Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2007

A debate with Links over the revolutionary party

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Since early 2003 there has been an ongoing debate between Links, the theoretical magazine of the Australian DSP, and some Marxmail subscribers about how to build a revolutionary party.

The debate began in issue 23 with John Percy’s article “Looking backward, looking forward: Pointers to building a revolutionary party“. Percy, a founder of the DSP along with his brother the late Jim Percy, modeled their group after the American SWP, which was not that bad an idea in the 1960s. The Australians broke with the American party after it veered off in a sectarian workerist direction in the 1980s, but they never renounced the organizational guidelines found in SWP founder James P. Cannon’s writings. Percy’s article is a defense of Cannonism against criticisms that I and others on Marxmail–Joaquin Bustelo in particular–have made. Percy basically represented us as burnt-out cases:

The idea of a revolutionary socialist party, or one taking any cues from the Bolshevik experience, is also hotly contested in the milieu, the “party” of former members of parties, reformed Leninists who’ve seen the error of their ways. Many people pass through revolutionary parties, here and around the world. The revolution is a great devourer of people, that’s a fact, and this can be intense in difficult objective situations in which we are pushing uphill. Some comrades tire out, some have bad experiences, and some get other priorities in their lives. Most move on, some adapt to the prevailing political orthodoxy, but some still haven’t settled with their past in the revolutionary party and for a while can spend a good part of their political activity attacking their own past by attacking those still actively building a party.

The Marxism List based in the US has many people with this sort of background and outlook, who have espoused or developed a description of their perspective as “anti-Zinovievist”, although I haven’t seen any attempt by them to clearly distinguish themselves from anti-Leninism. Really, that’s what they are, even if they feel better hiding behind Zinoviev.

I should add that John Percy is no longer the central leader of the DSP. After a prolonged faction fight over perspectives for the Socialist Alliance in Australia, Percy was replaced by Peter Boyle. Both Boyle and Percy remain convinced, however, that James P. Cannon’s ideas are correct.

When I replied to Percy on Marxmail on June 13, 2003, I reminded him among other things that Morris Stein, James P. Cannon’s top lieutenant, made a statement at the 1946 SWP convention that is a formula for sectarianism:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.

Until the DSP or any other self-declared “vanguard” formation can come to terms with this kind of small proprietor mentality that afflicts all such groups, they will never become a true vanguard. A genuinely revolutionary party has nothing in common with car rental agencies, fast food chains, etc. as they contend for market share. Fidel Castro did not approach Cuban politics this way in 1953 and neither should we today. I should add that my ideas on such matters are strongly influenced by Peter Camejo, who admitted to me early on that he in turn borrowed them from Fidel Castro and V.I. Lenin. Camejo has endeavored mostly in vain to persuade the DSP of his approach. You can read his appeal to them to break with the American SWP model here.

In the next issue of Links, number 24, Doug Lorimer responded to my criticisms of Percy’s article:

Louis Proyect, a former member of the US Socialist Workers Party and the moderator of the Marxism List, has written a response) to John Percy’s article on that internet site. In it he attempts to defend his view that the Democratic Socialist Party’s conception of the organisational character of the Leninist party is based, not on the actual Bolshevik experience, but on the distorted interpretation of this experience imposed upon the Communist International in 1924 by Comintern president Grigory Zinoviev, after Zinoviev had formed a political alliance with Stalin in the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In my reply to Lorimer, again posted to Marxmail, I reminded him how the actual practice of the Bolshevik party differed from his own. The democratic centralism of the Bolshevik party did not preclude party members differing with each other in public. In fact, one of Joaquin Bustelo’s main contributions to this debate has been to illustrate how “discipline” in the Bolshevik party was nothing like that understood by SWP or DSP leaders.

Even the question of the insurrection was debated publicly. Lenin quite rightly objected to that, and especially to Zinoviev and Kamenev having taken their disagreement, which given the nature of the proposed step needed to stay INSIDE the central committee, to the non-party press. He proposed to expel them, but even being Lenin with his enormous prestige in the Bolshevik leadership, he couldn’t get a single other member of the CC to support him, and the question was never formally taken up. For his part, Lenin was waging a political campaign against what he feared was indecisiveness on the question of insurrection among the top Bolsheviks. Arguably, in retrospect, Lenin was a little off on this. He was underground, in hiding, and didn’t have his finger on the pulse of the political situation like Trotsky and some of the others did. In the end, it was Trotsky’s tactical plan that was followed. Despite Lenin’s misgivings, Trotsky and the others more intimately involved were the ones who had to lead it.

