Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 28, 2010

The Laurie Penny-SWP dispute

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,student revolt — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Laurie Penny

As a long time commentator on the British SWP, I could not help but notice the exchange between Laurie Penny, a 23 year old student activist, and a couple of leaders of the group, Alex Callinicos and Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame. Actually, I don’t know if Richard is a leader in the formal sense but my fondest hopes is that one day he will lead this organization that despite its boneheaded ideas about party-building has some of the sharpest minds anywhere in the world operating in the name of Marxism.

The first salvo was fired by Ms. Penny in a Comments are Free article in the Guardian newspaper, where she wrote:

It is highly significant that one of the first things this hydra-headed youth movement set out to achieve was the decapitation of its own official leadership. When Aaron Porter of the National Union of Students was seen to be “dithering” over whether or not to support the protests, there were immediate calls for his resignation – and in subsequent weeks the NUS has proved itself worse than irrelevant as an organising force for demonstrations.

Of course, the old left is not about to disappear completely. It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.

This is pretty unfair, but something has to be said about street sales or free distribution of printed material, a hallmark of very few groups today outside religious sects like the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Marxist-Leninists like the British SWP, or the American SWP that I belonged to.

Around the time that the Comintern was launched, street sales of newspapers were quite common so socialists hawking the Daily Worker or the Militant did not stand out. But by the 1950s at least, this practice had died out.

I remember one of my early experiences selling the Militant at a Stop the Draft Week demonstration in 1969, before I had become totally acculturated to the Trotskyist movement. As a large group of mostly student youth assembled in the streets near the Whitehall Induction Center just a stone’s throw from the Staten Island Ferry, I stood a distance away with a bundle of papers in my left elbow and holding up one with my right hand, saying in just a decibel over conversational level: “Get your latest copy of the Militant”. The whole thing made me feel weird, but I was committed to building a socialist movement and assumed that if the leadership thought it was a good idea, who was I to quibble—especially being the son of a shopkeeper.

After about fifteen minutes or so, I felt a kind of rabbit chop to the back of my neck—not enough to cause me any real pain but enough to grab my attention. It was Dave Frankel, a “youth leader” who would eventually end up writing for the Militant. Frankel was one of the more obnoxious people I ever ran into in the SWP, and—mind you—he had some stiff competition. After I spun around to see who had administered the rabbit chop (an SDS’er?), I saw it was Frankel who glared at me with a cold grin on his face and said “Sell, comrade, sell.”

I should have followed my instincts and resigned on the spot. Indeed, about a month later I met with the SWP organizer to inform him that I had plans to go back to graduate school, which would leave me little time for party activities. He replied that my services were urgently needed in Boston where Peter Camejo was involved with a faction fight against a group of comrades who had adapted to the Worker-Student-Alliance wing of SDS. That sounded like fun to me, so I moved up to Boston leaving thoughts of graduate school behind.

Yes, I know. I am going off on tangents. That is what happens when you get to be my age.

For Penny, the real dividing line seems to be between spontaneity and social networking on one side and “old left” newspaper sellers with their top-down approach on the other. She wrote:

For these young protesters, the strategic factionalism of the old left is irrelevant. Creative, courageous and inspired by situationism and guerrilla tactics, they have a principled understanding of solidarity. For example, assembling fancy-dress flash mobs in Topshop to protest against corporate tax avoidance may seem frivolous, but this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis.

Unfortunately bold tactics can only go so far in a mass movement that rests on a relatively weak social base, like university students. Situationism does certainly have its appeal to art students and the like, but I am not sure whether the heavy battalions of labor are easily drawn in to such actions. Indeed, the decline of the anti-globalization movement can be attributed in large part to adventuristic street tactics that could only go so far in forcing the ruling class to abandon the WTO and the like.

Alex Callinicos clearly has a handle on this given his long background in Marxist politics. In his reply that appeared on Comments are Free, he notes:

The important question now is how the student movement can maintain its forward momentum – despite the passage of higher tuition fees through parliament – and invigorate much broader resistance to the coalition’s austerity programme. Penny rightly welcomes the support that Len McCluskey, the new general secretary of Unite, has given the student movement. But his intervention underlines the fact that old political problems don’t simply go away when a new movement emerges…

All this points to the fact that trade union leaders are a lot better at fighting talk than effective action. And this is a very old problem, one with which feminists and Marxists like Penny and me have been grappling since at least the beginning of the 20th century. One of the strengths of student movements is the speed and elan with which they close the gap between words and deeds. This was as visible in France in 1968 as in Britain in 2010. But students lack the collective economic strength that, for all the setbacks it has suffered, the trade union movement still possesses.

Callinicos is far too smart to repeat the formulas of the cruder Marxist-Leninist groups, but it is crystal-clear—especially to an erstwhile practitioner like me—that he was alluding to the need for a revolutionary party that can unite various social layers—students, workers, etc.—into a common fighting front, like fingers being transformed into a fist. You get the picture, right?

The only problem with this conception is that the SWP does not have porous borders like the student movement. The relationship is totally one-sided. The students discuss strategy and tactics openly at their meetings and come to a vote. Anybody can say what they want, as long as it is understood that a democratic decision will guide the actions of the movement. But the SWP’s borders are guarded carefully against penetration from the outside. Students understand that the SWP comes to its decisions at meetings that are limited to party members. Once a decision is made, the line is presented to the mass movement as a fait accompli. No matter how convincing the case made for a particular tactic by someone like Laurie Penny, the SWP’er will vote in strict discipline with his or her comrades.

To put it as succinctly as possible, this methodology has been the ruin of the Marxist-Leninist left even as it has served its narrow, short-term interests. In a way, the democratic centralism of the self-declared vanguard parties is a mirror reflection of the business model of late capitalism in which quarterly earnings reports trump the long-term viability of the system. In seeking to advance its own narrow interests through a mechanical understanding of democratic centralism that has little to do with the way the Bolsheviks operated, groups such as the SWP can mobilize its ranks to get things done in a hurry even if it means isolating itself in the mass movement. The American SWP used to call itself “the big red machine” after this fashion. It helped us win votes at antiwar conferences even if it meant alienating the independents–our versions of Laurie Penny. Their numbers were legion.

Let’s turn now to the always refreshing and insightful Richard Seymour, whose response to Penny appears in the Liberal Conspiracy blog, where Penny has held forth on a fairly regular basis. Richard concludes his article thusly:

SWP members are willing to accept serious flack and criticism from the Left. We’re not infallible, we have made mistakes, and we’re open to learning from experience. And even if you don’t agree with the lessons that we draw, it doesn’t matter.

We don’t make it a condition of unity that you agree with us, or even like us very much. But it would help if, when we’re actually trying to help build unity in the most urgent situations, such as the struggle against fascism, others on the Left don’t try to undermine that unity with spurious and ungrounded attacks on those they disagree with.

Again, the problem is with the understanding of unity. For Richard, unity means the ability of left groups to work with other left groups and with unaffiliated activists. Now it does not mean very much if the SWP has figured out ways in the past to work with Peter Taaffe’s group or the CP or with any other left party. It is understood that these parties will come to a conference with their agendas set pretty much in stone. Their goal is to persuade the unaffiliated to vote for their proposals. That’s the way that the American SWP operated and it is frankly little more than a charade. A truly living mass movement is democratic to the core. And how can you have true democracy when decisions are made beforehand at someone’s central committee?

As I said earlier, this is not the way that the Bolsheviks operated. Proof of this is in John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” where Reed refers to the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky:

However, the right wing of the Bolsheviki, led by Riazanov, Kameniev and Zinoviev, continued to campaign against an armed uprising. On the morning of October 31st appeared in Rabotchi Put the first installment of Lenin’s “Letter to the Comrades,” one of the most audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen. In it Lenin seriously presented the arguments in favour of insurrection, taking as text the objections of Kameniev and Riazanov.

