Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin
by Pham Binh
Pink Scare’s (PS) response to the debate ignited by my review of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party affords me the opportunity to clarify issues of secondary importance like timing, judgments, method, and implications that did not fit with the content of my responses to the Cliff book’s two defenders, Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato. In addition, I will discuss the role of Lars Lih in this little firestorm.
PS is appreciative but ultimately dissatisfied with Lih’s contribution because he does not spell out the practical implications of his research for revolutionary Marxists today and instead adopts a “non-political posture” of “scholarly neutrality.” Le Blanc and D’Amato also tried to fault my book review for similar reasons, namely, that it did not situate Cliff’s book in today’s context, although my views on party building today were made abundantly clear in two different articles prior to the Cliff debate and one article after it.
It seems no one is allowed to examine the historical record surrounding Lenin or challenge anyone else’s presentation of Lenin’s work without including a detailed how-to manual for today’s revolutionary.
This line of criticism fails to address a very basic point: why should a book review of Cliff’s Lenin (written in 1975) include a discussion of how what Lenin did is applicable today when Cliff’s book contains no such discussion of how its content should be applied by Cliff’s group, the International Socialists (successor to the British Socialist Workers Party) in their political context of the mid-to-late 1970s? Surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
I mirrored Cliff’s narrow focus on Lenin and the history of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). If my book review or Lih’s contribution suffered because neither of us drew up a balance sheet of applicable lessons for today, the same is equally true of Cliff’s book, although our contributions have not been shown to contain the kind of errors that marred Cliff’s Lenin.
So the question remains: why did I review Cliff’s book in early 2012?
Why re-litigate battles from a century ago as battles today rage in the streets of New York City, Athens, and Homs?
In fact, I began my review of Cliff’s Lenin began around the time I wrote The Bolshevik Experience and the ‘Leninist’ Model in summer of 2011, before Occupy Wall Street (OWS) broke out almost literally on my doorstep. The lull in OWS activity following the November 15 eviction allowed me to complete this project, since I had far more important things to do during the encampment than re-read Cliff.
This explains the “odd” timing of the book review. What prompted me in the first place to look at Cliff’s book carefully, chapter by chapter, in summer of 2011 was Lars Lih’s response to Chris Harman and Paul Le Blanc in Historical Materialism 18. Here, Lih mentioned some of Building the Party’s factual errors. I was curious to see if there were any errors that Lih had not brought to light. The rest, as they say, is history.
Does it follow then, as PS claims, that, “Pham thinks Cliff’s book is of zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history. He makes it sound as if the most important debate right now is, in some sweeping sense: ‘Tony Cliff: Yay or Nay?’”
My book review never claimed that Cliff’s Lenin has “zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history.” I was much more careful and specific, arguing that the book was “useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts.” Believe it or not, plenty of books have value even if they are not historical studies of Lenin’s thoughts and actions. Cliff’s Lenin is no exception.
The value of Cliff’s Lenin is a separate issue from any sort of sweeping judgment of Tony Cliff as a man, writer, or revolutionary. He wrote about a huge range of subjects during the almost 90 years of his life. One book, no matter how awful or problematic, is an insufficient basis for making a “yay or nay” judgment on someone’s life and work. Anyone who read my book review and thought that my goal was to “get Tony Cliff” or make such a judgment has probably spent too much time in the marginal and unhealthy environment known as the socialist movement where strawmen, sweeping personalistic condemnations, and sweeping yays and nays have become the rule rather than the exception.
PS says that the body of my review consisted of “quibbling complaints about this or that error made by Tony Cliff.” Getting the meaning of democratic centralism wrong, distorting Lenin’s attitude towards party rules, failing to represent Lenin’s view of the famous 1903 Menshevik-Bolshevik dispute as expressed in painstaking detail in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and ignoring the fact that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks did not become separate, independent parties until 1917 hardly constitutes quibbling for any serious student of Bolshevism.
If all of the above is quibbling, it begs the question of what exactly for PS would constitute significant distortions, inaccuracies, flaws, or factual errors? Should we rest content that the moral of the story – we must build a revolutionary party! – is the correct one? If so, why bother being accurate at all?
The Value of Accuracy
Historical accuracy is paramount if we are trying to use history as a guide to action.