Is that the spirit and tradition of today’s “Leninist” parties? I don’t think so. The Bolshevik majority didn’t split with fellow revolutionaries even over the question of insurrection and even after the gravest of breaches of discipline. But we split over anything and everything, and then, refusing to learn from experience, the splinters split again and again.

In issue 26 of Links, the debate continued with French LCR member Murray Smith’s article “Some remarks on democracy and debate in the Bolshevik Party“. It begins with a swipe at me:

I would like to make some comments on Doug Lorimer’s article, “The Bolshevik Party and `Zinovievism’: Comments on a Caricature of Leninism”, published in Links 24.

Louis Proyect’s affirmation that there is no such thing as Leninism reflects an idea that is now quite widespread on the left. Like many mistaken ideas, it has a kernel of truth. This kernel resides in the fact that the post-Lenin leadership of the Communist International invented the term “Leninism” in 1924 as what Daniel Bensaïd has called “a religiously mummified orthodoxy”.

Despite Smith’s rather patronizing attitude, most of his article repeats many of the points that I have made. (Unfortunately, the French Trotskyists seem unable to implement an approach based on Murray Smith’s insights and appear bent on continuing with a less offensive version of Morris Stein’s small proprietor approach to revolutionary politics.) Smith made a point of agreeing with my and Joaquin’s understanding of the internal norms of the Bolshevik party, which were far more elastic than any “Marxist-Leninist” party hence.

Not only was debate public, but breaches of discipline were not uncommon. Lorimer gives the example of Riazanov and Lozovsky voting against the banning of bourgeois newspapers. [Actually Lorimer was responding to my reference to Riazanov and Lozovsky, which was found in John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World.” I was demonstrating that the Bolsheviks argued publicly about whether or not the bourgeois press should be shut down, a matter that today’s “Leninists” would regard as the province of the top leadership body.] His explanation that they were “recent recruits” is unconvincing. In the first place, Riazanov and Lozovsky were hardly new; they both had about twenty years of party membership, and Lozovsky had been a Bolshevik from 1903 to at least 1909 before becoming primarily involved in the French workers’ movement. Secondly, they were far from isolated examples. The same two publicly opposed the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. Zinoviev and Kamenev’s much more serious breach of discipline in October is well known. Immediately after the conquest of power, a major debate broke out in the Bolshevik Party over the question of a “government of Soviet parties” (i.e. a coalition with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries). The “Bolshevik right” (all longstanding Bolsheviks) comprising Kamenev, Zinoviev and other opponents of the insurrection as well as some who had been in favour of it not only publicly opposed the majority of the leadership but resigned from their party and government posts to try to exert pressure on the party. In the spring of 1918 Bukharin and the Left Communists not only publicly opposed the majority position on the Brest-Litovsk peace but brought out fifteen issues of an opposition journal, Kommunist, at first daily, then less frequently.

The latest contribution to the debate is in Links issue number 30, hot off the press. Doug Lorimer once again defends Cannonite orthodoxy in a reply to Murry Smith titled “The Bolshevik Party and democratic centralism: A response to Murray Smith“.

Lorimer’s article consists mainly of a sterile defense of “Leninist” orthodoxy, which boils down to cherry-picking Bolshevik history in order to vindicate the DSP’s organizational methodology. I have heard it a thousand times and don’t think it is necessary to refute it point by point.

But I do want to conclude with a word or two about Paul Levi, the German Communist leader of the 1920s who became a bone of contention between Lorimer and Smith. Once again, the reference to Paul Levi was made originally by me. Lorimer considered Levi to be nothing more than an “anarchist intellectual,” an epithet hurled at him by Lenin after Levi became an open and vocal critic of disastrous Comintern meddling in Germany in the early 1920s.

Lorimer’s reference to Levi in his Links #24 article completely ignored the historical context for the falling out between Levi, the Comintern leaders and the German Communists who had become its obedient servants. Basically Levi was struggling against his party being turned into an appendage of the Comintern. If Lorimer was a bit more sensitive to and knowledgeable about the early history of the Communist movement, he would have recognized Levi as a kindred spirit in light of his own party’s efforts to defy SWP attempts to dictate its political line.

Smith was content to treat Levi in the same patronizing manner as he did me, but of course I would never consider myself to be in Levi’s league. Smith wrote:

Levi was probably the most talented of the KPD leaders after the murder of Luxemburg, to whom he was very close. Unfortunately, his behaviour and judgment as a leader were not on a par with his capacity for political analysis. He made a serious error of judgment in launching his attack [on the KPD]. Even then, had he been capable of retreating from his public opposition and accepting discipline, he could not have been kept out of the party. Lenin was in favour of him being readmitted under those circumstances.19 Unfortunately, he chose to form his own group and ultimately rejoined the SPD.