As it turns out, Rabotchi Put was not an internal discussion bulletin of the kind that we were warned never to allow “outsiders” to see in the American Trotskyist movement, but the daily Bolshevik newspaper that was sold on the streets all over St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Lenin’s article is found in an appendix to Reed’s book and it is a real eye-opener. Against Kameniev and Riazanov’s argument that “we have not a majority”, Lenin replies that they “simply don’t want to look the real situation in the face” and draws the readers’ attention to the peasant uprising sweeping Russia, which cannot be readily reflected in parliamentary totals.

Needless to say, this is simply not the way that modern-day self-styled “Leninist” parties operate. They think that having members disagree with each other in public is a “social democratic talk shop”. But in fact, that is the way that the Bolsheviks operated and that allowed them to win the majority of Russian workers and peasants. If you are of course content to run a closed-off sect that does not have to put up with the inconveniences of the unenlightened masses, then none of this is particularly attractive even if it is historically faithful to the real Bolshevik party.

It would appear that Laurie Penny has the final word in The New Statesman, where she blogs regularly. In a reply to Alex Callinicos, she is more right than wrong, particularly this observation:

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker’s revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin’s ideas about the function of a party paper – that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals – were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It’s no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It’s not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year’s student revolutions have a background in far left agitation, and many more do not – but nearly all of us know precisely what’s at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It’s far bigger than that.

I doubt that the SWP will agree with her, but I hope that at least she is listened to carefully for in many respects she is closer to the spirit of Lenin’s party than they might have gathered. As some self-proclaimed and unrepentant Marxists try to recapture the spirit of the messy, free-spirited and even anarchic (in the sense of uncontrolled) nature of the Bolshevik party, we will eventually find ourselves converging not only with Laurie Penny but the real mass movement that exists, which by its very definition will not belong to any closed-off party but to the entire population of working people and its allies.

UPDATE

Richard Seymour has a lengthy reply to Laurie Penny here:

http://leninology.blogspot.com/2010/12/in-defence-of-old-hierarchies.html

It is mostly a defense of newspapers that makes every point in the world worth making but that fails to grasp that the SWP newspaper does not function like Lenin’s Iskra. The sooner these comrades come to terms with this, the better off they will be. I would not hold my breath waiting, however.

60 Comments »

  1. Yes. Absolutely. Rarely do I find myself so whole-heartedly agreeing with a post here. For revolutionary Marxists to be relevant they have to grasp the current communications revolution by the horns and embrace it contradictions and all. And this means they must organizationally adopt a more open stance, make their boundaries more porous and flexible, engage in honest debate with those being radicalized. This lack of an open face was a problem in the global justice movement and it is even more of a problem now. Movements now happen in real time but rev orgs operate much slower if they react at all (and often the reaction that does happen is the initiative of individuals working around rather than through an org). And revolutionaries need to figure out how to defend these new means of communications (and prioritize their defense) before the capitalists figure out a way to completely suppress, repress or neutralize them. The US State Department is all about celebrating ‘internet freedom’ when it is China or Iran or Venezuela that is at the receiving end of popular discontent but as soon as it starts blowing big holes in their own hegemony with mass organizing against austerity in Europe or the Wikileaks thing, they drop the pretense.

    Comment by dave x — December 28, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

  2. Shawn, either you don’t understand a word I have written or understanding me, refuse to acknowledge what I am talking about. Nobody cares that the SWP “encourages the open discussion of perspectives at branch meetings that are open to non-members.” The problem is the meetings that are closed to non-members, where decisions about RESPECT, the antiwar movement and everything else is made. You know and I know that “discipline” means abiding by these decisions and keeping your criticisms within the group and particularly during pre-convention discussion. I know the drill. Really I do. Suffice it to say the Bolsheviks did not operate that way. We need to return to genuine Bolshevism not the toy car version.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 28, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

  3. Penny say, “It’s not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities…”

    Seymore says “this is only incidentally about technology, and more fundamentally about the forms of organisation that they engender…”

    You know what? I think it’s about the technology and a cultural divide. (I might be using the wrong language, but I thought Penny’s story about wanting the papers to burn at the demo was a hilarious statement about culture clash.)

    Comment by Wendell Dryden — December 28, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

  4. Of all places, The New Yorker published a good critique of the notion that text messaging and tweets are revolutionary for revolutionaries.

    “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”
    Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker, October 4, 2010
    See print edition or read intro and buy at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell

    Comment by Charles — December 28, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  5. “Of all places, The New Yorker published a good critique of the notion that text messaging and tweets are revolutionary for revolutionaries.”

    There’s a substantial review essay of three books, pointing out the limitations of social media in the democratic struggle in Iran and generally how the capitalists their state can easily use social media more effectively than their opponents, at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n23/james-harkin/cyber-con We should remember different media and tech can play different roles, and that the paradigms are not necessarily as absolutely different as some claim. E.g. the Bolsheviks did have some instant communications: the telegraph had been around since the 1850s, and insurrections were coordinated to some extent by field telephones. Murdoch still pays thousands of people at every major train station in Australia to dish out his free newspaper so I’m not sure print media or its public distribution is completely weird or outdated yet.

    I don’t think Laurie Penny, while an articulate spokesperson of some current opinion, adds very much to debates on the left. It’s particularly tiresome to read generalised claims of “my generation”. Maybe I’m an old fart now but I’m pretty sure I thought exactly the same 18 years ago when I was her age.

    I’ve taken up with Louis a few times before what I see is his fetishisation of “openess” and his apparent view that lack of same was the overriding characteristic and fundamental problem of all “Leninist” groups. I’ll just add now I’m quite happy that Socialist Alliance in Australia is much more open than the DSP was in the recent past (when it was fairly strictly of the closed meeting and discussion school – somewhat contradicting Louis’ thesis it had various practices in this regard in the past such as printing its pre-conference discussion in a public magazine or at one point its weekly paper).

    This hardly solves the problem of building a socialist organisation in a relatively stable capitalist country though. More to the point is building an organisation on a broader basis than a specific interpretation of the ex-Soviet Union (though I suppose this is very likely to be a more open exercise than a narrowly defined brand of Marxism group). What I found particularly hopeful about the earlier period of SA was not that particularly meetings were all open and all discussion put online, but that IS comrades started to write major articles for Green Left (and stopped just as the UK SWP changed their “united front” from the UK Socialist Alliance to Respect – what a coincidence). Currently SA seems to doing OK combining an activist culture while involving a broader range of people at various levels that the DSP did. This seems particularly important in relating to the immigrant left

    Comment by Nick Fredman — December 28, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

  6. But it’s also to say that for an organization to exist as an organization it has to have organization-specific decision-making structures. And the people involved in making those decisions have to accountable to the membership. If anybody can show up and vote and they don’t have to live with the consequences of those decisions (since it isn’t their organization), how is that more democratic or accountable, either internally or externally in relation to the outside world?

    Well, the problem is that when a group like the SWP functions in a broader mass movement that has its own democratic decision-making processes, it is an affront to that movement to have people coming to meetings abiding by their own internal discipline. As I have said, this is not the way that the Bolsheviks functioned but the SWP is free to operate in its own toy car manner.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 28, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

  7. There’s a rather psychotic rebuttal to her points here:

    http://qlipoth.blogspot.com/2010/12/laurie-penny-expresses-her-abhorrence.html

    Comment by Jenny — December 28, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

  8. “I thought Penny’s story about wanting the papers to burn at the demo was a hilarious statement about culture clash”

    As is often the case when reading an article by Laurie Penny, I doubt that this is a totally honest account of something that actually happened. Specifically, the bit where the SWP member supposedly demands that people sing ‘the Internationalle’ as some kind of test seems highly unlikely.

