Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 14, 2013

“Leninism” Meets the 21st Century

Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:41 pm

by Pham Binh on January 14, 2013

in analysis

Richard Seymour’s decision to break party discipline and speak truth to power about the rape allegation scandal consuming the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) proves that there are honest and upstanding elements in the organization who are doing their best to rectify the litany of outrages committed by its newly re-elected central committee (CC). These elements remain under the illusion that the organization is salvageable, that there is a way out of this self-imposed impasse, that internal reform and open dialogue are possible.

They are in for a rude awakening. Call it the SWP Spring.

Tom Walker, who wrote a powerful and searching resignation letter, is much more advanced in his thinking than the SWP’s critical stalwarts. He notes that the SWP’s indefensible deeds in this scandal are but a Google search away for the prospective recruit and that recreating the SWP in any form will not do. As he put it, “the real problem is that the case ever happened in the first place.”

So how did this case happen in the first place?

read full article

January 25, 2012

Mangling the Party: Vol. 1 of Tony Cliff’s Lenin By Pham Binh

Filed under: democratic centralism,Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

Mangling the Party:
Vol. 1 of Tony Cliff’s Lenin

By Pham Binh
January 24, 2012

 The following is dedicated to anyone and everyone has sacrificed in the name of “building the revolutionary party.”

Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party published in 1975 was the first book-length political biography of Lenin written by a Marxist. As a result, it shaped the approach of subsequent investigations by academics like Lars T. Lih as well as the thinking of thousands of socialists in groups like the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP, founded by Cliff), the U.S. International Socialist Organization, and Paul LeBlanc, author of Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and former member of the American SWP (no relation to Cliff’s group).

Cliff begins his biography by debunking the U.S.S.R.’s official state religion of Lenin-worship that “endowed [Lenin] with superhuman attributes.” Yet throughout the book Cliff refers to these “superhuman attributes”:

 Lenin adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation.

 [Lenin] combined theory and practice to perfection.

If these passing remarks were the main flaws of Cliff’s book it would still be useful to read, full of political and historical lessons. Sadly, this is not the case.

Cliff’s errors and distortions begin with Lenin’s political activity in mid 1890s. According to Cliff:

Ob Agitatsii had a mechanical theory of the relation between the industrial struggle, the struggle against the employers, and the political struggle against tsarism, based on the concept of “stages.” … [W]hatever the official biographers may say, the truth is that in the years 1894-96, [Lenin] did not denounce Ob Agitatsii as one-sided, mechanical, and “economist.” His writings of the period coincide exactly with the line which it put forward.

To show that Lenin’s writings of this period “coincide exactly” with the arguments of Ob Agitatsii, Cliff quotes Lenin’s 1895 draft Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) program and cites his article What Are Our Ministers Thinking About? in which Cliff claims “Lenin urged the expediency of leaving the Tsar out of the argument, and talking instead about the new laws that favored employers and of cabinet ministers who were anti-working class.”

Cliff later states in Building the Party that “[n]ot to point out the direct connection between the partial reform and the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism is to cheat the workers, to fall into liberalism.” Did Lenin fall into liberalism at this early stage of his career?

Anyone who reads either document will find that Lenin’s views do not “coincide exactly” with those of Ob Agitatsii. Neither the draft program nor the article Cliff cites are mechanical, one-sided, stageist, or “economist.” In What Are Our Ministers Thinking About? Lenin did not “urge the expediency of leaving the Tsar out of the argument.” Lenin did not fall into liberalism.

These egregious misrepresentations of Lenin’s views occur throughout Building the Party.

“Bending the Stick”

Cliff closes chapter two by claiming that Lenin’s penchant for “bending the stick” was “a characteristic that he retained throughout his life.”

[Lenin] always made the task of the day quite clear, repeating what was necessary ad infinitum in the plainest, heaviest, most single-minded hammer-blow pronouncements. Afterwards, he would regain his balance, straighten the stick, then bend it again in another direction.

Throughout the book Cliff makes reference to Lenin’s “stick bending,” by which Cliff means deliberately and one-sidedly overemphasising something one day and then the opposite thing the next day in different circumstances.

If “stick bending” was Lenin’s political method, it would mean that none of his writings should be taken at face value. Each piece would suffer from one-sided overemphasis and distortion. Such a method would also call into question Lenin’s intellectual and political honesty. How could anyone be sure what Lenin really meant or thought if his arguments were always exaggerated in some way? Furthermore, why would anyone in the Russian socialist movement take what Lenin had to say seriously if the only thing that was consistent about his message was its exaggerated character? Such a method would create a culture of disbelief and cynicism among Lenin’s followers that would grow more toxic with each “bend.”

Lenin’s letter to Georgi Plekhanov on the economist trend that Cliff uses to illustrate “stick bending” tells us something very different from what Cliff claims:

The economic trend, of course, was always a mistake, but then it is very young; while there has been overemphasis of “economic” agitation (and there still is here and there) even without the trend, and it was the legitimate and inevitable companion of any step forward in the conditions of our movement which existed in Russia at the end of the 1880s or the beginning of the 1890s. The situation then was so murderous that you cannot probably even imagine it, and one should not censure people who stumbled as they clambered up out of that situation. For the purposes of this clambering out, some narrowness was essential and legitimate: was, I say, for with this tendency to blow it up into a theory and tie it in with Bernsteinism, the whole thing of course changed radically … The overemphasis of “economic” agitation and catering to the “mass” movement were natural.

Here, Lenin’s real method emerges. The one-sidedness Cliff lauds is not Lenin’s but a feature of a particular stage of the Russian socialist movement’s development, namely the transition from study circles and propaganda to the field of mass action and agitation. In this transition some mistakes were inevitable and “one should not censure people who stumbled as they clambered up out of that situation.” However, when people elevated inevitable mistakes, errors, and stumbles into a full-blown theory and then connected it with Bernstein’s revisionism “the whole thing of course changed radically.” Once the whole thing changed radically, Lenin wrote A Protest by Russian Social Democrats in 1899.

Cliff conflates features and stages of objective development with Lenin’s subjective responses to them:

[F]ear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian “economism” and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 … motivated Lenin to bend the stick right over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and toward the organisation of a national political party.

