Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 16, 2006

What is to be done?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:47 pm

Since the Columbia Library has Lars T. Lih’s “Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context”, I will have more to say after reading it. However, at this point I’d like to make some observations on the reviews that appear in the latest International Socialism journal and in “The Weekly Worker”, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The first publication is produced by the Socialist Workers Party that was founded by the late Tony Cliff on the principles of state capitalism and is now the largest left group in Great Britain . Although it has paid some lip-service to breaking with democratic centralism, the SWP still retains much of the “Leninist” baggage of the past 90 years designed to be made more palatable through a “socialism from below” sugar coating.

On the other hand, the CPGB (despite the name, it has never had any connection with the Kremlin-based movement) is a tiny group that largely exists as a gadfly presence on the left with a particular obsession with the SWP. To its credit, the CPGB has written many interesting things about the organizational question over the years. Despite this, it seems to have little understanding about party-building, which is as much of an art as it is a science. If I were the leader of this group, the first thing I’d do is drop the name Communist Party and the hammer-and-sickle icon from the home page of their website, but that’s none of my business.

My interest in reviewing these reviews is basically to see how sections of the left are reacting to a challenge that has been put forward on the question of what democratic centralism, Leninism, etc. really mean. I have written numerous articles on the Internet but there have been books as well, including Paul LeBlanc’s “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” that is referred to in the International Socialism review. LeBlanc was a member of the American SWP during my tenure, but has since moved on to an academic career and membership in Solidarity. Around 6 or 7 years ago, he still believed that the American SWP of James P. Cannon was a model for a revolutionary party. He probably still does today, although his efforts to reconstruct one appear largely theoretical rather than practical. Volume one of American SWP leader Barry Sheppard’s memoir also endorses the idea that Cannon’s party was virtually flawless, but he surely will have to come to terms in volume two with whether its organizational principles have anything to do with its subsequent degeneration into a sect-cult. LeBlanc explains this evolution in terms of psychology, but I think it has more to do with methodology. Basically, any group that is predicated on assuming the power and influence of Lenin’s party on the basis of a set of ideas and a mechanical application of “democratic centralism” is on the road to ruin. Groups like the American SWP of the 1960s and 70s and the British SWP of today are distinguished by being exceptions to this rule, at least on a temporary basis.

The International Socialism review was written by Paul Blackledge and is titled “What was Done“. According to Blackledge, “Lih’s basic argument is that Lenin sought to apply in Russia the model of socialist organisation that had proved so successful in Germany.”

This is what I wrote in the early 1990s in an article titled “Lenin in Context“:

It is essential to understand is that the whole purpose of the convention at which this historic split took place was to form a party where none existed. It was Lenin and Plekhanov’s intention to form a new social-democratic party on the model of the Western European parties. It was not, as our contemporary “Marxist-Leninists” believe, an initiative to innovate some new “democratic-centralist” type of party. Plekhanov was the father of Russian Marxism and Lenin considered himself a disciple of Plekhanov. In the articles leading up to the convention, Lenin continuously pointed to the example of Kautsky’s party in Germany as something Russian socialists should emulate.

Now I have to confess that I did not come to these conclusions totally on my own. I was simply repeating the case made by Neil Harding in the early chapters of “Lenin’s Political Thought,” an essential text for understanding what Lenin really stood for. Unfortunately, Harding has demonstrated a certain susceptibility to anti-Communism in “Leninism”, his most recent book written in 1996. Against the preponderance of all evidence, including Lenin’s will, Harding argues that Stalinism is merely a continuation of Leninism (as if that term had any real meaning.)

Blackledge’s main criticism of Lih’s book is that it is content to make the case that Lenin’s party did not represent any qualitative breach with the party-building approach of the Second International. He invokes Lukács, of all people, as a guide to what was qualitatively different about Lenin’s party and the Third International, which was a bid to replace Second International parties worldwide:

Lukács recognised that, while there were undoubted levels of continuity between the Marxisms of the Second and Third Internationals, there was a fundamental break between the two. This break began with the debate on the expulsion of the revisionists in the 1890s, and culminated in the publication of Lenin’s State and Revolution in 1917. In breaking with the degeneration of the Second International, the left of that organisation, led by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, was compelled to make a root and branch critique of Kautskyism.

One can certainly understand Blackledge’s need to emphasize the political differences between Kautsky and Lenin. However, it is difficult to see how “democratic centralism” is any kind of guarantee that you will not end up making reformist errors. Moreover, the real problem with “Leninist” organizations is that they largely breed ultraleftism and sectarianism, not reformism.

Although I have to reserve judgment until I get a chance to read Lih’s book, it would seem to me that his main interest is scholarly rather than political. He wants to rescue Lenin from the distortions that have been imposed on “What is to be Done,” both from Lenin’s “friends” on the extreme left who see themselves as his heirs, and from his enemies who see this early work as a kind of smoking gun that led to Stalin’s dictatorship.

To really understand Lenin in context, you have to look at the entire project of revolutionary party-building from 1903 to the present age. Apparently Lih steeped himself in the European and Russian socialist literature of the early 20th century to help frame his ideas. My own view is that it is necessary to look at the history of the Cuban communist movement as well, which largely encapsulated the lessons of “What is to be done” without saying as much.

The CPGB review makes a number of the same points as the SWP, which is understandable. Both groups are anxious to preserve the “revolutionary” kernel of WITBD against Lih’s attempt to contextualize it in terms of European Social Democracy of the late 19th century. However, Mike Macnair concludes his review with an observation that jibes much more with my own take on the matter:

There is a lot more than this in Lih’s book. But its primary lesson should be clear from this last point. There is no angelic, or demonic, ‘new party concept’ emerging from WITBD or from the 1903 split in the RSDLP. The party concept WITBD defends is the Kautskyan party concept. In contrast, the actual political debates the book discusses – especially the argument between Iskra and Rabochoye Delo – is one which has important lessons for the modern far left.