We cannot learn from what happened unless we actually know (and acknowledge) what happened. History, like the present, will always be contested to some degree, but intelligent debate over what happened, when, and why is not possible when those involved in such disputes maintain their views despite a growing body of evidence that contradicts the factual basis for their particular interpretation. Paul Le Blanc’s insistence that the Bolsheviks became a separate party from the Mensheviks in 1912 at the Prague Conference falls into this category because, to adhere to this interpretation, one must ignore or downplay the testimonies of conference participants such as Lenin and Zinoviev as well as a slew of documentary evidence from the period since all of it points in the opposite direction. Why the 1912 issue is important I will examine later in this piece.
Cliff’s Lenin has value – as a cautionary tale of how not to approach the work of others (Lenin’s primarily, but also that of scholars) and how not to handle historical documents and complex issues. (Building the Party’s Russian-language citations are copied from secondary sources without proper attribution, making it almost impossible for anyone else to look at the material he used to write his book.)
The single most important lesson we can learn from Cliff’s Lenin is the necessity of putting the work of Lenin and the Bolsheviks back into its proper historical context, which is the international social democratic movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This Cliff did not do in his zeal to “prove” this or that point about the nature of the revolutionary party (a loaded concept that deserves to be unpacked), the nature of said party’s internal regime, and its alleged leadership style. By contrast, Lih’s work will withstand the test of time and the harshest of critical examinations because he seeks to understand Lenin historically, as he was, as he evolved over time, regardless of the implications for revolutionary organizers today.
Lih has no dog in our fight, nor should he. Claiming that he “position[s] himself as a mere scholar—rather than activist—[who] repeatedly invokes his expertise and specific role as a ‘historian’” and, as a result of such so-called positioning, “offers little insight into the questions that really matter here” as PS does is ridiculous for the following reason: no matter how wonderful Lih’s scholarship on Lenin is, he is not going to do our thinking for us. Drawing out the implications of his work is our job, not his.
Any student of that era, those issues, or the man (Lenin) would do well to imitate Lih’s method in approaching the history of Bolshevism if they really want to mine that experience for the valuable lessons it undoubtedly contains.
When studying history we should focus on precisely that – history. Engaging in historical study focused on “advancing our understanding of the contemporary conjuncture and struggles within it” as PS suggests will inevitably distort what we get out of looking at events that occurred yesterday, yesteryear, and a century ago, especially when they happened in foreign countries whose cultures, languages, and traditions are not readily comparable to our own. Approaching the past with a “what do I get out of it in the here and now?” or a “what in this is immediately applicable to my situation?” mentality is to blind ourselves to history’s rich contradictions and nuances in favor of something simplistic and readily digestible.
The dedication of my book review “to anyone and everyone [who] has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party,’” has nothing to do with declaring that project to be a “bankrupt political goal,” despite what PS seems to think. If that is what I thought I would just come out and say it.
I don’t mince words.
The dedication is a reference to the fact that generations of socialists all over the world have made personal sacrifices of one sort or another in the name of the title of Cliff’s book, Building the Party under the assumption that their efforts would contribute in some way to the creation of a Bolshevik-type party. I have no problem with people choosing to make such sacrifices, but choosing to do so based on severe distortions or a nonexistent historical precedent is a different story.
PS’s concluding words compel me to clarify where I don’t stand on some questions as well:
If there is one relatively clear political implication of Pham’s intervention, it seems to be that Lenin was “an orthodox Kautsykist” and that the distinction between Second International reformism (associated with Kautsky and the SPD) and early Third International revolutionary politics (associated with Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin) is historically inaccurate.
I am mystified how anyone could read my book review of Cliff’s Lenin and my replies to Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato and write that Cliff getting Lenin wrong has “one relatively clear political implication” on issues such as Lenin’s relationship to Karl Kautsky or the Third International’s relationship to the Second. Cliff’s book did not delve into those topics at all and neither did I. Perhaps I am somehow being confused or conflated with Lih since he has actually done work on Lenin’s take on Kautsky?
Whatever the case, I would never be so stupid to think that the distinction between the Second and Third Internationals “is historically inaccurate.” I do believe that the character of those distinctions has been profoundly misunderstood by “Leninists.” That topic, along with “Leninism” and whether the Bolsheviks really constituted a “party of a new type,” will be addressed in a future piece that I began before OWS.