Lenin did not transform from an armchair revolutionary in a study circle into an economist factory agitator, from economist factory agitator into top-down party-builder, and from top-down party-builder into a proponent of building the party from the bottom up around the elective principle in the name of the spontaneously socialist working class in 1905, attacking his own former positions all along the way. He continually grappled with the development of Russia’s worker-socialist movement through each of its distinct stages, each of which had unique challenges and opportunities (or “tasks”). Together, these stages were part of a single process that Lars T. Lih described as Lenin’s “heroic scenario” — the RSDLP would lead the workers, who, in turn, would lead the peasants, oppressed nationalities, and all of the downtrodden, exploited, and oppressed people of Tsarist Russia in a revolution that would destroy the autocracy, setting the stage for international socialist revolution.

In polemics Lenin typically reminded his readers about the importance of keeping the whole process of development in mind and instead of isolating its individual elements:

That which happened to such leaders of the Second International, such highly erudite Marxists devoted to socialism as Kautsky, Otto Bauer and others, could (and should) provide a useful lesson. They fully appreciated the need for flexible tactics; they themselves learned the Marxist dialectic and taught it to others (and much of what they have done in this field will always remain a valuable contribution to socialist literature); however, in the application of this dialectic they committed such an error, or proved to be so undialectical in practice, so incapable of taking into account the rapid change of forms and the rapid acquisition of new content by the old forms, that their fate is not much more enviable than that of Hyndman, Guesde and Plekhanov. The principal reason for their bankruptcy was that they were hypnotised by a definite form of growth of the working-class movement and socialism, forgot all about the one-sidedness of that form, were afraid to see the break-up which objective conditions made inevitable, and continued to repeat simple and, at first glance, incontestable axioms that had been learned by rote, like: “three is more than two”. But politics is more like algebra than elementary arithmetic, and still more like higher than elementary mathematics. In reality, all the old forms of the socialist movement have acquired a new content, and, consequently, a new symbol, the “minus” sign, has appeared in front of all the figures; our wiseacres, however, have stubbornly continued (and still continue) to persuade themselves and others that “minus three” is more than “minus two”.

It was Lenin’s appreciation for the totality of development, not “stick bending,” that led him to write polemics against economists, Mensheviks, followers of Bogdanov, liquidators, “left” communists, and Karl Kautsky, all of whom did not make the transition from one stage of the “heroic scenario” to the next by adapting themselves to the new “tasks”.

In chapter three, Cliff continues his “bending the stick” narrative:

It was fear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian “economism” and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 that motivated Lenin to bend the stick right over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and toward the organisation of a national political party.

This is totally false. The 1895 draft RSDLP program Lenin wrote and Cliff cited in chapter two proves that Lenin sought to build a national political party years before the economist trend emerged:

The Russian Social-Democratic Party declares that its aim is to assist this struggle of the Russian working class by developing the class-consciousness of the workers, by promoting their organisation, and by indicating the aims and objects of the struggle. The struggle of the Russian working class for its emancipation is a political struggle, and its first aim is to achieve political liberty.

Anyone who reads Lenin’s draft program will know where he stood on the party question in 1895. Fear had nothing to do with Lenin’s commitment to organizing a national political party.

Lenin and Party Rules

Cliff’s chapter on Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? is unremarkable except for the section dealing with Lenin’s attitude towards party rules. Cliff quotes Lenin’s 1902 Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks that was circulated as an RSDLP pamphlet in 1904 to show that Lenin had a “distaste for red-tape and rule-mongering.” Cliff goes on to say:

Lenin’s faction was for a long time very informal indeed. He started to build his organisation through Iskra agents. When, after the second Congress, as we shall see, he lost the support of his own Central Committee, he reorganised his supporters around a newly convened conference that elected a Russian Bureau.

There are a number of errors here.

The first is that the purpose of Iskra agents was to build the RSDLP, not an organization loyal to Lenin (another falsehood that runs throughout Building the Party is the notion that Bolsheviks and/or the central committee were “his”).

The second and more serious error is to use Lenin’s actions in the aftermath of the RSDLP’s second congress that gave birth to the Menshevik-Bolshevik split as proof of Lenin’s preference for informal or loose rules. One of the central charges that Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers levelled at the Mensheviks was that their resignations, boycotts of party institutions, refusal to call a third congress despite the expressed will of the majority of the 1903 congress delegates, and declaration that the League of Social Democrats Abroad was autonomous from the RSDLP all violated the rules adopted at the 1903 congress.

Anyone who reads Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back will find that Lenin paid very close attention to rules, regulations, procedural minutiae, and abided by them. One of the central reasons why Lenin spent years working to convene the 1903 congress in the first place was to eliminate the informal rules and procedures that prevailed in the socialist circles and replace them with the formal rules necessary to govern the workings of a professional political party. In contemporary terms Lenin sought to overcome what feminist Jo Freeman described as “the tyranny of structurelessness.”

Lenin’s Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks proves the opposite of what Cliff claims. In that letter Lenin writes:

It would be all the less useful to draw up such Rules at present [1902] since we have practically no general Party experience (and in many places none whatever) with regard to the activities of the various groups and subgroups of this sort, and in order to acquire such experience what is needed is not Rules but the organisation of Party information, if I may put it in this way. Each of our local organisations now spends at least a few evenings on discussing Rules. If instead, each member would devote this time to making a detailed and well-prepared report to the entire Party on his particular function, the work would gain a hundredfold.

 And it is not merely because revolutionary work does not always lend itself to definite organisational form that Rules are useless. No, definite organisational form is necessary, and we must endeavour to give such form to all our work as far as possible. That is permissible to a much greater   extent than is generally thought, and achievable not through Rules but solely and exclusively (we must keep on reiterating this) through transmitting exact information to the Party centre; it is only then that we shall have real organisational form connected with real responsibility and (inner-Party) publicity. For who of us does not know that serious conflicts and differences of opinion among us are actually decided not by vote “in accordance with the Rules,” but by struggle and threats to “resign”? During the last three or four years of Party life the history of most of our committees has been replete with such internal strife. It is a great pity that this strife has not assumed definite form: it would then have been much more instructive for the Party and would have contributed much more to the experience of our successors. But no Rules can create such useful and essential definiteness of organisational form; this can be done solely through inner-Party publicity. Under the autocracy we can have no other means or weapon of inner-Party publicity than keeping the Party centre regularly informed of Party events.