    Comment by JN — December 28, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

  9. When union delegates attend labour central (eg. AFL-CIO) or labour party conventions they are often (usually?) mandated to vote in particular ways and for particular candidates.

    I don’t see the point of referring me to the trade unions as a way of helping me to understand why the SWP has to operate the way it does. My suggestion to you is to read Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought” that explains how Lenin’s party functioned. This should be our model, not what Tony Cliff erroneously defined as “Leninism”.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 28, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

  10. The fact that ‘Gladwell’ is being referenced to defend the behavior of revolutionary socialist orgs is telling. Nothing like substituting neoliberal business lit for real thought and analysis. In any case Gladwell is wrong. For one, he mis-analyzes the social networks that he is describing. He describes the new social networks as being based on ‘loose ties’. There is some truth to this, in that some one with 500 ‘friends’ on Facebook is not really friends in a traditional sense with most of these people. But this does not mean that there aren’t strong ties, ties that represent close friends, coworkers, family, people for whom, in the right circumstances, one would be willing to go out on a limb for, sacrifice for, perhaps more. One of the deep effects of late capitalism has been the replacing and repressing ties of natural human solidarity, ties that were strengthened in the development process of industrial capitalism, with those individualist consumer culture. The process by which this has been accomplished are complex, and includes processes such as suburbanization, deindustrialization, privatization and destruction of public space. In fact the communications revolution that now enables social networking has been instrumental in the creation of a highly atomized and alienated late capitalist culture, the difference is that the technology has started to cut the other way. Close friends and family who I might only have sent cards to or called occasionally in the past are now an everyday part of my life. And then there are the ‘weak ties’. I am now much more connected to the rest of humanity and their personal social and political concerns than I was even a few years ago. I am drawn into debates with people with whom I would never otherwise interact and I find myself tied to them in surprising ways. The proliferation of ‘weak ties’ is a strength not a weakness of the new social networks. It has a magnifying effect. Strong ties are stronger and weak ties are stronger, more numerous, more diverse and extend farther in geographic and demographic terms than in the past. And all ties are now mediated by means of advanced communication technology. This does not undo decades of late capitalist alienation but it -is- something, enough apparently to be explosive, at least in some situations. The danger is in how this technology is itself under the control and ownership of an alien class power with interests different from the mass of humanity. What they bestow as a poisoned gift we must demand as our right.

    Comment by dave x — December 28, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

  11. Shawn, I just discovered that you are RedBedHead, a strong supporter or member of the Cliffite current. It would be a waste of time for me to persuade you that I was right since I know from experience that when you are committed to or a member of a “vanguard formation”, you cannot think outside the box. My tendency is to spell out my ideas at some length in this blog and allow others to contribute their own in the comments. Please don’t ask me to answer your questions since that would take up too much of my time and energy.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 28, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

  12. Shawn, let me repeat. Please feel free to spell out your ideas on party-building here. Just don’t expect me to debate you or to answer your questions. This blog, unlike Richard’s and many others, is not where I prefer to have exchanges. I do that on the Marxism list. So please go ahead without me.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 12:28 am

  13. Louis said:

    “My suggestion to you is to read Neil Harding’s ‘Lenin’s Political Thought’ that explains how Lenin’s party functioned.”

    Considering that Lenin’s party functioned differently at different times, this is a little vague.

    I presume you’re thinking more of the party organization Lenin wanted to see a few years after WITBD? That was a time when the Duma was being quite obviously pared down to suit what the Tsar and other holders of (feudal) power wanted; political power was quite obviously being withheld by the Powers That Were, and the russian people were pushing against that (and Lenin opened up the Bolsheviks with that in mind). It was political power that the people wanted then, especially when they saw it being taken away from them. That doesn’t seem to be anywhere near to what these protesters want; if anything, they seem to be trying their best to _eschew_ political power or demand that the people who made the problem they’re protesting against “do something” about it (as if a bourgeois government would do anything substantial against the interests of the bourgeois).

    I think there’s still plenty of time before democracy gets so openly rotten that centralist parties might be better served by changing their structures.

    Comment by Todd — December 29, 2010 @ 3:15 am

  14. This idea that groups of people going to a meeting who’ve caucassed before are an ‘affront’ assumes that most people go to meetings simply as individuals and that the only organised groups are revolutionaries. This is simply false. At least in Britain. The real problem here was that attempts to build broad political platforms were launched by revolutionaries and they remained in the majority. This reflected all kinds of weaknesses and led to all kinds of problems. But the big problem with this discussion is that it assumes that this will always be the case. I don’t think it will. And Shaun is quite right to point to slightly alice in wonderland quality of comparisons between the two SWPs. They really were not the same kind of animal. At all.

    Comment by johng — December 29, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  15. There is an awful lot to respond to here, but mainly on the white heat of technology: speaking as a painfully inadequate internet geek, who has on the whole preferred computers to people since at least the age of 7, I’m here to tell you that in the grand historical sense, nothing has changed. Before there was social networking, there were e-lists; before there were e-lists, there were zines and so forth. The mainstream media has every bit as much dominance on the net as they do in dinosaur formats like print and TV. The fact that anyone can say anything has simply made people more reliant on ‘gatekeepers’ to filter out the white noise. (In reality, that’s how it ever was – you could scribble your thoughts onto a sheet of paper, photocopy a few and hand them out, and you’ll get as much of a hearing as you will on a blog.)

    In fact, big capital has more control overall. You could drop a nuclear bomb on Wapping and that wouldn’t stop an SWP (or whatever) print shop from printing a paper. If you have the right gear, you can make pirate radio, whatever anyone thinks about the matter. Private companies, however, could literally pull down the internet if they wanted to – and you couldn’t very easily start your own.

    On a smaller scale, FB etc are governed by terms of use commandments, which can be bent and broken to get rid of whatever troublesome elements they like. Once upon a time, there was (believe it or not) a thriving culture of socialist debate squirrelled away on the Myspace groups system. After a while, every left leaning group came under systematic hack attacks – after the Murdoch buyout especially, the company simply wasn’t interested in protecting us. So it died – completely. Thankfully, now Myspace is dying too. Bastards.

    Comment by Jim Grant — December 29, 2010 @ 11:41 am

  16. John G.: The real problem here was that attempts to build broad political platforms were launched by revolutionaries and they remained in the majority.

    Once again, as in the case with RedBedHead, there is a refusal to engage with my underlying thesis, namely that the “democratic centralist”, “Leninist” foundations of the SWP are bogus. They rest upon a misreading of Soviet history. By focusing on the narrow concerns of the SWP as it maneuvers its way through one coalition or another, you are missing the big picture. You have to study Neil Harding. You have to study Lars Lih. And most of all, you have to study Lenin. Everything else is secondary.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  17. Who’s talking about Soviet history?

    Well, I am. I think you people are operating under a false assumption about what a Leninist party is. You have to study the reality of Lenin’s party rather than the bogus version handed down to you by Tony Cliff. Otherwise, you will persist as a sect. But if that makes you feel comfortable, don’t let me stand in the way.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  18. [...] everybody else seems to have something to say about it, I might as well offer my tuppence worth. I’m talking about the [...]

    Pingback by Talkin’ ’bout my generation « Media Studies is Shit — December 29, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  19. Here’s a newsflash: there are hundreds of people in the SWP who have read as much Lenin as you and who disagree with you, so references to the authority of Lenin in some sort of abstract sense are useless.