Let me conclude by rendering my own judgment on Levi:

Paul Levi, who had resigned as party chairman earlier in the year, would emerge as the sharpest critic of the March Action [a putschist bid by an inexperienced German Communist Party in 1921] and a key critic of Comintern interference in the German party. He had become embroiled in a dispute between the Italian Socialist Party and the Comintern over the infamous 21 conditions. The Italian party was divided into 3 factions–right, center and left–, but only the right was consciously reformist. The Comintern representatives to the Italian party convention in January 1921, as would be expected, ordered the Italians to throw out the right wing. The leader of the center faction, Giacinto Serrati, did not want to alienate the Comintern but he was equally unwilling to break with the right faction on the spot since these party leaders had a strong union base. To Levi’s consternation, a Comintern-engineered split took place and the remaining left faction formed the Communist Party of Italy.

When Levi returned to Germany to sit down with the Zentrale (Central Committee) to discuss the Italian events, one of the two Soviet emissaries who engineered the split, a Hungarian by the name of Matyas Rakosi, invited himself to the meeting. He defended the split and threatened that other parties, including their own, could get the same treatment if they didn’t toe the line. The cowed Zentrale took a vote on the Italian events and Levi’s position lost 28 to 23, whereupon he resigned as party chairman.

This left the Germany Communist Party in the hands of one Heinrich Brandler, a total mediocrity whose only claim to fame was some trade-union experience and commanding an armed detachment of workers in Saxony during the fitful 1919 uprising. Brandler had few strong convictions of his own and soon found himself accommodating to a rather aggressive ultraleft faction led by Ruth Fischer. Fischer and her followers thought that the Communist Party should be a party of action, an approach that stripped of its Marxist verbiage was pure Blanquism.

The German Communists received a surprise visit from a three emissaries from the Comintern, who at this point were covering as much territory per month as modern-day jet-setters. They were led by Bela Kun, who had led an unsuccessful revolt in Hungary 2 years earlier and was now on official duty in Germany to give the Communists there the benefit of his wisdom.

The party, Kun advised, must take the offensive even it had to resort to provocative measures. Once the Communists launched an offensive, 2 to 3 million German workers were bound to follow their bold lead. When he revealed his ideas to veteran Communist Clara Zetkin, she was shocked. She went immediately to Paul Levi and stated that a witness must be present at all future conversations with Kun, who she regarded as an adventurer despite his Comintern credentials.

Kun and the Fischerites were successful in winning Brandler to their ultraleft schema and he announced in early March 1921 that “…We have in the Reich today two to three million non-Communist workers who can be influenced by our Communist organization, who will fight under our flag…even in an offensive action. If my view is correct, then the situation obligates us to deal with the existing tensions at home and abroad no longer passively; we must no longer exploit…them merely for agitation, but we are obligated…to interfere through Action in order to change matters in our sense.”

This ultraleft putschism bore rotten fruit in the next few weeks when tens of thousands of workers in Central Germany were thrown into a ill-prepared battle with the police and army. The Prussian province of Saxony and the neighboring states of Thurngia and Saxony formed a powerful industrial base that had recently been the scene of pitched battles between strikers, especially coal-miners, and the state. Otto Horsing, the head of Prussian Saxony, decided to provoke the workers into a major battle so as to vanquish them once and for all. He called for their disarmament while turning a blind eye to right-wing militias in neighboring Bavaria.

On March 17, word of Horsing’s provocation reached Brandler’s Central Committee who decided to turn the local fight into a revolutionary struggle for power. To say that they had no idea how one thing would lead to another is the understatement of the century. What followed was a series of miscued confrontations that left the workers defeated and demoralized.

The Communists summoned the workers to battle with words drafted by Bela Kun himself:

The bourgeoisie stands in arms and refuses to surrender them… and the German workers have no weapons!.. Now the law means nothing any more; nor does Versailles. Weapons will decide, and the counterrevolutionaries refuse to surrender theirs…Every worker will simply ignore the law and must seize a weapon wherever he may find one.

This is an utterly cavalier attitude to take to the armed struggle, to say the least. What happened is that the call to arms was largely ignored by the Social Democrats and the Independent Socialist rank and file, while being actively opposed by their leaders. No significant armed actions were mounted by the Communists themselves. The most successful insurrectionary activity was organized by one Max Hoelz who had been thrown out of the party in 1919 after getting on Brandler’s wrong side.

Hoelz was a fire-breathing adventurer who had a real talent for Action. He formed shock troops almost immediately and began robbing banks, burning down buildings, dynamiting trains in a bold but strategically insignificant campaign. For example, the repeating dynamiting of passenger trains filled with workers going off to their morning factory jobs tended to alienate them and the people who worked on the railroads.