Here Lenin stressed the importance of reporting and inner-party publicity as opposed to rules because he believed (correctly) that proper decisions about rules could only be made if the RSDLP’s leaders were fully aware of the work each of its members engaged in. (Lenin viewed the centralization of information regarding members’ activity into the hands of the party leadership as a response to operating as an illegal organization; presumably information would be decentralized among the membership as a whole through the medium of a newspaper if the party was legal.)

Lenin closed this letter with the following words:

And only after we have learned to apply this inner-Party publicity on a wide scale shall we actually be able to amass experience in the functioning of the various organisations; only on the basis of such extensive experience over a period of many years shall we be able to draw up Rules that will not be mere paper Rules.

So while it is true that Lenin detested rule-mongering, it is equally true that Lenin spent the better part of 1904 and 1905 fighting in defense of the rules adopted by the 1903 congress and against the informal methods that the Mensheviks proved unwilling to part ways with.

Chapter five on the 1903 congress is again replete with errors. In discussing the famous debate between Lenin and Martov over what the definition of a party member should be, Cliff attacks Martov and Trotsky for supporting Lenin’s organizational plan as laid out in What Is To Be Done? and then opposing Lenin’s formulation on membership, writing:

To combine a strong centralist leadership with loose membership was eclecticism taken to an extreme. … [T]he revolutionary party cannot avoid making strong demands for sacrifice and discipline from its own members. Martov’s definition of party membership fitted the weakness of his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Cliff fails to note that Martov’s membership definition became the basis for recruitment into the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP for three years until the Mensheviks agreed (in conjunction with the Bolsheviks) at the 1906 party congress to a formulation in line with Lenin’s 1903 wording. According to Cliff’s logic then, the Bolsheviks during 1903-1906 were guilty of “eclecticism taken to an extreme” for combining “strong centralist leadership with loose membership” and “weakness” with regards to proletarian dictatorship, while the Mensheviks were innocent of these things after 1906 because they supported Lenin’s definition of party membership.

Eclecticism indeed!

In this regard, Cliff is like most other “Leninists” who invest the 1903 membership debate with an artificial and ahistorical significance. If Lenin did not mention the issue in his discussion on the “Principle Stages in the History of Bolshevism” in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder  written for foreign communist audiences unfamiliar with RSDLP history it could not have been a terribly important issue from his point of view.

Cliff’s next egregious error comes in his discussion of Lenin’s actions after the 1903 Congress that gave birth to the Menshevik and Bolshevik trends within the RSDLP:

With the aid of Krupskaya in Geneva, and a group of supporters operating inside Russia, [Lenin] built a completely new set of centralised committees, quite regardless of Rule 6 of the party statutes, which reserved to the Central Committee the right to organise and recognise committees.

He goes on to say that these “completely new” and “centralised committees” began to agitate for a new RSDLP congress in 1904 to resolve the disputes that arose between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks at the end of the previous congress.

If Cliff’s statement is true, then Lenin was a hypocritical and ruthless faction fighter who attacked his political opponents for not playing by party rules that he exempted himself from. If true, it would have fatally undermined the whole basis of post-1903 Bolshevik agitation for a new congress because it was based on the following rule adopted by the second congress: “The Party Council must call a congress if this is demanded by Party organisations which together would command half the votes at the congress.” If Lenin himself violated these rules by creating “completely new centralised committees” it would have been impossible for him to attract support within the RSDLP for his claim in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back that it was the Mensheviks who were making a mockery of the RSDLP’s rules.

Cliff’s assertion has no footnote, so it is unclear what the source of his claim is. What is certain is that there is no mention of illegal (in the sense of being against the RSDLP’s rules) and “completely new set of centralised committees” in Krupskaya’s memoirs. Surely if Lenin had done what Cliff claims the Mensheviks would have pounced on this monstrous fact and included it in their bitter attacks on Lenin in the pages of the post-congress Iskra.

Another element that appears in this chapter and throughout Building the Party is Cliff’s “truisms” about a variety of topics that have no basis in things Lenin said or did. For example:

[T]he leadership of a revolutionary party must provide the highest example of devotion and complete identification with the party in its daily life. This gives it the moral authority to demand the maximum sacrifice from the rank and file.

Lenin certainly appreciated the sacrifices people made for the revolutionary movement, but this was not limited to those who were party leaders or even party members (for example, his attitude towards earlier generations of Russian revolutionaries, the Narodniks and Decembrists). At no time did Lenin use his position as a party leader to demand “maximum sacrifice from the rank and file.” This sounds like something from the Stalin era or from Mao’s Little Red Book which is full of timeless, moralistic phrasemongering.

Cliff’s references to Lenin’s imaginary disregard for rules serves an important purpose in the Building the Party narrative: Lenin has to constantly circumvent rules and fight against his own followers who become “conservative” and “formalistic” in their approach to politics by resisting Lenin’s continual “stick bending.” This narrative reaches its climax in chapter eight which celebrates Lenin’s fight at the third RSDLP congress held in April 1905 against the Bolshevik committeemen over two issues: recruiting workers to party committees and democratizing the party in the midst of the 1905 revolution. According to Cliff, “[b]uttressing themselves with quotations from What Is to Be Done? [the Bolshevik commiteemen] called for ‘extreme caution’ in admitting workers into the committees and condemned ‘playing at democracy.’”

The problem with Cliff’s account is that Lenin and the Bolsheviks never fought about either recruiting workers to party committees or democratizing the party at the third congress. It simply did not happen. Lih discovered that this episode in Building the Party was “lifted wholesale from Solomon Schwarz,” a Bolshevik-turned-Menshevik who wrote The Russian Revolution of 1905: the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (“wholesale” meaning copied word for word).

Cliff’s plagiarism is a relatively minor issue compared to the real scandal: he evidently never bothered to read Lenin’s Report on the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party written in May 1905! Had Cliff read Lenin’s account of the third congress he would have discovered that Lenin makes no mention of any conflict, debate, or friction over whether to recruit workers and democratize the party in light of the new conditions created by the 1905 revolution. The report is positively glowing about the results of the third congress, which included more clearly defined party rules (so much for Lenin’s alleged informality) and a series of resolutions guiding the RSDLP’s conduct during the 1905 revolution.