    Of course there is a disagreement. The SWP understands Lenin filtered through Tony Cliff. I used to understand Lenin myself through James P. Cannon’s interpretation. This is of course the outcome of Cliff and Cannon learning about Bolshevism through Trotsky, who also misunderstood. As I pointed out in the article above, the Bolsheviks did not have “internal discussions”. They debated seizing power in the pages of their newspaper. The SWP, and all other “vanguard” groups I should add, see their newspapers as a way to disseminate the party line. This is contrary to the modus operandi of the Bolsheviks and you are of course welcome to organize however you please. Just understand that you are following a different model than the Bolsheviks. I advocate a return to genuine Bolshevism and abandoning the sectarian model that prevails among self-declared “vanguard” formations. That is the long and the short of it.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

  20. So to be clear: Mr “Unrepentant Marxist” is a “long time commentator on the British SWP” but thinks that talking to “supporter[s] or member[s] of the Cliffite current” is beneath him & a waste of his precious time. Some would call that quite arrogant.

    As for Laurie Penny:

    “even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker”

    What is the point in this completely unecessary insult? Of course, when called on it, she claims that she meant it in a nice way when she likened us to cockroaches. As for “sourfaced”, I doubt Laurie Penny has ever been mistaken for a ray of sunshine.

    “Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated…”

    Laurie is a hep cat; she’s down with the kids, the “young cyber-activists”. Not like us dinosaurs who still read things printed on paper. Of course, the reality is that damn near everyone reads SOME paper or magazine fairly often. A website is not a replacement for the paper. They are 2 different things. We can, should, & do have both. Certainly the paper could always be improved (as could the website) but it is not obsolete as a medium. Similarly, Twitter/Facebook etc can be used in addition to other forms of communicating & organising but not as a replacement for them.

    And Louis Proyect: No one LIKES selling the papers.

    “…as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action”

    What exactly is this meant to mean? Is she critiscising the SWP for having a coherent ideology within the party? Would it be better to be more like Laurie Penny herself & be clueless & confused (this is the tactical genius who was urging people to vote for the LibDems a few months ago, who apparently thinks the conflict over the cuts is between generations rather than classes).

    Or is she claiming that the SWP refuses to work with anyone who doesn’t share the ideology of the SWP? That would just be untrue.

    Comment by JN — December 29, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  21. You’re talking about the Bolsheviks in 1917, in the midst of a year-long revolutionary explosion when they had grown from 20,000 members to 250,000 members in about 8 months.

    Sigh. I can see that this is going nowhere so I will simply leave it at this. Iskra was launched in order to facilitate debates within Russian Marxism. The paper and its subsequent manifestations were filled with debates. Lenin and Bukharin debated the national question, for example, in the pages of official Bolshevik newspapers in 1913. You can read about this in Stephen Cohen’s bio of Bukharin.

    RedBedHead, you really need to study the history of the Bolshevik party using independent, reliable and scholarly sources. But it would take too much time and energy for me to correct all your misstatements in the comments section of my blog so I am going to let you have the last word and let it drop.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  22. Do you really think that the way the Bolsheviks operated in 1917 is directly applicable to the SWP in 2010? We are a far smaller party working in completely different circumstances.

    “The SWP understands Lenin filtered through Tony Cliff… learning about Bolshevism through Trotsky”

    Marxism was never meant to be a finished product. It is meant to be applied. Tony Cliff did not “filter” Lenin any more than Lenin “filtered” Marx. He attempted to apply Marxism as developed by Lenin, Trotsky, & others. Of course, there will be disagreements but spare us the “I have the one true Bolshevism as revealed to me directly by the Prophet Lenin” nonsense.

    Comment by JN — December 29, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

  23. Do you really think that the way the Bolsheviks operated in 1917 is directly applicable to the SWP in 2010?

    Actually, the Bolsheviks operated as a social democratic party. “What is to be Done” is nothing but a proposal that a party modeled after Kautsky’s party be built in Russia. Things got fucked up when Zinoviev codified “Leninism” in 1924 based on a totally mechanical understanding of what the party was about. This version was adopted by both Trotskyists and Stalinists. We need to build *socialist* parties that have leftwing programs and open debates among the leaders and the ranks. In fact, “democratic centralism” was a principle that existed among social democratic parties before 1903 throughout Europe. Read this for some background:

    http://www.columbia.edu/%7Elnp3/mydocs/organization/lenin_in_context.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

  24. There have also been debates in the Socialist Review. So what is the issue?

    Well, look, if you think that the SWP is characterized by open debate among its leaders and ranks in the party press, don’t let me get in the way. Somehow I must have missed Rees and Callinicos battling it out over RESPECT, except through purloined internal discussion bulletins. In fact many people in the USA think that the earth is 10,000 years old. Who am I to challenge such cherished beliefs.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

  25. I think the term “Vanguard Party” is used in two distinct ways. It is used by members of any given organization who believe they have the best program and organizational model to win workers, farmers and youth to the ideals of revolutionary socialism. Perhaps they can be forgiven for such indiscretions, for the simple fact that if they didn’t believe this to be true there would be no reason or need to maintain a seperate, organizational existance.

    The term is also used as a descriptive by many experienced Marxists to refer to the KIND of organization, given the unsavory character of the class enemy, when the fight for power is actually on, i.e., a centralized, disciplined party that can deliever the necessary blows.

    Having said this, I was a member of the US-SWP for nearly thirty years, from my late teens into my early middle-age, and at a time when actual mass movements, or the remnants of mass movements, actually existed. In all those years, I cannot remember a single instance where I ever referred to myself — at least to folks who were not members of the party — as a representative of the “Vanguard Party.”

    Comment by Dave R — December 29, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

  26. Redbed: It makes no sense to prescribe specific methods of organization that were used in one context with another context – not without explaining WHY that particular tactic should be applied.

    Me: A socialist party is not a “tactic”. You are not building a socialist party. You are building a “Leninist” party based on Zinoviev’s guidelines. I guess you are not familiar enough with the differences in order to understand what I am driving at. Perhaps Britain has never had parties like Eugene V. Debs’s SP or other parties of the 2nd International. That is all that Lenin sought to create–a 2nd International type party. There was a split over WWI but there was no need to burden the Comintern with the 21 Conditions and all the rest. It has led to splits and sect formation. Just take a look at the ouster of the ISO from the Cliffite international and you will see something symptomatic of the Comintern mindset. When Kevin Murphy referred to Callinicos as Stalinicos, he was referring to a real problem even if he is an idiot. But again, even if the “improved” Comintern version has led to sect-formation, please don’t let me stand in the way. I understand that once you are committed to the True Faith, it is impossible to adopt a self-critical attitude. I lived through this for over a decade.

    RedBed: For someone who thinks that he has all the brilliant ideas about how to build a true Bolshevik party it’s rather surprising that you’re unable to actually argue your points without relying on sarcasm and ad hominems.

    Me: That is because I am a sarcastic person. If you want somebody warm and fuzzy, you need to look elsewhere.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  27. Shawn Whitney is hilarious — his own SWP affiliate — the IS of Canada — did everything possible to deradicalize the anti-war and anti-globalization movements in Toronto/Canada.

    The SWP groups just can’t stand to have a grassroots movement get radicalized and organized on its own terms.

    The strategy is to keep the movements dumb, and to recruit people into the party, the real vessel of class consciousness.

    Hence the terrible newspapers they publish as a means of fishing naive young people from the movements.

    In every country of the English speaking world, the SWP operates in the same way. They penetrate grassroots coalitions, take them over, recruit from them, and try to stop them from radicalizing outside the grasp of the central committee. The SWP cadre ALWAYS try to ram through their own decisions, made somewhere else, and often end up killing or demoralizing coalition groups.

