Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2014

Alex Callinicos: take a look in the mirror

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’s nearly 12,500-word article in the latest International Socialism (Thunder on the Left) reminds me quite a bit of the kind of explanation I heard from former members of the SWP in the USA over the years about the group’s collapse. It was not the fault of the leaders but of objective conditions that the SWP went from nearly 2000 members in 1978 to just over a hundred today. It was almost inevitable given the decline of the trade union movement that supposedly would have nourished the sect’s growth. That decline was in turn an inevitable outcome of a hollowing out of the industrial sector and the loss of blue-collar jobs. It should be noted that the SWP leadership itself never bothered to provide much of an explanation for the loss of 95 percent of its members. In their eyes the party was always poised to take advantage of great opportunities looming on the horizon. Indeed, if you do a search on “opportunities” on the Militant newspaper website, you will find links to 982 articles. This was typical:

In the months ahead, the party will reach out to get an expanded hearing among working people on the roots of the world economic crisis and a fighting road forward for our class; take advantage of possibilities to advance the campaign to free the Cuban Five and defend the Cuban Revolution; and opportunities to join strikes and social struggles of workers against attacks by the rulers and their government.

To Callinicos’s credit, he avoids this kind of cockeyed optimism even though, like Jack Barnes, he refuses to acknowledge his own role in a torrential loss of members. Like the sympathizers of the American SWP, he relates his sect’s trouble to objective conditions:

This decline is a consequence of two processes, one long term, the other more short term. In the first place, the general tendency in advanced capitalist societies towards the greater fragmentation and individualisation of social life erodes the bases of many mass organisations—not just political parties, but mainstream churches and many of the other institutions that helped to impose a degree of order and security during the early chaotic phases of capitalist development. This phenomenon was already visible during the post-war boom, when it was diagnosed as “apathy”, a disease of “affluence”.

Secondly, neoliberalism—a result of the ruling class response to this insurgency—has accelerated the tendency to fragmentation and individualism and weakened working class organisation. But it has also reshaped bourgeois politics as the mainstream parties have converged on acceptance of neoliberalism. What in France is called la pensée unique (the “sole thought”) ideologically integrates the political elite with media bosses, big capital more generally, and much of the academy in acceptance of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy as defining the horizons of rational social life.

My explanation differs from ex-members of the SWP in the USA and Callinicos’s. It paraphrases what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are hemorrhaging members.”

What they fail to grasp is the primary obstacle such groups face in becoming massive. Tens of thousands of socialist-minded workers, students and even middle-class professionals are not willing to join a group that imposes an ideological straitjacket on its membership. The “program” of both SWP’s was always understood to be virtual encyclopedia of positions on historical and international questions that it was almost impossible to support unless you had gone through an apprenticeship in the organization that included indoctrination in new members classes, etc. It was the kind of training a Jesuit would receive.

Despite such self-imposed constraints, groups such as the American and British SWP’s can enjoy relative success. At its high point, my sect was the largest group on the left just as was the case with the British SWP. Taking into account the revolving door tendencies of both groups to lose burned out members, they could have stayed close to the top of their game.

But both crashed on the reefs as a result of an inability to change course. If it was a single-mindedness of purpose and ideological homogeneity that allowed such groups to enjoy rapid growth, it was exactly the same tendencies that made it impossible to avoid a disaster. Although such “Leninist” groups have formal guarantees for the democratic rights of the membership, the leadership will always dig in its heels when it has a big stake in the outcome of a debate. In the American SWP, the top leader had become fanatically committed to the “turn toward industry”, to the point of likening party members who disagreed as “Marielitos”, the counter-revolutionary Cubans who arrived in Florida on boats. In the British SWP, the dividing line was not over policy but over the refusal of the leadership to take action against one of its own who had raped a younger female member. As I said, the American SWP lost 95 percent of its membership but so far the British SWP’s losses have been somewhat smaller—only 700 according to Callinicos. Of course, there is no doubt that as long as the current stonewalling tendencies of the leadership group remain intact, those numbers will grow.

While there is not much point in covering all of the points made in Callinicos’s gargantuan article, there are a few worth honing in on.