The conclusion is inescapable: either Cliff did not read what Lenin said about the 1905 third congress or he knowingly repeated a falsehood taken from someone else’s work in order to support his narrative of “Lenin versus the party machine he built.” Neither is acceptable for a political biographer of Lenin.

It is in this chapter that the contradictions embedded in Cliff’s “Lenin must continually fight the party machine he built” narrative become most apparent. Suppose that Cliff was right that the committeemen did indeed defeat Lenin on the issue of recruiting workers at the third congress and stubbornly resisted such recruitment efforts. The question then becomes: how did the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP grow so rapidly? How could workers join the party against the will of the people who were the party? Cliff does not explain this impossibility but exclaims, “nevertheless it moves” and quotes figures showing the rapid growth of the Bolsheviks in 1905 and after. Cliff’s Lenin was evidently a magician who could make the party take actions the people who constituted the party opposed.

“Democratic Centralism” and Party Discipline

In chapter 15 Cliff’s litany of errors continues. The 1905 revolution created strong pressure from the RSDLP’s rapidly growing ranks to unite the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions. This unity was consummated at the RSDLP’s 1906 congress held in Stockholm. Cliff neglects to mention that this congress elected a central committee of three Bolsheviks and six Mensheviks. He recounts that an RSDLP conference in Tammerfors held in 1906 decided to create an electoral bloc with the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), a liberal party backed by big business. Lenin insisted that the decisions of this conference were not binding on local party bodies. A surprised Cliff writes:

What had happened to the democratic centralism so dear to Lenin? For years he had argued for the subordination of the lower organs of the party to the higher, and against the federal concept of the party. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, written February-May 1904, he had said that “the undoubted tendency to defend autonomism against centralism … is a fundamental characteristic of opportunism in matters of organisation.”

What Cliff means by “democratic centralism” is “subordination of the lower organs of the party to the higher” and a non-federal party. What Lenin meant by “democratic centralism” was altogether different.

The quote Cliff cites from One Step Forward, Two Steps Back is misplaced because Lenin was arguing against those, like Trotsky, who held that the editorial board of the party’s newspaper should be autonomous and not subject to the democratic control of the party congress, a very different issue from the autonomy of local committees or local party branches to make decisions regarding local work. The notion that local autonomy was a new element in Lenin’s thought in 1907 is mistaken. Lenin noted that the third congress of the RSDLP in 1905 affirmed this principle:

The autonomy of the committees has been defined more precisely and their membership declared inviolable, which means that the C.C. no longer has the right to remove members from local committees or to appoint new members without the consent of the committees themselves. … Every local committee has been accorded the right to confirm periphery organisations as Party organisations. The periphery organisations have been accorded the right to nominate candidates for committee membership.

The principle of autonomy was first affirmed at the RSDLP’s second congress in 1903:

All organisations belonging to the Party carry on autonomously all work relating specially and exclusively to the sphere of Party activity which they were set up to deal with.

Another element missing from Cliff’s account of “democratic centralism” is the following rule, also adopted at the second congress:

Every Party member, and everyone who has any dealings with the Party, has the right to demand that any statement submitted by him be placed, in the original, before the Central Committee, or the editorial board of the Central Organ, or the Party Congress.

This rule seems to have been designed to prevent secret expulsions and other abuses of power by party officials that plague all “Leninist” organizations, abuses which are almost always justified on the grounds of “democratic centralism.” The term has been abused to such an extent that it no longer conveys the organizational norms that prevailed within the RSDLP among Mensheviks (who first coined the term) and Bolsheviks alike until the 1917 revolution.

Lenin famously defined “democratic centralism” as “freedom of discussion, unity in action.” Cliff appropriately quotes Lenin on what this meant in practice:

After the competent bodies have decided, all of us, as members of the party, must act as one man. A Bolshevik in Odessa must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing a Cadet’s name even if it sickens him. And a Menshevik in Moscow must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing only the names of Social Democrats, even if his soul is yearning for the Cadets.

Note what “freedom of discussion, unity in action” did not mean. It did not mean that the minority had to publicly champion the “line” or argument of the triumphant majority. “Unity in action” for a dissenting minority simply meant acting in concert with the majority, not singing their tune or arguing for their “line.” Nowhere did Lenin say “a Bolshevik in Odessa must argue with his workmates that supporting the Cadets is the way to go,” or “a Menshevik in Moscow must convince everyone he knows to vote Social Democrat even if his soul is yearning for the Cadets.” A line of action and a line of argument are two different things; “unity in action” did not mean unity in argument or political position.

Given this understanding of what “democratic centralism” meant to Lenin and the RSDLP, the following lines by Cliff are wildly, unfathomably wrong:

A couple of months later, in January 1907, Lenin went so far as to argue for the institution of a referendum of all party members on the issues facing the party – certainly a suggestion that ran counter to the whole idea of democratic centralism.

Polling the party to determine the party’s course of action is antithetical to “democratic centralism” only if we use Cliff’s definition of the term and not Lenin’s. The answer to Cliff’s question, “What had happened to the democratic centralism so dear to Lenin?” is simple: nothing.

Cliff’s failure to understand the meaning of “democratic centralism” becomes a problem again in chapter 17 when he discusses a Menshevik-led party trial of Lenin in 1907. Surprisingly, Cliff agrees with the Mensheviks that Lenin was guilty of violating party discipline, writing:

Lenin’s behavior at the trial is very interesting, because it shows the relentless way in which he conducted a faction fight against the right wing of the party. As the trial opened, Lenin calmly acknowledged that he used “language impermissible in relations between comrades in the same party,” but he made absolutely no apology for doing so. Indeed, in fighting the Liquidationists and their allies in the movement, he never hesitated to use the sharpest weapons he could lay his hands on. Moderation is not a characteristic of Bolshevism.

The incident that precipitated the trail occurred after the Mensheviks in St. Petersburg created an electoral bloc with the Cadets in defiance of the majority of the local RSDLP organization. Lenin wrote a pamphlet attacking the Mensheviks for doing so. The Mensheviks retaliated against Lenin by having the RSDLP central committee, on which they had a majority, charge Lenin with violating party discipline. So it was the Mensheviks who were violating the rules of the RSDLP, not Lenin.