    Furthermore, the SWP/IS party structure lacks all of the dynamism and creativity of the movement, and is always run by the same few people, decade after decade.

    Unfortunately, SWP-like groups have soured thousands of peoples’ views of all types of socialist organizing.

    The best socialist/marxist news site — and one that should be emulated by other marxist groups — is the wsws.org. Unfortunately, that group too lives in Trotskyist lalaland, but its website is the best of the socialist left. It makes a mockery of the Socialist Worker tabloids.

    Comment by robert — December 29, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

  28. If Lenin was simply trying to organize a left-leaning, social-democratic party prior to the 1917 Russian revolution, what was that spat with the Mensheviks all about? Their roots were certainly in the pre-war social democracy but it obviously evolved into something more than that. Can you imagine a social-democratic organization being able to put together the Red Army?

    Comment by Dave R — December 29, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

  29. Twitney,

    it has nothing to do with good/evil; it’s simply bad learned practice, observed and rejected by thousands of activists in dozens of countries over decades of experience. hence the ongoing sectarian character of SWP/IS grouplets, led by the same tiny cluster of people (many of whom are great comrades in a personal sense, but totally misguided in their organizational politics).

    SWP groups always try to direct the grassroots movements based on their own internal party deliberations and decisions — often with terrible results. I’ve seen entire coalitions fall apart in both the US and Canada because of specific ISO interventions. This is not the general outcome, but it does happen often enough because of entrenched organizational and political methods of operating.

    IS comrades always show up, with a pre-made plan in hand, and try to force it through.

    And they always try to prevent coalitions from become radical in and of themselves, and then try to recruit young militants into the party.

    The basic logic is that the movements should be ‘broad’ and based on ‘lowest common denominator politics’ (yet at the same time be directed by ISO comrades in disguise); that anti-capitalist politics should not be promoted within broad coalitions; and that movement militants should be recruited to the party.

    These are the reasons for which Twitney’s own group in Canada did not support a single anti-capitalist initiative during the anti-war and anti-globalization movements — even though many sprung up and carry on through the present in a multiplicity of forms. To the SWP/ISO groups, these anti-capitalist movement-based organizations are a threat, and are treated as such.

    Comment by robert — December 29, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

  30. On the question of Bolshevism. Louis has recommended Harding, who is certainly a good scholarly source. I attended his lectures when he was visiting at UM Ann Arbor some years back, very interesting. Paul Leblanc, who was a former US SWP member, had book called ‘Lenin and the Revolutionary Party’ that emphasized the democratic functioning of the Bolsheviks. Also there is the recent work of Lars T. Lih on the Bolsheviks, Kasama posted a piece of his on ‘What is to Be Done’ that is worth reading:

    http://kasamaproject.org/2010/06/25/what-you-think-about-what-is-to-be-done-is-wrong/

    http://kasamaproject.org/2010/06/26/re-thinking-what-is-to-be-done-parts-ii-and-iii/

    http://kasamaproject.org/2010/06/27/re-thinking-what-is-to-be-done-part-iv-and-conclusion/

    One of the things that has struck me about many Marxists (certainly not all, certainly not major figures such as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky who had a very dynamic grasp of the currents of history, nor any number of current figures I could think of) is that despite a rather broad familiarity with history and important historical texts the view of history they hold is rather static, it lacks an ability to distinguish historical specificity. Nothing in their view has really changed that much from 1917 till now or the 1930s till now. Still have to keep chugging on at the same things. Any suggestion that new technologies have altered social relations is casually dismissed… Imperialism works just like it did when Lenin analyzed it… The working class in the imperialist countries has just been taking a nice nap for the past forty years… Etc. This lack of historical specificity also operates in reverse, an ability to see the past for what it really was, to see how Lenin actually operated, the real failures and successes of our revolutionary traditions. Instead the past and present must be assimilated into one ahistorical amorphous blob. I can only ascribe this to a preference for maintaining a certain ‘orthodoxy’ over a real historical materialist engagement with the present and the past which is what we need now more than ever. Perhaps maintaining a serious revolutionary commitment through long difficult periods needs something akin to the commitment to a religious orthodoxy, but the effect is nonetheless deadening.

    Comment by dave x — December 29, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

  31. > 43.If Lenin was simply trying to organize a left-leaning, social-democratic party prior to the 1917 Russian revolution, what was that spat with the Mensheviks all about?

    I think that Lars Lih underplays the extent to which Lenin was influenced by Bakunin, Nechayev, and the Narodniki. It’s easy to do, because Lenin himself underplayed this. There are clear references to the revolutionaries of the 1870s in WITBD, but Lenin deliberately sought to cast his arguments within a Marxist framework. After the failure of the Narodniki the new wave on the Russian Left became Marxism, and so Lenin played up to this. But I don’t think one can appreciate the tensions between Lenin vis-a-vis Plekhanov, Martov, Luxemburg, Kautsky, and even at times Trotsky, if one doesn’t bear in mind the Narodniki element in Lenin’s brand of party organization.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — December 29, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

  32. Thanks to Dave X for a very thoughtful contribution.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2010 @ 12:46 am

  33. Louis P. wrote: “That is all that Lenin sought to create–a 2nd International type party. There was a split over WWI but there was no need to burden the Comintern with the 21 Conditions and all the rest.”

    Me: I’ve been meaning to ask Louis about this for some time now. From reading his analysis of “vanguardism” over these past two years, I assumed that the 21 conditions were codified about the time of — or shortly after — the death of Lenin in 1924 at the behest of Zinoviev and company. And then, sensing a problem with the time-line from deep within, I finally checked for myself. Am I missing something, or was it not Lenin himself who authored the 21 conditions — which included points on the requirement for party control of the press and for democratic centralism — in 1920, only a year after the founding of the Communist International in 1919?

    Comment by Dave R — December 30, 2010 @ 1:10 am

  34. If Lenin was simply trying to organize a left-leaning, social-democratic party prior to the 1917 Russian revolution, what was that spat with the Mensheviks all about?

    The spat was about war. Being a Bolshevik does not quarantine you from making grievous errors. The majority of the Bolshevik central committee opposed taking power in 1917, using “stagist” conceptions against Lenin who had effectively embraced Trotsky’s theories. Lenin was correct to form a world movement that was opposed to 2nd International reformism but he was wrong in trying to create a new kind of party based on the 21 Conditions. If he had lived, I am sure that he would have figured out that Zinoviev’s attempt to create a cookie-cutter version of “democratic centralism” would have been a disaster. I dealt with this at some length:

    How did we end up with the organizational model called Marxism-Leninism, or alternately, democratic centralism? The tendency has been to assume that there is an unbroken line between the small, sectarian groups of today and the Bolshevik Party of the turn of the century. When organizational changes have been made, the assumption is that these are refinements to Lenin’s party. For example, if Bukharin published ruthless criticisms of Lenin’s position on the national question in the newspaper “The Star”, an émigré Bolshevik paper, we have tended to assume that this was an anomaly. The essence of Leninism is to defend a unitary political line in the official party newspaper and Bukharin’s “indiscipline” was a sign of immature Bolshevism rather than a confirmation of its true spirit.

    Tracing the evolution of Lenin’s organizational approach to the rigid, monolithic models of today requires an examination of official Comintern documents of the early 1920s since these became the guidelines for organizing Communist Parties. Most “Marxist-Leninist” parties of today regard this period as a link in the chain between the historic Bolshevik Party and what passes for Leninism today. Rather than seeing these Comintern documents as a distortion of historic Bolshevism, we have tended to regard them as hagiography. Part of the problem is that Lenin gave his official blessing to these documents and this somehow gives them a hallowed status. It is time to examine them on their own merits.