In reviewing the tendencies of broad parties like Syriza to suffer “organizational implosion”, Callinicos puts the blame on the aforementioned economic tendencies. Leaving aside the question of whether Syriza has imploded, I was struck by his reference to a broad-based party that included the SWP as a constituent:

Disarray set in among the radical left before the onset of the economic crisis: thus George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within Respect in August 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to develop.

What a strange analysis. As if the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have been a green light for Galloway to launch his attack. Leaving aside Galloway’s mercurial personality and Labour Party bad habits, the real cause of the crisis in Respect was the SWP’s unaccountability. Whenever you have a “democratic centralist” entity operating in a larger mass movement or a broad party, there will be friction since decisions will be made at caucus meetings beforehand. I should know. That’s how the American SWP operated. We called ourselves “The Big Red Machine” and that’s why people outside our ranks hated us.

For those who bothered to read Callinicos’s attacks on the party members who fought against the rape cover-up, you will remember that he said that the real disagreement was over “reform versus revolution”. SWP members like Richard Seymour were renegades from Marxism, pinning their hopes on Syriza type formations rather than tried and true Leninist formations like the SWP. Feeling vindicated now that Greece is still a capitalist country, Callinicos says “I told you so.”

The proof of Syriza’s failure was its support for “the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission.” It turns out that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s support for Juncker was highly qualified. Le Monde reported:

“If Europe doesn’t democratize soon, it will suffer a major cohesion” he said and when asked whether or not he supports the candidacy of Juncker for the president of the European Commission he explained that “although he’s a tough opponent of his policy”, he recognizes the right to preside, as long as his party won the largest number of seats.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Apparently this is not good enough for Callinicos. The leftists who are now in Syriza would be better advised to join Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Antarsya that got 20,389 votes in the 2012 elections as opposed to Syriza’s 1,655,022. You have to remember that the Bolsheviks started off small. As long as you have a correct program, victory is assured. That is why it was so necessary to hound Richard Seymour and friends out of the SWP. They were a scratch that could have turned into gangrene, don’t you know?

As might be expected, Callinicos returns once again to a defense of “Leninism”, the last refuge of a scoundrel. As might be expected, Callinicos feels the need repudiate Lars Lih’s argument that Lenin sought nothing more than to build a party in Russia modeled after Kautsky’s party in Germany since that comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of the “left reformism” of Syriza. For Callinicos, Paul Le Blanc and Mick Armstrong of the Socialist Alternative in Australia, there is this thing called “Leninism” that was implicit as far back as 1903 but became fully manifested at the Prague Conference of 1912.

I will probably have more to say on this since Paul Blackledge, a case-hardened Callinicos lieutenant, attempts to refute Lars Lih in the same issue of International Socialism but will offer some thoughts on what Callinicos says here:

While a welcome corrective to the standard bourgeois caricature of Lenin as a demonic totalitarian, this interpretation has subsequently been used by Lih and others to argue that Lenin had no distinctive or original approach to revolutionary politics in general or party organisation in particular. This would have come as a surprise to Lenin himself, who after all wrote “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920 in order to introduce Western revolutionaries to the specific political experiences of the Bolsheviks, but also to contemporaries such as Georg Lukács, who, through the debates in the early Communist International, developed a hard-won understanding of Lenin’s originality.

Callinicos is right but that’s the problem unfortunately. There’s a lack of clarity in the above quote but basically it makes an amalgam of two separate questions. Lih’s contribution was less about “revolutionary politics” than it was about organizational questions. Keep in mind that Lih’s key work was an 888-page examination of “What is to be Done”, a work focused on questions such as the role of a newspaper, democratic centralism, etc. That being said, by 1920 Lenin had certainly come to the conclusion that an “original approach” to party organization distinguished the Comintern parties from the Second International. The 21 Conditions was the most obvious sign of that but even more obviously was the application of “democratic centralism” to the German Communist Party when Paul Levi was expelled with Lenin’s endorsement over his public attack on the ultraleftism that was jeopardizing the German revolution. It was the sort of narrow understanding of democratic centralism that would become enshrined at the Bolshevization Comintern conference three years later under Zinoviev’s command.