The Bolshevik Party: Not Formed in 1912

In chapter 17, Cliff discusses Lenin’s fight against the liquidationist trend in the RSDLP. He notes that a January 1910 RSDLP conference vote forced Lenin to disband the Bolshevik faction, close its newspaper, and break off relations with the “boycottists” in their ranks while the Mensheviks were obliged to do the same: disband their faction, close their newspaper, and break with the liquidators in their midst. Lenin dutifully complied. His Menshevik counterparts did not.

After the Mensheviks proved unwilling to follow through with their obligations, Lenin launched a new weekly paper at the end of 1910, Zvezda. Cliff omits this fact and instead picks up the story with the Prague Conference held in January 1912. He also omits the fact that this conference elected a pro-party Menshevik (one of two who attended) to the RSDLP’s central committee. This is important because the 1912 Prague Conference is almost always referred to as the beginning of the Bolsheviks as a separate party from the Mensheviks. Cliff evades this issue by referring to those elected to the central committee in 1912 as “hards,” a term used nowhere else in Building the Party.

After chapter 17, Cliff claims the RSDLP’s daily newspaper Pravda played “a central role in building the Bolshevik Party,” declares that the Bolsheviks became “a mass party” in 1912-1914, and says that the Bolshevik Duma deputies “finally ended” relations with their Menshevik counterparts in late 1913 (when World War One broke out the deputies issued a joint statement, so this is false). Based on these claims it is clear that Cliff adheres to the myth that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks separated into two parties in 1912.

However, a cursory glance at Lenin’s writings in 1912 reveals how wrong this view is. Shortly after the 1912 Prague Conference, Lenin wrote the following in an explanatory note to the International Socialist Bureau:

In all, twenty organisations established close ties with the Organising Commission convening this conference; that is to say, practically all the organisations, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, active in Russia at the present time.

The 1912 Prague Conference separated pro-party Mensheviks and Bolsheviks from the liquidators. The Menshevik-Bolshevik divide did not culminate in two separate parties until the 1917 revolution. Cliff’s account of the 1912-1914 period is terribly flawed because it is predicated on falsehoods. The Bolsheviks were not a party, therefore they could not “become a mass party,” nor could Pravda have played “a central role in building the Bolshevik Party” because such an entity did not yet exist. This explains why, when Lenin referred to Pravda’s success against its liquidationist rival Luch he wrote, “four-fifths of the workers have accepted the Pravdist decisions as their own, have approved of Pravdism, and actually rallied around Pravdism” instead of using the terms “Bolshevist” and “Bolshevism.”

Cliff’s treatment of the history of Lenin and Pravda is just as error-ridden as the rest of Building the Party. For example, he claims, “Lenin practically ran Pravda.” What he neglects to mention is that 47 of Lenin’s articles were rejected, and that many of Lenin’s published articles were heavily edited to weaken their factional content. If Lenin “practically ran Pravda,” why would he reject so many of his own articles and censor himself politically?

Pravda was run by a team of editors, not by Lenin, and the initiative for it came from the lower ranks of the party. It was not “Lenin’s Pravda” as Cliff claims, but a workers’ paper to which Lenin was one contributor among many (Plekhanov, Rosa Luxemburg, and Kautsky also wrote for it). The overwhelming majority of Pravda’s content, including poems and humor columns, was written by workers, not by higher-ups in the party or the paper’s editorial team.

Conclusion

Building the Party
has so many gross factual and political errors that it is useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts. This conclusion is inescapable for anyone who reads the book closely and compares it with the writings of Lenin and the historical record. Those who read Building the Party and take it seriously will need to unlearn the falsehoods and misinformation contained in its pages if they want a reasonably accurate picture of Lenin’s work in the context of the Russian socialist movement of the early twentieth century.

Bookmarks in Britain and Haymarket Books in the U.S. should think twice before republishing, selling, and profiting from Building the Party since it contains so many errors, falsehoods, and lies about Lenin.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, The Indypendent, Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch and thenorthstar.info, a collaborative blog by and for occupiers from across the U.S. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net

December 23, 2011

What kind of party do we need? A reply to Ahmed Shawki

Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Ahmed Shawki

I am not exactly sure why the ISO reprinted a 2006 speech by party leader Ahmed Shawki on “What Kind of Party We Need” in their latest newspaper but it seems to be a retreat from Paul LeBlanc’s more recent thoughts on the subject that partially reflected the insights of scholar Lars Lih and others working through the problems of “Leninism”.

Mostly Shawki tries to communicate the idea that party-building concepts have evolved since the days of Karl Marx, almost in a Darwinian fashion. There are still lots of dinosaurs around but survival of the fittest—implicitly understood in terms of a superior program—will sort things out.

He says that Marx was too preoccupied with theorizing about capitalism to really give much thought to organizational questions:

Marx himself had placed some emphasis on the attempt to build political organization. But you were talking about a period of the rise of capitalist social relations, and therefore, in large part, the bulk of Marx’s own personal activity lay in developing theory rather than political organization.

Outliving Marx and ostensibly past the thorny problems of theorizing capitalism, Engels was more directly involved with such nitty-gritty efforts:

Engels participated much more effectively in the construction of the Second International and played a formative role in the construction of what was to be the model socialist organization of the day–the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), an organization that produced, after a period of illegality, dozens of newspapers, a mass membership, elected officials. The SPD was led by a man called Karl Kautsky who was described at the time as the Pope of Marxism–that was supposed to be a good thing as opposed a negative thing.

Understanding that “What is to be Done?” is quite clear about Lenin’s insistence that the German party was a model for what he advocated in Czarist Russia—allowing for the need to develop ways to fend off repression—Shawki tries to draw a distinction between Kautsky and Lenin that is a bit lost on me:

I’m not saying that Lenin was identical to Kautsky. You can go back and read Kautsky, for example, where he says clearly in the period of the late 1800s that the German Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. In other words, we’re a party that seeks the transformation of society, but we’re not about to make a revolution.

Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks, in part because they operated under Tsarism and in part because of events after the writing of What Is To Be Done?