    The first clear statement on organizational guidelines were contained in the July 12, 1921 Theses on the Structure of Communist Parties, submitted to the Third Congress of the Comintern. W. Koenen, a German delegate, confessed that they were hastily drafted and were referred without further discussion to a commission. Two days later, they were passed unanimously without discussion. The purpose of the theses was to impose a uniform model on Communist Parties worldwide.

    For example, they state that “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.” Of course, what this led to everywhere is the immediate creation of fractions or cells. Anybody who has been a member of a “Marxist-Leninist” group will be familiar with this approach to political work. Nobody has ever thought critically about what it means to have a “cell” or a “fraction” in a union or mass movement that speaks with the same voice on behalf of a single tactical orientation, but nevertheless the rule–hardly discussed at the Congress–became law.

    Poor Lenin was trying to sort out all sorts of problems that year and probably didn’t have the minutiae of organizational resolutions upper-most in his mind, but there is some evidence that these sorts of rigid guidelines did not sit well with him. A year later, at the fourth congress, Lenin offered some critical comments on them:

    “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.”

    This resolution, which was composed in haste and which Lenin described as “too Russian”, was never subjected to the sort of critical evaluation that he proposed. The opposite process occurred. The rigid, schematic organizational forms were not only accepted, but turned even more rigid and schematic. Part of the explanation for this is that Lenin himself died and nobody in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had the sort of subtle understanding that he did about such questions. The party hack Zinoviev became the supreme arbiter of organizational questions and took the communist movement in exactly the opposite direction. The Comintern ended up proposing organizational guidelines that were even “more Russian” than the ones that were adopted in 1921.

    The explanation for this is twofold. The party leadership–including all factions left and right–understood only the outward forms of the Bolshevik Party rather than its inner spirit. Also, the reversals in the class struggle in the early 1920s–especially in Germany–tended to create a crisis atmosphere in the Russian party and the Comintern. Under such conditions, the tendency is to circle the wagons and enforce ideological uniformity on the basis of the orientation of the current leadership. Criticism is considered “anti-party” and ultimately an expression of alien class forces. The relationship of the Russian party to the class struggle in Germany during this period will be the subject of my next post.

    full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/comintern_and_germany.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2010 @ 1:14 am

  35. Condition 13: Yikes!!!

    13) The communist parties of those countries in which the communists can carry out their work legally must from time to time undertake purges (re-registration) of the membership of their party organisations in order to cleanse the party systematically of the petty-bourgeois elements within it.

    Comment by Dave R — December 30, 2010 @ 1:19 am

  36. As much as I like a lot of Louis’ writing I have to say that in his piece above he has put forward only a caricature of Democratic Centralism or, as it’s sometimes called, Democratic Unity. As a member of the mis-named {“Peter Taaffe’s group) I don’t recognize Louis’ description of Democratic Centralism. Our organization does not enter into something as fluid as a conference with some sort of list of rote positions. We trust that each member knows the general drift of what we want to introduce and most importantly that any member can think on their feet using the methodology of marxism. We also go into conferences with our eyes wide open to the various constituencies and usually, frankly, we are not expecting much and see our role as mainly introducing some fundamental ideas and also having a free-wheeling discussion on tactics which, again, is going to end up with us having to think on our feet and do our best without prescribed positions on tactics in most instances. For a good defense of Democratic Centralism, consider reading “Socialism in the 21st Century” by Hannah Sell. Finally, and sorry I don’t have time to elaborate right now (my son wants out of his bath), I find most organizations, marxist or non-marxist, cannot operate without some form of Democratic Centralism and so the real question is does the organization have real democratic process and its leadership, really accountable to the members? I would bet Louis would think any breech of democratic centralism leads to expulsion or huge attack or some some sort of organizational muscle being directed at isolated individual members when, in reality, in a non-revolutionary situation, democratic centralism is an approximation, an on-going debate, and more of a “teachable moment” than an opportunity to start an attack or some sort of factional struggle among members. For democratic centralism to be applied in a flexible manner, i.e. to match the times we’re organizing in, is another test of whether it’s real or not. My real experience with Democratic Centralism is that it is not perfect but that in reality no organization, much less a revolutionary one, could function well without it. One last point, an add on, really out of time here… how in the heck can people even recognize an organization and/or what it stands for without some tangible democratic centralist exposition of its ideas and actions that are related and coherent? For example, if I claim to be a member of Socialist Alternative but then publicly support the Democrats, how are people supposed to know we support some independent Left candidates and the formation of some sort of workers party? On the other hand, do we question people as how they individually voted? Do we think every new member will never vote Democrat or whatever again? No and no. And do we have discussions where supporting the Dems. is beyond the pale? No. For example, we had a prolonged debate about whether to support Jesse Jackson’s campaign back in the 80’s. We currently have a lot of discussion about how to approach people with illusions in Obama and the Dems. . So, in quick conclusion, living, breathing democratic centralism is a far cry from Stalinist or Liberal characterizations of it.

    Comment by Jeff Booth — December 30, 2010 @ 1:21 am

  37. #29: “And Louis Proyect: No one LIKES selling the papers.”

    Not sure how serious this is, but I’ll respond: I always have liked this well enough, though I haven’t had the chance much for some years since having children and a partner that often works Saturdays. Now I’m working on a campus where my tendency is organised I’ll happily give up a lunch break to help on a stall. Maybe if JN finds such activity a dreadful bore she or he is associated with an unattractive newspaper or an unattractive way of distributing it.

    More generally on party building: there’s better and worse ways of doing any political activity, and the validity of any form of organising and being involved in movements depends on the context. Which is why I don’t understand at all Louis’ absolute stricture against caucusing before movement meetings. There’s a big difference between on the one hand, say, a small student action group meeting with the majority there members of far left groups each repeating points already made about the absolute necessity of a rally being on this date rather than that, before voting on “party lines” (been there, wish I hadn’t), and on the other, say, a large meeting of union delegates with a small minority of socialists who had worked out some proposals beforehand that were better than the bureaucrats’ course, and some sensible (and different) things to say in support if they get the chance, which may well win people over (been there, glad I was). One also doesn’t have to scream at or expel people who don’t follow such discipline (when it’s decided it’s worthwhile to have such), as opposed to a sense of proportion and a bit of patient explanation when appropriate.

    In Melbourne I understand there’s on occasion cross-union delegates’ meetings with something like 1500 people, with maybe 20 or 30 far leftists. In such an instance I think it’s far worse in terms of attracting union activists to socialism that there’s 5 different socialist papers being sold and maybe 3 different far left proposals, than it is for a few socialists to say the similar things or vote the same way (I recently moved to Melbourne from the luxury of a small regional centre with one socialist group, in which on one occasion 3 of us, after caucusing, made a very good impression I think, with our amendments adopted, on a cross-union delegates meeting of around 200 people, without anyone seeming to think we were the Borg).

    I’ll break it down for you Louis. Tub, bathwater, baby. Discard former, keep latter.

    Comment by Nick Fredman — December 30, 2010 @ 3:42 am

  38. Have you noticed how the SWP don’t fight capitalism anymore but something called `neo-liberalism’? This is their bastardised version of the transitional programme: ditch socialism to attract `socialists’ (i.e. `left’ reformist bureaucrats). The sooner people realise that the SWP is a Stalinised bureaucratic centrist sect the better for socialism. They ditched Marxism when the adopted the state capitalist baloney just after WW2 (an ultra-left opportunist adaptation to Western middle class sensibilities)and as for Seymour he is not just scepitical but viscerally opposed to the dialectic in the way only a British academic empiricist could be despite himself being a self described follower of Gramscian Stalinism (even the Stalinists could not afford to at least claim to be dialectical materialists). This is the mark of the petty bourgeoisie: they refuse to see or acknowlege the contradictions they are embroiled in. `They might not recognise…etc, etc.’