Just one parting word on the disjunction between Lih’s work, no matter his subjective intention, and the legacy of Lenin for workers today. There is something truly grotesque about publishing a book with a $174 price tag that will be available only in research libraries like Columbia University and its ostensible goal, which is to educate activists about what Lenin really stood for, so as to correct mistakes. Since Lih has no visible connection to the organized left, perhaps this assumption is unwarranted. Maybe his only goal was to correct the historical record.

But surely the people involved with Historical Materialism, who include a number of academics in the British SWP, must understand that this sort of thing would strike the average activist as somewhat ludicrous. Even in the unlikely event that Lih’s book ended up in the library at Albany State, it is doubtful that somebody like Marxmailer Jon Flanders, who works as a locomotive mechanic in the area, would spend his day off at the Albany library pouring through this 900 page tome.

There is something singularly hierarchical about this information model that betrays a complete disjunction from the free-wheeling spirit that produced WITBD. Not a single leader of the British SWP, including Budgen himself, have any use for the debates that take place on the Internet, which is seen largely as a place to drop off announcements for a new issue of Historical Materialism or Socialist Worker.

Lenin’s goal in WITBD was to create a forum for the exchange of ideas across Russia where none had existed. Iskra would thereby strengthen the nascent Marxist movement and prepare the way for a revolution. He wrote:

Political and economic exposures gathered from all over Russia would provide mental food for workers of all trades and all stages of development; they would provide material and occasion for talks and readings on the most diverse subjects, which would, in addition, be suggested by hints in the legal press, by talk among the people, and by “shamefaced” government statements. Every outbreak, every demonstration, would be weighed and, discussed in its every aspect in all parts of Russia and would thus stimulate a desire to keep up with, and even surpass, the others (we socialists do not by any means flatly reject all emulation or all “competition”!) and consciously prepare that which at first, as it were, sprang up spontaneously, a desire to take advantage of the favourable conditions in a given district or at a given moment for modifying the plan of attack, etc.

It would seem obvious from this interview on Mrzine that Chinese workers have adapted this new technology to accomplish the same goals as Iskra:

An Interview with Yan Yuanzhang
by Stephen Philion

On February 22nd, the Chinese government shut down the China Workers’ Website and Discussion Lists because, according to the order of closure, the owner of such a website must make a 10,000,000 Yuan (US $1.2 million) deposit to register it as a legal one. The editorial collective responded that they would not be able to pay the fee since they were mostly farmers and employed and unemployed workers without access to such a huge sum. Thus the first leftist-run website in China that enabled workers and farmers to talk about their struggles to defend socialism in today’s China was shut down.

Below is an interview I conducted on February 26th with one of the administrators of the China Workers Website editorial collective in Beijing. He, as well as other members of the collective, is evidence of a new generation of leftists in China who are actively involved in struggles of workers and farmers, stepping into the role that the Party rejected long ago.

Q: Now, why would the Chinese government, a socialist government in name, be concerned about a website run by leftists discussing the kinds of things that were discussed on the China Workers Website?

A: Well, because the government is not making socialism.

Q: Of course. I’m asking because outside China there are still some leftists who see China as a socialist country.

A: Well, hearing such nonsense would reduce a pig to tearful fits of laughter! Our web discussion is designed for workers and farmers to discuss their issues and struggles. This is the kind of thing a socialist democracy would want, for workers to have the kind of democracy that capitalism couldn’t provide.

In my article “Lenin in Context,” I explain how Lenin sought innovations in party organizing in the same way that the enemy class was innovating within the factory:

Economism belonged to Russia’s past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.

If he were alive today, I am sure that he would be trying to make the same use of the Internet that he made of Iskra in the early 20th century. That should be our goal as well.



  1. To be fair, there are now quite a number of SWP member and SWP friendly blogs online providing just those platforms you are arguing for here.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — September 18, 2006 @ 1:28 pm

  2. Interesting stuff Louis. However, I think there is a danger that revolutionary socialists can throw themselves too much into the ‘internet revolution’ – take the World Socialist Website for an example of this – they simply liquidated their (admittedly minuscule and sectarian) organisation into a website.

    The rare times their one or two members in my area intervene at anti-war meetings, they simply give patronising speeches telling people to read the Marxist classics and advertising their website. Not that inspiring.

    Comment by Snowball — September 21, 2006 @ 9:51 am

  3. Do you mind if I use this article for tomorrow’s edition of the Carnival of Socialism?

    Comment by Dave — September 24, 2006 @ 5:38 am

  4. about WITBD there is also a good article by Hal Draper. it can be found on marxists.org

    Comment by Piter — June 15, 2007 @ 4:13 pm

  5. On the price tag, which you are right about, there are a couple of points. Firstly, the publisher, Brill, not Historical Materialism, who basically perform an editorial function, are responsible for the price. Books are sold at this price for two reasons: either because there is not much evidence of a market outside academic researchers, or (and this is my second point), in order to make money back off initial sales to research libraries before bringing the book out in paperback a few years subsequently. Still, as I say, I agree it’s bullshit, and Historical Materialism probably ought to put their books out with a publisher who makes them affordable (which basically means any non-commercial publisher).

    Comment by Interbreeding — June 25, 2007 @ 7:53 am

  6. i am trying to contact Barry Sheppard regarding a question about the Vietnam war protest – do you know a way I can reach him? thanks

    Comment by Paula Nicholson — November 13, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

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