Perhaps there is a subtle distinction that requires a higher level of dialectical insight than I can muster at this point, but the difference between a “revolutionary party” and a “revolution-making party” was not obvious to me at first blush. But after consulting chapter five of Kautsky’s “The Road to Power“, it all became clear to me. In fact Kautsky is simply warning against Blanquist schemas and trying to explain that revolutions cannot be “created”. They are the products of profound crises that serve as imperatives to fundamental change:

The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come.

One surely hopes that comrade Shawki does not object to the idea that “the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us”.

Furthermore, a strong case can be made that Lenin viewed Kautsky’s “Road to Power” as exemplary long after “What is to be Done?” had been written and even after he had broken with Kautsky over WWI. In the latest issue of “The Weekly Worker”, the organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain (a group devoted to fresh thinking about such matters even if does tend a bit toward scandal-mongering, a reflection of the bad habits of the British press no doubt), there’s an article–“Lenin, Kautsky and the ‘new era of revolutions‘”–by the redoubtable Lars Lih that documents Lenin’s respect for Kautsky’s book, couched as it was in anger at Kautsky’s subsequent evolution:

In autumn 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin wrote to his associate, Aleksandr Shliapnikov: “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy.” This pungent summation of Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky – an attitude that remained unchanged for the rest of Lenin’s life – is often cited. Ultimately more useful in understanding Lenin’s outlook, however, is another comment, made around the same time to the same correspondent: “Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”

Lenin took his own advice. He sat down a few weeks later, flipped through the pages of Kautsky’s Road to power, and came up with a page-and-a-half list of quotations that he inserted into an article entitled ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’. He then commented: “This is how Kautsky wrote in times long, long past, fully five years ago. This is what German Social Democracy was, or, more correctly, what it promised to be. This was the kind of Social Democracy that could and had to be respected.”

While I certainly agree with Lars on the need to see the continuity between the pre-WWI Kautsky and Lenin, I sometimes wonder if he tends to go overboard on all this. That continuity is certainly of immense interest to Lenin scholars but the more burning issue for revolutionists today is not the relevance of Kautsky’s turn-of-the-century socialist party but the kind that we need today. Breaking down the misconceptions about “Leninism” is of course important but unless we begin to think creatively about our tasks today—as both Kautsky for a time and Lenin did—we will not solve what Leon Trotsky described as: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” Trotsky might have been in error about the solution but he certainly got the problem right.

Which brings us back to comrade Shawki’s speech:

At this point [after 1914], Lenin begins to develop ideas about organization which I think are much more important and relevant to us–focused not on the question of illegality and professional revolutionism and so on…

He concludes that you have to begin by grouping together militants and activists–because we’re not talking here about commentators and writers, but people who are involved in the actual struggle against capitalism–into a party that can lead politically other sections of the working-class movement through the ebbs and flow of the working-class struggle.

He used the term vanguard for this, to mean people who are in advance [sic] in consciousness–that is, who are enemies of capitalism, rather than half opposed and half accepting. This isn’t an insult–it’s the reality for most people, that they hate the system, but don’t know what else you can put in its place.

There’s only one problem with this. After 1914 Lenin never writes about organization as such, something Shawki virtually admits when he states: “That idea became enshrined into the history of the revolutionary movement for one reason–it wasn’t Lenin’s writings so much as Lenin’s doing.” Yet there is no evidence that his ideas about the “vanguard” were any different than they were in 1903, ideas we must insist are exactly the same as the European social democracy. Furthermore, it is a bit problematic to extract party-building concepts out of “Lenin’s doing” especially since the party that came into existence in 1903 operated on the same basis as it did 14 years later.

There were no organizational “innovations”. Instead he is preoccupied with uniting the antiwar left internationally first of all and then seizing power in Russia, matters that involved strategy and tactics rather than new thinking about how a “vanguard” is constructed. Try as you may, the Marxist Internet Archives will reveal nothing along the lines of “What is to be Done?” between 1914 and 1917.

Once Shawki moves forward in time to the 1960s, things don’t get much better I’m afraid. He states:

Today, there is an idea that the construction of a socialist organization is in itself a flawed project. In short, it’s been there, done that–we tried it in the 1960s and ’70s, and this model of organization doesn’t work.

It is not exactly clear what this is a reference to. In my view, what was tried in the 60s and 70s is something I refer to as Zinovievism, a mechanical version of “democratic centralism” that led to sect and cult formation in the Trotskyist and Maoist movements. By this period, the CP’s had transformed themselves into something much more like the social democracy so they were out of the running in the race to construct “vanguard” parties.

Shawki does seem to recognize that the party-building methodology was flawed:

I think that there’s a reaction that we can sometimes have to say you just did it wrong–which is a good answer to a been-there-done-that kind of remark.

But I think the more sophisticated answer would be that not only did the left in the 1960s inherit models of organization from the past, but it was itself dislodged from its historic role and placed outside of the working-class movement. And this is despite valiant efforts of many sections of the left to reconnect with the working class, which should be applauded, not derided.

Now it would be useful to get his thinking on inheriting “models of organization from the past” but to my knowledge this is just something that never gets explored much in ISO publications. Unless there is something about the ISO that I have missed, the methodology is pretty much the same one that they inherited from the British SWP, their one-time mother ship. For about as succinct a presentation of their ideas on “democratic centralism” as can be found, you can read Todd Chretien’s article on “Lenin’s Theory of the Party”  that appeared a year after Shawki’s speech. I should say at the outset, however, that Lenin had no theory of the party. Tony Cliff did, and that’s where Todd’s ideas come from basically. He writes:

So what is democracy? It’s not a happy-go-lucky-everybody-gets-a-say kind of thing for the sake of fairness. Instead, democracy, if it works, has to be a contentious, active, participatory, argumentative, organized process. We have formal votes on agendas, delegates, leaders, actions, policies, etc. In fact, I’d venture a guess that the ISO is one of the most democratic organizations in the world. So, yes, there have to be formal mechanisms of democracy within the party, but more than that, democracy has to be active and participatory. Why? In order to confront the beast we are up against, you need to have as many people as possible looking at the problem, studying the problem, engaged in trying to get rid of the problem…

The second part is centralism, because if the ISO is not a utopia, it’s also not a talk shop. We don’t have academic conferences. Now there are some very good academics, but there are also many academic conferences where everyone talks and nothing comes out of it because no one ever expected anything to come out of it. The ISO is not a talk shop. We want to act. We want freedom of discussion to have our debates out, but then we want to take a vote. Whichever side wins will be put into practice and then we’re going to see if it works. If our decision is wrong, then the people who opposed it can come back and say, “See that was wrong.” But the only way to test things in practice is to make a decision, have all members try to implement that decision to the best of their ability, and then assess the outcome. If members don’t take decisions and actions seriously, then you never know if it was your tactics that were wrong, or it was in the implementation that went wrong. In other words, giving something a half-assed try is no test at all.