The Importance of 1912
To be candid, these debates have zero importance beyond the ranks of historians like Lih and those who continue to find inspiration in or lessons to be learned from the Bolsheviks. But the issue of 1912 looms large for those of us in the latter milieu because of statements like this from D’Amato:
The outcome of the period 1912-1917 was that two independent political parties entered the arena of struggle in 1917. The irreconcilable differences between these two parties, which led one to support soviet power and the other to oppose it, led to a Bolshevik victory over the opposition of the Mensheviks, and later to the founding of a new international that was based upon soviet power and the need for revolutionary Marxists to organisationally separate themselves from social-democratic reformism. Can a debate over the exact date when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split shed any more light in these critical developments in the history of the socialist movement?
My answer to his closing question is unequivocally “yes!”, although the evidence indicates that there is no single “exact date” in 1917 when this separation took place. It was a process, more like balding than a divorce.
The reason I say yes is because the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were part of the same broad multi-tendency party from 1903 until 1917 that “Leninists” today strenuously reject as a bankrupt model doomed to fail.
The 1917 Russian revolution proves that this model is anything but bankrupt or doomed in advance. The differences between the two factions were not always irreconcilable. To insist otherwise would be ahistorical (or undialectical, if you prefer). Lenin’s writings up until 1917 are filled with rejections of the notion that there could or should be two “organisationally separate” RSDLPs, one Menshevik, the other Bolshevik.
(Interesting fact: the phrase “Bolshevik Party” never occurs in Lenin’s Collected Works during the 1912-1916 period except as explanatory editorial notes written by people other than Lenin. Only in 1917 does Lenin himself speak and write of the Bolsheviks as a party.)
Conflating the liquidationists, the Mensheviks, and social-democratic reformists (Bernsteinists) with one another as D’Amato does makes all of this impossible to understand or even acknowledge. Neither Lenin nor the Bolsheviks were what we call “Leninists,” nor did they who build a “party of a new type” totally unlike and superior to their international social democratic brethren. The historical evidence indicates that they were revolutionary social democrats who defended what they considered to be orthodoxy from the likes of Eduard Bernstein and later, the man who did more than anyone else to create that orthodoxy, Kautsky.
All of this goes to show how history’s rich complexities and ironies clash with the simplistic and distorted accounts of the Bolsheviks and Lenin put forward by detractors and would-be imitators alike. What (if anything) this means for us today is a matter of debate, but historical falsehoods and fictions (when we know better!) should not be part of that debate.
Lenin and Occupy
Many socialists have cheered Lih’s demolition of the textbook interpretation of Lenin’s work without examining how many of our own preconceptions on the subject are now part of the same pile of rubble.
The fact that Occupy has functioned in practice like the much-sought-after but never replicated vanguard party that Lenin helped create in early 20th century Russia has also escaped much of the Marxist left. These two developments are not coincidental.
Leon Trotsky’s description of the party as “a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced workingmen” captures exactly how Occupy has functioned. In the space of four weeks, OWS mobilized more workers and oppressed people than the entire U.S. socialist left combined has in four decades. OWS did not begin with a program or a series of demands but with an action that inspired tens of thousands of others to act, speak, march, occupy, and rise up in an elemental awakening (or stikhiinyi in Russian).
Inspirational leadership is the core theme of Lih’s Lenin biography and underpins Lenin’s writings as well. Consider his words from Left-Wing Communism explaining why and how the Bolsheviks triumphed against all odds during the 1917 revolution and the brutal civil war that followed:
[T]he Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline in our Party, or without the fullest and unreserved support from the entire mass of the working class, that is, from all thinking, honest, devoted and influential elements in it, capable of leading the backward strata or carrying the latter along with them. … I repeat: the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie. … This is often dwelt on. However, not nearly enough thought is given to what it means, and under what conditions it is possible.
It should go without saying that Occupy at six months does not resemble a disciplined, centralized organization steeled over two decades of battles. That is not the important part of the comparison. It’s what lies underneath the discipline that Lenin described as “an essential condition of the Bolsheviks’ success” that is the key:
The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.
If there any words to describe the thousands of occupiers who continually defy cops in riot gear, risking beatings, arrests, and wanton brutality simply to maintain a presence in an ostensibly public space, they are tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism.