Displaying a shamelessness on the order of a Washington bourgeois politician, Callinicos spends a thousands words or so defending his party’s understanding of the “woman question” against Sharon Smith of the ISO who views Tony Cliff’s analysis as lacking to say the least. If Callinicos can’t make the connection between a certain theoretical deficiency in the SWP and the commission of inquiry that asked the female rape victim about her drinking habits, then he is beyond help.

In his conclusion, Callinicos writes:

The present crisis is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible.

Now I have no idea what is going on in the French NPA since the comrades are not particularly engaged with the English-speaking left (who can blame them?) but I doubt it has anything to do with a rape investigation that had more in common with those conducted in the American military than what we would expect from a Marxist party. In terms of attempts to destroy an organization, my suggestion to Alex Callinicos is that he takes a look in the mirror at his earliest convenience. There he will find the miscreant most responsible.

 

12 Comments »

  1. “Callinicos feels the need repudiate Lars Lih’s argument that Lenin sought nothing more than to build a party in Russia modeled after Kautsky’s party in Germany since that comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of the “left reformism” of Syriza.”

    Callinicos glosses over the fact that the early SPD was, programmatically, a Marxist organization, while Syriza is clearly not (yet). The two parties are not at all the same thing. Would that the SWP modeled itself on the early SPD — Callinicos would no longer be able to act as SWP patriarch.

    Comment by Jason Schulman (@PartyOfANewType) — July 4, 2014 @ 8:06 pm

  2. Louis, I don’t much about Callinicos, so I have one question: Did he ever lead a movement or has he always been a career party functionary or apparatchik like Barnes?

    Comment by Jim Brash — July 4, 2014 @ 9:12 pm

  3. Callinicos is a world-class intellectual and professor with dozens of books and articles to his credit.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 4, 2014 @ 9:21 pm

  4. You’re free to develop your own positions but you’re really at odds with Marx and materialism here.

    Material conditions absolutely weigh on the development of struggle and organizations. There were times when Marx and Engels avoided organization all together and instead focused on theoretical questions because there simply wasn’t anything going on and they weren’t Blanquists or adventurists that would try to “create a situation.”

    “…in June 1850… The League was undoubtedly the only revolutionary organization that had any significance in Germany. But what purpose this organization should serve depended very substantially on whether the prospects of a renewed upsurge of the revolution were realized. And in the course of the year 1850 this became more and more improbable, indeed impossible. The industrial crisis of 1847, which had paved the way for the Revolution of 1848, had been overcome; a new, unprecedented period of industrial prosperity had set in; whoever had eyes to see and used them must have clearly realized that the revolutionary storm of 1848 was gradually spending itself.” – Engels

    “With this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as luxuriantly as is at all possible within bourgeois relationships, there can be no talk of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible in the periods when both these factors, the modern productive forces and the bourgeois productive forms, come in collision with each other. The various quarrels in which the representatives of the industrial factions of the continental party of order now indulge and mutually compromise themselves, far from providing the occasion for new revolutions are, on the contrary, possible only because the basis of the relationships is momentarily so secure and, what the reaction does not know, so bourgeois”. – Marx

    Maybe it’s a moot point though since the organizations mentioned here are sects with little relation to real struggle. I guess a more charismatic leader or appealing organizational model could bring in more members, but it doesn’t have any relation to the actual class struggle or any movement toward communism.

    Jim Jones and Lyndon LaRouche built huge cults with all kinds of money and other resources after all. Hasn’t had any effect on pushing society in any direction, and doesn’t mean that people interested in making a change should follow their “successful” models.

    This was all covered too.

    “All the socialist founders of sects belong to a period in which the working class themselves were neither sufficiently trained and organized by the march of capitalist society itself to enter as historical agents upon the world’s stage, nor were the material conditions of their emancipation sufficiently matured in the old world itself. Their misery existed, but the conditions of their own movement did not yet exist.” – Marx

    Notice he doesn’t say “the right leaders didn’t exist.” He said “the conditions of their own movement” didn’t. They don’t now either.