I doubt if any veteran of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. or the RCP et al would have described how it was put to them as a new recruit any differently, and that’s the problem.

This business about a “talk shop” is something I heard when I joined the SWP in 1967. It meant that you could talk until you were blue in the face during preconvention discussion but once the party made up its mind about a given orientation, then you had to switch gears and to into action mode. As we know today, this is not really the way that the Bolsheviks operated in real life, no matter how hard Zinoviev tried to give that impression. They did not designate special periods when party members could debate with each other behind closed doors. Their debates were held in public.

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

So during the heat of battle, not only do you have “Bolsheviki” arguing against Lenin, they vote against him in public. Neither was expelled. In fact not a single Bolshevik was ever expelled except Bogdanov and I probably would have voted for that myself.

Finally, I want to address myself to the key political question in Shawki’s speech that he formulates as follows: “there isn’t much space for a broad, anti-capitalist party in the United States.” Now since this was written 5 years ago, it is understandable that he might not have anticipated what has transpired over the past few months. But with that in mind, I strongly recommend that the ISO comrades pay careful attention to Pham Binh’s article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists“, especially the conclusion:

The most basic and fundamental task facing socialists is to merge with Occupy and lead it from within. Socialist groups that insist on “intervening” in the uprising will be viewed as outsiders with little to contribute in practice to solving Occupy’s actual problems because they will be focused on winning arguments and ideological points rather than actively listening to, joining hands with, and fighting alongside the vanguard of the 99% in overcoming common practical and political.

One difficulty the socialist left faces in accomplishing this basic and fundamental task is the divisions in our ranks that serve in practice to weaken the overall socialist influence within Occupy, thereby strengthening that of the anarchists. They have their Black Bloc, but where is our Red Bloc? Where are the socialist slogans to shape and guide the uprising’s political development?

Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines, and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.

Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters. Initiatives like Socialist Viewpoint’s call for a joint revolutionary socialist organizing committee in the Bay Area is a step in the right direction. We need to take more of those steps, sooner rather than later. The opportunity we have now to make the socialist movement a force to be reckoned with again in this country depends on it.

Anyone who agrees with this conclusion, whether they are in a socialist group or not, and wants to take these steps should email me so we can find ways to work together.

December 30, 2010

Once more on democratic centralism

Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

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:

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.

This is absolutely correct. Caucuses are absolutely necessary in the mass movement. Socialist groups must expect their members to vote based on majority rule in such circumstances. That in fact is what the centralism part of democratic centralism is all about. It is anti-democratic for a socialist parliamentarian to ignore his or her party’s wishes. When workers donate their time and money to elect a member to parliament, the least they can expect is to see their wishes expressed there. One of the great scandals of 1914 is that some socialist deputies voted for war credits despite the party’s antiwar declarations.

The problem, however, is that for small, self-declared “Leninist” formations, the discussions about policy take place behind their organizational firewall. I saw this all through the Vietnam antiwar movement when the SWP held what we called “fraction” meetings before a key national gathering. We were told that we were for a, b and c and that we should follow the lead of our “floor captains” when a crucial vote came up. This was what made so many people hate “Trots”. It was so obvious that someone like Fred Halstead or Gus Horowitz was calling the shots.

The way to resolve this problem, of course, is to go back to the real Bolshevik Party rather than the fictional version cooked up by James P. Cannon or any other men (and they were almost exclusively men) from that generation. Lenin did not believe in organizational firewalls. He believed in absolute transparency, except when it involved the security of the party.

In June 1905, Lenin wrote an article titled “The First Steps of Bourgeois Betrayal” that defined the relationship between the mass movement (back then, exclusively proletarian) and the working class party, drawing a sharp distinction with the bourgeois democrats of the Cadet Party:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Does that sound anything like the way that our latter-day “Leninist” parties operate? Methinks not.

Something else must be said. The Bolsheviks were not committed to democratic centalism as a method of functioning in opposition to the Mensheviks. When I was being indoctrinated into the Trotskyist movement, we always used to hear something that went like this. The Bolsheviks were “democratic centralists” who knew how to get things done, unlike the Mensheviks who hated democratic centralism like a cat hates water and who preferred “talk shops” of the kind that Irving Howe and Dwight McDonald hosted at Upper West Side salons.

In fact the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean. (The discussion here owes much to Paul LeBlanc’s excellent “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”.)

The Mensheviks first used it in Russia at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they stated: “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

There is virtually no difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks about the need for democratic centralism or its meaning. So claims that the two factions differed over this “Leninist” organizational breakthrough are simply mistaken. Moreover, the two groups had resolved many outstanding differences following the 1905 revolution. Menshevik leader Pavel Axelrod said, “on the whole, the Menshevik tactics have hardly differed from the Bolshevik. I am not even sure that they differed from them at all.” Lenin concurred: “The tactics adopted in the period of the ‘whirlwind’ did not further estrange the two wings of the Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer together…The upsurge of the revolutionary tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling the Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics.”

In any case, whatever differences would resurface in the period leading up to 1917, “democratic centralism” was not one of them. At a unity conference held in 1906, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks voted for a resolution that stated: “All party organizations are built on the principles of democratic centralism”.

A Menshevik, Zagorsky-Kokhmal, gave the report on the commission that adopted this resolution. It stated: “we accepted the formula for membership unanimously”. In other words, there was no objection to what some would characterize as “Leninist” norms. The reason for this is simple. Democratic centralism was never an issue.