That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led four college students to sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the South, sparking a new phase of the civil rights movement as thousands launched similar sit-ins. That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led a small band of Black activists to don leather jackets and berets and carry shotguns in one hand and law books in the other in 1966. Calling themselves the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, they succeeded at winning mass support in the Black community in short order. The tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism of the Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies) is the stuff of legend.
It was OWS’s tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism in the face of New York Police Department (NYPD) Inspector Anthony Bologna’s pepper spray rampage on September 24, 2011 that ended the isolation that marked week one of the occupation and allowed it to link up, maintain close contact, and merge with the masses in weeks two and three. NYPD repression did for OWS what Bloody Sunday did for the Russian revolution in 1905 (although thankfully no one was killed).
The correctness of Occupy’s tactics and political strategy is deeply felt by huge numbers of people because both have proven to be unmatched in effectiveness. This mass feeling explains why the ideas, values, and methods that animated OWS such as General Assemblies, modified consensus, autonomy, horizontalism, direct action, and direct democracy dominate all corners of Occupy. All of this has become the uprising’s common sense, its animus.
Huge numbers of people look to Occupy for “how to live and how to die.”
The excitement over Occupy’s calls for a May 1 general strike and the anticipation felt by almost everyone about the prospect of an American Spring are a symptom of Occupy’s vanguard role. Occupy has also assumed another aspect of what is typically associated with Lenin and the vanguard party:
[T]he Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.
OWS played this role from its inception, marching against the execution of Troy Davis. Solidarity was automatic. Shortly after Davis was murdered by the state of Georgia on September 21, 2011, signs appeared at OWS that read: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one!” A “single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation” indeed.
By standing up to tyranny, oppression, and police brutality directed against people of color, Occupy has won enduring respect and created alliances with a variety of racial and religious minority communities. It has gone from being for the 99% to being by the 99%, which brings us to the next compelling overlap between Occupy and Lenin’s ideas.
Derided by the Marxist left for being vague, populist, blurry, or class collaborationist, the 99% is in fact synonymous with Lenin’s vision of a revolution accomplished by the narod, which Lih rightly notes has an emotional punch in Russian that the English version (the people) lacks. Add the peasantry, students, and all of Russia’s oppressed peoples together with the working class and it would probably be numerically close to the 99% espoused by Occupy.
Lenin’s vision of revolution was fundamentally inclusive, not exclusive, and the same is true of Occupy’s vision. So where does all of this leave the socialist movement in the United States? Does that mean (try not to cringe) that Lenin is no longer relevant? The answer to these questions depends on what you take from the Bolshevik experience.
At one point in his career, Lenin set out to unify scattered local informal groups of intellectuals and workers known as circles into something resembling the German Social Democratic Party. Six months into the greatest explosion of mass struggle in almost half a century, today’s socialist left is much smaller numerically than the Socialist Labor Party was at its low point (6,000 in 1898) and growing at a snail’s pace, if that. Today, socialist groups generally do not have contact with, much less productive, ongoing, working relationships with one another nationally, or even locally.
Imagine the Russian circles that Lenin sought to unite all declaring that political differences with their counterparts across town or in other parts of Russia were too great to be in the same organization. Instead of uniting, they formed separate membership organizations, published rival newspapers, and competed with one another for individual adherents. Do this and you get some idea of how the problems Lenin faced stack up to the problems we face.
Since we don’t have Tsarist repression to deal with, since we have the “air and light” Kautsky said we needed for a successful political workers’ movement, the only people to blame for this sorry state of affairs is ourselves (and our predecessors). Any observer who looks at our movement will not feel inspired to join up and make sacrifices for a great cause; they are more likely to feel despair, frustration, and bewilderment at the foolish, needless, endless, and counterproductive divisions that are keeping us weak despite the greatest opening in a generation (or three).
Unless we start doing something different, we are not going to end up with anything different than what we have now, no matter how badly we want it or how hard we work. When you’re stuck in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.
If there’s anything we can learn from Lenin and apply now, it’s that if we rise to the tasks before us and get our act together, we can turn our movement around and make it a factor of the first order in American politics again.
Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Indypendent. Check out thenorthstar.info, the first national collaborative blog by and for occupiers.