    Laurie Penny expresses a deep necessity: the sects will have to be swept aside, their usefulness is used up, if a new revolutionary socialist leadership is to emerge. She may well bend the stick too far but this was in fact the task that Marx set himself when setting out to build the First International on a sound theoretical and methodological basis. The task is incomplete. Despite the founding of the Fourth International. Sectism, based on fixed, partial, dislocated dogma, re-established itself during the long boom of the Cold War. That episode is past and time is up for the established sects that are little more than an outlieing part of the division of labour of the social opportunist bureaucracies.

    Comment by David Ellis — December 30, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  39. [...] Yesterday Nick Fredman of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, a very promising attempt to transcend sectarianism initiated by comrades of the Democratic Socialist Party who have quite correctly dissolved into this broader formation, raised a very important question about caucuses, drawing implicitly into consideration the whole question of democratic centralism. He wrote a comment under my post about the SWP/Laurie Penny dispute: [...]

    Pingback by Once more on democratic centralism « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 30, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

  40. People on demonstrations are likely to get rather pissed off when, in the middle of a police-riot, someone tries to sell them a paper or push a leaflet into their hand.
    It’s an example of the way some organisations are prone to treat their members.
    They are used as leaflet fodder, rather than being politically educated and taught to be organisers.
    This an example of organisational fetishism – build the party, in order to build the party, in order to……

    The SWP have been guilty of that approach for years.
    Almost every large meeting addressed by Tony Cliff or Paul Foot ended with a call to build the Party, take a membership card or sell the paper.
    Sometimes this was expressed in Cliff’s get rich quick formula of “turn buyers into sellers” – a form of socialist pyramid scheme.
    Not much to do with Leninism as such.
    Closer to David Miliband’s recent offer to students that they can join the Labour Party for a penny.
    I’d be suspicious of anything someone tried to sell me for a penny.

    But back to Penny;
    Her critique of the SWP, for what its worth, boils down to the dubious argument of a privileged journalist.
    Someone who has access to the mass media on a weekly basis and particpated on a demo with the benefit of a press card.
    There may be an appeal to the principle of rank and file democracy in her argument.
    But it’s of the liquidationist sort that says the socialist press should be junked and their organisations are worthless.
    This is always a dangerous game to play.
    Rank and file democracy can’t sustain itself without having a political core.
    Otherwise it becomes unstable, shifts politically from week to week & ends up as disorganisation.

    Nor can socialists afford to give up their press and newspapers.
    I say that as someone who has used the internet for longer than most people on the left.
    There are issues about using it which can’t be ignored.
    For instance, it is not the best way to communicate with people in the workplace.
    It gives the state the ability to monitor the left to an unprecedented degree.
    It also allows them to very easily pull the plug at a time of social crisis.

    Unless a socialist organisation is asking for donations to its press on a regular basis, I never take it very seriously.

    Comment by prianikoff — December 31, 2010 @ 7:53 am

  41. It’s worth reading this article too:-
    New politics?
    “Of course, our movement is unique. The combination of an historic crisis, unprecedented cuts and an illegitimate coalition’s broken promises provide us with unique social and political circumstances.
    Our use of facebook and twitter to mobilise may well be unprecedented in its scale and scope.
    But we have to beware, as Alex Callinicos has aptly put it, of “the cult of novelty”. All movements are unique and irreducible combinations of different forces, expressing different circumstances, new ideas and actions. But our movement is not separate and distinct from the history of class struggle that has gone before it. We must profit from this experience and avoid the defeats suffered in the past.
    It is necessary to relate concretely to what is really happening, we are certainly not living a re-run of 1968. However, this does not render the “old” theories useless.
    Marxism and the theory of class struggle will be relevant as long as the class system exists. The writings of Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky all provide valuable tools, which if applied in a nuanced and relevant way, can help provide solutions to today’s struggle.
    Unfortunately, the way in which this important debate has developed into slagging off the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has not been at all useful.
    There is a lot to be critical of the SWP for and they must shoulder part of the blame for the limitations of the Stop the War movement.
    But Laurie Penny and their recent critics have been dealing more in prejudices and stereotypes than in the real issues. There is a word for this, which is too often banded about inaccurately in left-wing circles, but nonetheless has a real meaning: its sectarianism”

    Full:-

    http://www.socialistrevolution.org/1702/unpicking-the-lessons-of-our-occupation-means-recognising-its-realities/

    Comment by prianikoff — December 31, 2010 @ 8:15 am

  42. Mixed up the Milibands 2 posts up.
    David Miliband’s penny offer was, in fact, Ed’s

    Comment by prianikoff — December 31, 2010 @ 9:24 am

  43. “it is not the best way to communicate with people in the workplace.”
    Talking to them, maybe?

    Comment by skidmarx — December 31, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  44. Congrats on the “Pon Farr” line. It’s the kind of quip I wish I had thought of myself. Do you mind if I nick it and use it at a later date?

    I think there’s different kinds of discussions, and a different pace for these discussions within the framework of democracy and centralism. For example, one would not expect the National Committee of either of the SWP’s to allow every branch meeting, in the name of party openess, to discuss and re-discuss the class character of the Cuban state, just because one or two, or four or five of the members in any given locale thought it was state capitalist, or conversely, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    On the other hand, for the many years I was a member of the US-SWP, we had drag-down disagreements and “lively” discussions about tasks and perspectives every other branch meeting.

    Comment by Dave R — December 31, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  45. [...] several places where discussion has broken out over these issues, including Louis Proyekt’s commentary on Unrepentant Marxist and in the threads of New Zealand’s [...]

    Pingback by The Penny Debate: Laurie’s Opening Shot at the Old Left « Kasama — January 1, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

  46. [...] Proyekt comments on [...]

    Pingback by The Penny Debate 2: Alex Callinicos Targeting Flattering Delusions of Absolute Novelty « Kasama — January 1, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

  47. #52 Nick Fredman,

    Well, there are good paper sales & stalls & there are bad ones. Depends on the circumstances & the reaction you’re getting (interested or indifferent, positive or negative…). Mostly I’m just reluctant to start, but get over that quite quickly. All I meant was that I’m sure everyone who has ever so much as handed out a leaflet understands when Louis Proyect says “The whole thing made me feel weird” (of course, it did!) but that isn’t much of an argument against it.

    Comment by JN — January 1, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

  48. #53

    Ah, good old David Ellis. You can always rely on him to talk a load of absolute bollocks.

    “Have you noticed how the SWP don’t fight capitalism anymore but something called `neo-liberalism’?”

    I can assure you that the SWP are fundamentally opposed to ANY form of capitalism, & are pretty bloody clear about that. However, this “something called neo-liberalism” is the specific form of capitalism that we have now, today, in Britain. It is significantly different from the reformist (but still basically exploitative & imperialist, obviously) capitalism of the post-WW2 period up until Thatcherism. The difference is between the creation of the welfare state & its abolition. Again, a fairly significant difference for the British working class, not one that can just be ignored because they’re both essentially capitalism.

    “The sooner people realise that the SWP is a Stalinised bureaucratic centrist sect the better for socialism.”

    Right, so what you mean is that you don’t like the SWP, one of the main left parties in the UK, & wish it would collapse? No doubt then the membership, along with the rest of the working class, would flock to the banner of True Marxism-Leninism/David Ellis Thought.