Since Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s 1904 “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards” revolves around the charge that he was susceptible to “centralism”, you might get the impression that these differences revolved around the need for democratic centralism. In fact, this term does not appear in her critique that is online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/index.htm

For example, Luxemburg writes, “Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party.” Whatever else might say about this, it is not what we think of ordinarily when we hear the term democratic centralism. It is instead a reference to a specific practice rooted in the exigencies of the Russian class struggle, forced to operate under repressive and clandestine conditions. For example, I don’t recall James P. Cannon ever favoring this practice, despite being committed to the sort of democratic centralism that evolved under Zinoviev’s authority.

Not that Luxemburg is opposed to centralism itself. She is not a Foucauldian. When it takes shape from the self-activity of the working class, it is a good thing. “Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.”

Of course, the democratic centralism that defines “Leninist” organizations today had little to do with Lenin’s call for “freedom to criticize, but unity in action”. Somewhere along the line it became a formula for ideological homogeneity. It states that the “freedom to criticize” is permissible during preconvention discussion, a period that tolerates atypical behavior every couple of years or so, more or less like Spock undergoing “Pon farr”, the Vulcan version of mating season.

Those who have experienced this version of “freedom to criticize” understand that it is no such thing. Instead it is mainly an opportunity for the secondary leadership of the party to salute the central leadership for the brilliance of the line resolutions presented to the convention. Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene. In such organizations, however, the main danger from the standpoint of medical analogies is hardening of the arteries.

I will conclude with a point that must be made in relation to Nick Fredman’s comment. While I agree that discipline must be expected in hostile settings like a parliament or a trade union dominated by class-collaborationist bureaucrats, I think that a different attitude must prevail at movement gatherings like during the Vietnam War. Although the people gathered there might not be members of a socialist group, they deserve to be treated like comrades rather than raw material that can be shaped by the party’s iron will. Despite all its objections to Stalinism, the SWP’s characterization of itself as “the big red machine” smacked of the same kind of bureaucratic mentality that would be the undoing of the CPUSA and for that matter us after “the turn”.

March 3, 2009

In Response to Mick Armstrong

Filed under: democratic centralism — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

Tom O’Lincoln, a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, graciously invited me to submit a critique to their magazine Marxist Interventions of SA leader Mick Armstrong’s book From little things big things grow: strategies for building revolutionary socialist organizations. As many of you know, I regard groups such as Socialist Alternative claiming to be based on “Leninist” principles fundamentally mistaken on organizational questions. While I find little to differ with the comrades on programmatically (except for the “Russian questions”), I think that they are going about building a revolutionary party in the wrong way. While most of my efforts over the years have been devoted to reorienting their rivals on the Australian left, the Democratic Socialist Perspective, I welcomed the chance to get a hearing in their magazine, something the DSP has been averse to despite the polemic against me in its own pages some years ago.

I invite you to read the entire article but will only include the first few paragraphs here:

One of the more rapidly growing groups on the left is Socialist Alternative. Unfortunately it would appear from a book by Mick Armstrong that they remain wedded to party-building conceptions that will inhibit future growth. It is understandable why such self-styled Leninist formations would cling to counter-productive methodologies since the dead hand of tradition weighs heavily on any group seeking to establish itself as the avatar of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. Perhaps a better approach would be to start with a fresh sheet of paper, an approach virtually ruled out for small propaganda groups obsessed with ‘revolutionary continuity.’

Mick Armstrong’s party-building ideas are contained in From little things big things grow: strategies for building revolutionary socialist organizations. Apparently, the title of Armstrong’s book was inspired by a left wing song by Paul Kelly that deals with Aboriginal and labour struggles in Australia. Perhaps I am reading too much into the title, but I am afraid that it reminds me of the ‘nucleus’ analogy from chemistry or physics that is used so often in would-be Leninist circles. Basically, a mass revolutionary party starts with a nucleus of Marxists steeled with a correct program, which more often than not revolves around a correct interpretation of the ‘Russian questions’. If you don’t have the correct position on 1917 or some other ostensible benchmark date, you will not progress toward the final goal of seizing power. Thus, a ‘program’ and the initial cadre assembled around that program are like the nucleus of an element like carbon or uranium. What is misunderstood unfortunately by those who think in these terms is that a chemical nucleus rests on materialist foundations while a ‘program’ is simply a set of ideas.

I do want to turn my attention now to Mick’s rebuttal, which appears immediately after my critique. I once again urge you to read both pieces in their entirety but want to respond to some of his points here:

Mick writes, “Proyect opposes building clear cut revolutionary socialist organisations and is a supporter of the ‘broad party’ model for building the left today.” Actually, I do have a model and that is Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. Despite their commitment to building “Leninist” parties, Mick and other advocates of “democratic centralism” have no explanation for the differences between Lenin’s party and their own. In the entire history of the Bolshevik Party, only a single member was ever expelled: Bogdanov. Even after members of Lenin’s central committee broke discipline and spoke out against seizing power in 1917, none of them were expelled. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks carried out their debates in public. Probably the best documentation for this is John Reed’s 10 Days that Shook the World, in which Reed refers to the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky in chapter 2:

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 is 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 the appendix to Chapter 2 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 have convinced themselves that public debates will lead to social democratic deviations. Unfortunately, the only conclusion that you can draw is that internal debates will strengthen sectarian tendencies.

Mick ends up by making an amalgam between my ideas on party-building and the degeneration of the Workers Party in Brazil, a group that I have spent the past five years denouncing on the Marxism mailing list. It seems rather far-fetched to explain their downfall in terms of having debates in public. In fact, the Communist Party of Vietnam is totally committed to “democratic centralist” principles and has basically followed the same trajectory as Lula.

Of more interest is Mick’s claim that Socialist Alliance type formations in Great Britain and Australia somehow prove that straying from democratic centralism will lead you down the road to perdition. Although I have doubts that Mick has ever read what I have written about such formations, his comrade Tom O’Lincoln must surely know that I thought they were doomed to failure since the dominant tendencies tended to be “Leninist” parties maneuvering in the self-seeking manner devised by the Trotskyist movement during the “French turn”.

The only French turn I advocate is the one that the LCR has taken. I sincerely hope that small propaganda groups like SA and the DSP will pay close attention to French developments, which have the potential to reinvigorate the revolutionary left everywhere. While nobody can predict that the new anti-capitalist party will take power someday, one thing is certain. The “democratic centralist” model clung to like a security blanket by SA, the DSP, et al does not work. History has rendered its merciless judgment on that.

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