the board, but not on the question of how to build a revolutionary party. The DSP is still on record as favoring these “Leninist norms” but thankfully might be relaxing them somewhat through the publication of rival resolutions on its website.
While I am generally loath to offer opinions on strategy and tactics in other countries, I will say a word or two now about the differences within the DSP, which revolve around its participation in something called the Socialist Alliance. The DSP leadership’s resolution states:
After seven years of life the Socialist Alliance represents a modest but definite step towards the emergence of a broadly based anti-capitalist party in Australia. It is identified by advanced elements of the working class as the political pole of militant initiatives on the trade union movement (particularly in initiating a mass campaign against the anti-worker “Work Choices” laws) and for more general leadership in other progressive social movements, including the anti-war, anti-racist, environment and democratic rights movements. The continued membership in the Socialist Alliance of significant mass leaders and hundreds of other individuals not belonging to the DSP or any other left group is evidence of this.
The Leninist Party Faction is very critical of this initiative:
However, our decision to begin building SA as our new party in formation from early 2003 – formalised in the December 2003 change of name to Democratic Socialist Perspective – was a mistake. The attempt coincided with the retreat of the anti-war movement and the ebb of the post-1998 resurgence of militant trade unionism, leading to a sharp contraction of the active layer of unaffiliated SA members. We proceeded with the SA party-building turn despite opposition from all but one of the other SA affiliates.
While the ebb of the social movements since 2003 would have made it very difficult to sustain SA as an alliance of socialists, we killed it off by hiding the DSP behind the mask of SA with a shrinking pool of active SA partners. Since 2003 the trajectory of SA has been a progressive decline while the left unity dynamic has dissipated. Given the formal or de facto abandonment of SA by all the other affiliates, and given the small number of unaffiliated SA activists, SA is no longer a genuine alliance, much less a broad left party in formation. The “Socialist Alliance” today is little more than the public face of the DSP.
Basically, the LPF wants to turn the clock back and have the DSP operate more openly in its own name. I think it would be fair to describe the faction as unreconstructed James P. Cannon, while the DSP leadership has one foot in the Cannonite tradition and one foot planted somewhat unsurely in 21st century realities. My own position is that it would be best to allow these traditions to rest in peace since they are rooted in a fundamentally schematic understanding of the Russian revolution. To put it as bluntly as possible, if Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez had tried to build a movement based on James P. Cannon’s writings, there never would have been a revolution in Cuba and Hugo Chavez would have remained an obscure military figure. Revolutionary parties have to be built out of the living experience of the country you live in and can not be cobbled together out of formulas from the 1920s. Even Lenin was sensitive to this problem in 1921 when he described the July 12, 1921 Theses on the Structure of Communist Parties–an early manifestation of the Zinovievist error–as follows:
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. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner–I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian…it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it…My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward.
Now that I have had a chance to think about the Respect fiasco in Britain, I have a much better handle on the problems faced by the DSP in Australia or the abortive attempt to build a Socialist Alliance in Britain itself, which was an obvious inspiration for the Australian initiative.
Respect and the Socialist Alliances were projects that were influenced strongly by the British SWP’s peculiar “united front” conceptions. In the 1920s, the united front was a very limited agreement between rival leftwing parties (basically the CP’s and the SP’s) to come together at a particular time and place with a very limited goal–such as a demonstration against fascism, etc. From the CP’s perspective, the united front was seen as a tactic to expose the SP leaders who would balk at uniting with their leftist opponents–thus making the SP rank-and-file more open to joining the CP.
There were also instances in which the CP urged support for an SP candidate, but this was also a tactic meant to ultimately weaken the SP. If the ordinary SP worker felt the need to back his party’s candidate, why create artificial obstacles by opposing the SP candidate as a matter of “principle”. In order to convince the worker of the superiority of the CP program, you had to have a conversation. Opposing their candidates is a conversation-stopper. There is evidence that John Percy, formerly the national secretary of the DSP but now an oppositionist in the LPF, always saw the Socialist Alliance as a maneuver in the spirit of the CP’s in the 1920s:
We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to make an approach to the local International Socialist Organisation, for joint work, joint election campaigns and a regrouping of the left.’ They either had to respond positively, or suffer a political blow and organisational losses.
In that respect, our tactic worked: they’re certainly a lot weaker than they were in 2001, suffering splits and attrition. And at their Marxism conference in September, they had half the attendance of recent years, with just 40 at their final session.
The Socialist Alliances were never really thought through adequately. On one hand, they were seen as a genuine attempt to break down sectarianism. On the other hand, they were maneuvers that would allow one group to prosper at the expense of another. The failure to really identify the goals of the DSP in building a Socialist Alliance reflects differences between the majority and the LPF. The former is attempting to break with sectarianism, but only incompletely while the LPF probably always saw the Socialist Alliance as a wedge against its “opponents” on the left, the ISO in particular. Now that it has outlived its usefulness, the LPF simply wants to liquidate it.
I think it has become clear that these “alliances” between rival would-be vanguard parties simply cannot work. As long as there is an underlying assumption that one group has the inside track on the British, Australian, etc. revolution, there will be cracks and fissures all along the way. This does not even address the problem of how an unaffiliated “independent” would regard life in a Socialist Alliance. If they sense that decisions are being made beforehand at SWP or DSP headquarters, what is the point of arguing in favor of some proposal that does not meet with the “vanguard party’s” approval?
I do think that all-inclusive left parties are viable but only if groups like the SWP or the DSP transcend their current political and organizational framework, which is too much to expect unfortunately. The first thing that would have to go is the notion that their particular group has the inside track on the coming revolution based on some “program” that has been worked out in advance. The truth is that a “program” is not something pulled together in advance of a struggle for power, like a blueprint for a house but rather emerges during the course of struggle by working through one’s ideas and testing them against reality. When you strip away the distinguishing features of these small propaganda groups, which inevitably revolve around how to analyze the nature of the USSR, you find agreement across a variety of questions, from ecology to woman’s liberation.
Some day Marxists in Britain and Australia will find a way to unite around a common understanding of the immediate tasks facing the working class without any of the excess baggage associated with “democratic centralism” and “the Russian questions”. Let’s hope that the comrades in the British SWP and the Australian DSP have the good sense to join with them.