    “state capitalist baloney”

    Do you have a better description of the USSR? If it was a “degenerated workers state” then it had degenerated pretty far. It’s like calling a corpse a degenerated healthy person. What Trotsky argued was that the revolution was betrayed but the party bureuacracy had not yet consolidated itself into a ruling class. But then Trotsky was assassinated in 1940. And what about the countries of Eastern Europe were Stalinism arrived with the ‘Red’ Army rather than after a revolution. How could they possibly be “degenerated workers’ states” when they weren’t workers’ states to begin with?

    State capitalism is a perfectly clear & accurate term for a political/economic system that is basically just capitalism controlled by the state, rather than the other way round. Or were workers workers not exploited in Stalinist countries? Did those countries not attempt to compete (ultimately unsucessfully) with the capitalist west?

    “viscerally opposed to the dialectic”

    You are neither dialectiacal or empiricist, either of which would be a massive improvement for you. You are an idealist (in the literal, philosophical sense). Oh, if only everyone had your superior understanding of the One True Marxism we could schedule the revolution for next Tuesday!

    “the sects will have to be swept aside”

    Except the “sect” that you’re a member of, obviously. Seriously, the definition of a political sectarian is someone who constantly bitches about all the other “sects”.

    Comment by JN — January 1, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

  49. All I meant was that I’m sure everyone who has ever so much as handed out a leaflet understands when Louis Proyect says “The whole thing made me feel weird” (of course, it did!) but that isn’t much of an argument against it.

    Handing out a leaflet is completely normal. People hand out leaflets for garage sales, for example. What is weird is selling a newspaper on the street. The only people who do this belong to religious and political sects.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 2, 2011 @ 2:45 am

  50. “Toy car” my ass. More like a car without an engine running downhill without brakes.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — January 2, 2011 @ 8:17 am

  51. Again, Louis…it’s the small numbers, the reason for which we are constantly debating. Small socialist parties “hawk” papers at various locales because they do not have distribution infrastructure. Small socialist parties “hawk” papers at rallies and demonstrations because that’s where one finds like-minded activists.

    Comment by Dave R — January 2, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

  52. My problem is not so much with newspaper sales but with the phenomenon of “small socialist parties”. If we had a large Socialist Party, the papers could be sold at cigar stores or in vending machines. That should be our goal. We had an opportunity to build such a party in the 1960s but the left was not ready. My goal is to persuade the left to adopt a new approach in preparation for the new upsurge.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 2, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

  53. I read Seymour’s rebuttal and I must say he does make a vital point when he speaks of having a bigger goal in mind and some kind of leadership behind it. Now I am not as experienced with SWP-type politics as the rest here and possibly even Penny herself but I am not convinced that such a student rebellion can be effective in the mold that Penny evinces, as it more or less will not have any cross-section to unite the MANY differing sects of the left that it needs to reach in order to be successful in any form. Opposing one policy measure against hikes and then without connecting it with the other issues at stake will only prove to be the many failures that the student movement has suffered in recent memory ie the Iraq War, healthcare, and Social Security being next.

    Comment by Joshua — January 4, 2011 @ 3:25 am

  54. `I can assure you that the SWP are fundamentally opposed to ANY form of capitalism, & are pretty bloody clear about that.’

    Guess what, I’m not reassured. The SWP approaches bureaucrats and left reformists with their opposition not to capitalism but to neo-liberalism. This is not a transitional approach but a thoroughly opportunist one which ditches the fundamental struggle for socialism and one’s revolutionary program for a joint reformist popular front against something called neo-liberalism. Any, even the most far right, bureaucrat is opposed to `neo-liberalism’.

    `Seriously, the definition of a political sectarian is someone who constantly bitches about all the other “sects”.’

    I don’t suppose you really mean `seriously’ otherwise I wouldn’t still be laughing.

    Comment by David Ellis — January 4, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  55. @67 The British SWP’s vision of the paper is more than one sold anonymously through newsagents and vending machines, but designed to bring readers in direct contact with party members. I have severe doubts about whether that is a sustainable model for the future, as the intrinsic value of the paper declines relative to other media, it may become more of an relic and an obstacle (in renewed comment @55, if the internet is not a good way to contact employees with a surveillance minded employer, is a paper that much better?)which presents arguments limited and frozen by the nature of print.
    Though sales of Socialist Worker are apparently quite bouyant at the moment.

    Comment by skidmarx — January 5, 2011 @ 10:43 am

  56. [...] Louis Proyect, former SWPer and Marxmail moderator, has been in the forefront of revolutionary blogging since it’s beginnings. I read Louis every day and, even though I agree with him 83% of the time, the 17% I don’t  (often over film) makes me want to tear my hair out. That said, Louis has done more than most to cajole recalcitrant Trots from their pretensions. Even when I find Louis guilty of some of the SWP navel-gazing he derides so well, I find him to be open and, for the most part, genuinely fair. In any case, Louis has stayed true to his calling, pointed a well-deserved finger at the faux Leninist disaster that was the 70s party building movement and has occasions of real brilliance. I wish Louis where more open to the possibilities of youth and had less of a ‘been there, done that’ dismissive attitude towards folks of my generation and younger, but we can all learn a lot from Louis and this blog certainly considers the Unrepentant Marxist a comrade. For a sample of where Proyect is coming from see his The Laurie Penny-SWP dispute. [...]

    Pingback by The Rustbelt’s Ten Blogs Picks for Today « The Rustbelt Radical — June 21, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

  57. [...] Louis Proyect, former SWPer and Marxmail moderator, has been in the forefront of revolutionary blogging since it’s beginnings. I read Louis every day and, even though I agree with him 83% of the time, the 17% I don’t  (often over film) makes me want to tear my hair out. That said, Louis has done more than most to cajole recalcitrant Trots from their pretensions. Even when I find Louis guilty of some of the SWP navel-gazing he derides so well, I find him to be open and, for the most part, genuinely fair. In any case, Louis has stayed true to his calling, pointed a well-deserved finger at the faux Leninist disaster that was the 70s party building movement and has occasions of real brilliance. I wish Louis where more open to the possibilities of youth and had less of a ‘been there, done that’ dismissive attitude towards folks of my generation and younger, but we can all learn a lot from Louis and this blog certainly considers the Unrepentant Marxist a comrade. For a sample of where Proyect is coming from see his The Laurie Penny-SWP dispute. [...]

    Pingback by Blogs I Read « The Rustbelt Radical — June 21, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

  58. [...] Louis Proyect, former SWPer and Marxmail moderator, has been in the forefront of revolutionary blogging since it’s beginnings. I read Louis every day and, even though I agree with him 83% of the time, the 17% I don’t  (often over film) makes me want to tear my hair out. That said, Louis has done more than most to cajole recalcitrant Trots from their pretensions. Even when I find Louis guilty of some of the SWP navel-gazing he derides so well, I find him to be open and, for the most part, genuinely fair. In any case, Louis has stayed true to his calling, pointed a well-deserved finger at the faux Leninist disaster that was the 70s party building movement and has occasions of real brilliance. I wish Louis were more open to the possibilities of youth and had less of a ‘been there, done that’ dismissive attitude towards folks of my generation and younger, but we can all learn a lot from Louis and this blog certainly considers the Unrepentant Marxist a comrade. For a sample of where Proyect is coming from see his The Laurie Penny-SWP dispute. [...]

    Pingback by Rustbelt Radical: Some blogs I read « Kasama — July 7, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  59. [...] of what put Left socialists and vanguardist Marxist-Leninists at loggerheads (see for example the argument Penny had with Alex Callinicos – not, unfortunately, included in the new [...]

    Pingback by Notes from the New Age of Dissent: Committed, literary and stylish journalism | Left Foot Forward — November 6, 2011 @ 3:01 pm


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