    There’s also an undercurrent of opportunism (another “musty term from the Marxist lexicon” perhaps) in this and other posts proposing a “mass party.” What you’re basically saying is that the sects should dissolve themselves and form a larger party. How this new “mass party” will go from being just the 100’s of members of each small party cobbled into one is to adopt more popular positions and abandon less popular ones. But guess what? In a non-revolutionary period the “popular positions” are the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois positions that are dominant in society.

    Calling yourself a socialist is unpopular in the US. So they should get rid of that. Maybe that’s no big deal if the content doesn’t change. After all, what’s in a label? But the bulk of the American population is also strongly anti-immigrant. So should the new party get rid of demands to legalize all immigrants? That kind of America-first nativism would surely bring in lots of new members, but it would fundamentally change the character of the group too. How about abortion on demand? Unions (hugely unpopular in the general US population, check a poll)? Islamaphobia?

    This is something you never really get into when promoting your American Syriza position.

    Comment by Steve D. — July 5, 2014 @ 9:00 am

  5. Almost forgot this:

    “It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Workingmen’s Association has not yet arrived and for this reason I regard all workers’ congresses, particularly socialist congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in innumerable stale generalised banalities.” – Marx

    Comment by Steve D. — July 5, 2014 @ 9:36 am

  6. I think Steve D. has nailed it here. Callinicos is right, if somewhat economistic, to the extent that the conditions for a mass communist party have not existed, and thus his sect has dwindled over the past three decades or more. But he’s been wrong to maintain and attempt to bolster his sect in the face of the same. Thus has the sect involved itself in “innumerable stale generalized banalities,” as well as less banal and more horrific circumstances, such as the attempted cover-up of rape scandal. The SWP should have dissolved itself long ago. Callinos’s continual retrenchment is utterly deplorable and “irresponsible,” and, as Marx wrote, “not merely useless but harmful.”

    Comment by glsnc — July 5, 2014 @ 11:37 am

  7. You’re free to develop your own positions but you’re really at odds with Marx and materialism here.

    I think you meant economic determinism, not materialism.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 5, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

  8. Along with the incorrect identification of speaker of the quote from Shakespeare we get these gems from LP:

    (AC)”Disarray set in among the radical left before the onset of the economic crisis: thus George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within Respect in August 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to develop.

    (LP)”What a strange analysis. As if the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have been a green light for Galloway to launch his attack.”

    er…Lehman Bros did not collapse in August 2007 but more than a year later. Two hedge funds run by Bear Stearns collapsed in June 2007, causing Bear Stearns to go under and be picked up by JP Morgan Chase, with 95% of the cost absorbed by the Fed.

    But wait, there’s more:

    “The proof of Syriza’s failure was its support for “the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission.” It turns out that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s support for Juncker was highly qualified. Le Monde reported:

    “If Europe doesn’t democratize soon, it will suffer a major cohesion” he said and when asked whether or not he supports the candidacy of Juncker for the president of the European Commission he explained that “although he’s a tough opponent of his policy”, he recognizes the right to preside, as long as his party won the largest number of seats.

    That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.”

    No it’s not a ringing endorsement, it’s a capitulation. Shame on AC for mistaking abject cowardice, spinelessness, for enthusiastic approval.

    Comment by sartesian — July 5, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

  9. […] This is worth reading, Louis Proyect:  […]

    Pingback by Thunder on the Left, Lightening on the Right, Alex Callinicos’s Slow Impatience. | Tendance Coatesy — July 6, 2014 @ 9:42 am

  10. I don’t agree with Steve D that the present conditions are not ripe for a broad party to raise the consciousness of the US. Certainly there are fractious elements that won’t be congruent with massive leftist organisation but the Occupy Movement was definitely in my view an opportunity lost for the left. SYRIZA used those conditions in Greece to rally and gain some influence. That did not happen here for reasons we all know too well.

    Comment by Joshua — July 7, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  11. “SYRIZA used those conditions in Greece to rally and gain some influence. That did not happen here for reasons we all know too well.”

    This is a little unfair. Conditions in the US are not as bad as conditions in Greece. If they had been, there might have been a different outcome.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 7, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

  12. […] Rosen responds. Louis Proyect responds. Richard Seymour […]

    Pingback by The SWP crisis: accounts and resources « Jim Jepps — July 8, 2014 @ 9:58 am


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