The German Communists could not control this insurrection which did take on a certain life of its own. Many deeply frustrated unemployed and lumpen elements joined in the rioting and looting. Neither were they capable of spreading the struggle to other parts of the country. In Berlin, despite their most inflammatory slogans, the masses remained uninvolved. This was a purely Communist Action and regarded with polite curiosity at the best. In most cases, it earned bitter resentment.

Heavy fighting continued for several days until the government won the upper hand.. Despite the defeat, the Communists viewed the events as a qualified success. They put all the blame on the “treacherous” non-Communist workers parties. The March Action left hundreds of workers dead, while thousands of others lost their jobs and prospects for future employment Only two leaders, Brandler and the adventurer Hoelz, were jailed. Most of the retribution was directed against their followers. It is not surprising that in the aftermath, the Communist Party of Germany shrank from 350,000 to 180,000 by the summer of 1921.

Paul Levi wrote a scathing criticism of the March Action which Clara Zetkin supported completely. At this point the German party was divided sharply between critics like Levi and ultraleftists like Ruth Fischer who stood by the “strategy.”

A German delegation arrived in Moscow for the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1922. On the agenda of this gathering was to be an assessment of the German events. Lenin had become pessimistic about the prospects of revolutionary upheavals in Europe and was thinking of ways to weather the storm. The NEP was a strategy fit for an ebb in the global class struggle. If the mood in the Kremlin had become conservative, this meant that the German ultraleftists were bound to be repudiated. While storming the barricades might have been an appropriate form of revolutionary activity during War Communism and Trotsky’s march into Poland, new realities would call for moderation.

Lenin and Trotsky turned the Congress into a campaign against ultraleftism, the German party’s in particular. Trotsky’s final speech evoked the new approach perfectly:

…In a word, the situation now at the time of the Third Congress of the Communist International is not the same as it was during the First and Second Congresses…Now for the first time we see and feel that we are not so immediately near to the goal, to the conquest of power, to the world revolution. At the time, in 1919, we said to ourselves: ‘It is a question of months.’ Now we can say: ‘It is perhaps a question of years.’

There was one problem, however, in getting to the bottom of the German fiasco. The Comintern, including Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, the three main leaders, refused to acknowledge their own responsibility in the events. It was Bela Kun, after all, who had proposed the ultraleft course. It was Karl Radek who had endorsed these actions as well.

When it came time to hand down an official verdict on the German events, the Comintern produced a mealy-mouthed document that let everybody off the hook, especially itself. It stated that the German party was forced into an offensive by the Prussian state and that, despite mistakes, did the best it could to advance the struggle. An honest appraisal would have said nothing like this. It would have been a ruthlessly honest critique of the Comintern and the German Communists. This would have been the only way for the party to learn from its mistakes.

Instead, Paul Levi, the only Communist who warned about the foolishness of the strategy in advance, was expelled for his efforts. He was charged with “indiscipline” since he went public in his attack on the March Actions.

The Communists who were responsible for the March Actions, like so many Communists who followed them in history, were convinced at the gathering of the “error of their ways” and soon became the most vehement defenders of cautiousness. They decided to out-Lenin Lenin. The March Events and their aftermath, including Levi’s expulsion, would signal the beginning of the end of German Communism as an independent revolutionary force. The next two years brought further intrigues and reversals, as the spiral descended. This would all culminate in the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, the “Bolshevization” Congress. In my next post, I will cover the events that led up to the fateful congress which sealed the fate of all attempts at building revolutionary parties for decades to come.


  1. Your final sentence seems like an exaggeration. Only 20-25 years after the early Comintern congresses, CP led movements were declaring independence in Vietnam, kicking the reactionaries off the Chinese mainland, and taking state power in Yugoslavia.

    OK, that’s technically covered by “for decades to come”, but these parties didn’t just spring up from nowhere.

    I’m not suggesting that any of these example parties should be viewed as role models, but they did lead revolutions, which is what revolutionary parties are supposed to be about.

    Much of Camejo’s piece is entirely unobjectionable, and resembles the actually existing DSP more than caricatures of it being some kind of hyper-Cannonist sect. Where it falls down is largely due to the circumstances that existed in Australia in the mid-90s, where the kind of approach Camejo suggested simply wasn’t possible. In fact Camejo tacitly acknowledges that when he notes that:
    “Meeting less often or lower levels of participation or commitment will not necessarily increase the size and influence of an organization like the DSP. Experiments in this direction in the mid-1980s resulted in the opposite. The level of activity inevitably is driven more by political developments outside of our control than any internal decisions.”

    When reading Lorimer’s article, it is useful to remember that the DSP is engaged in an intense debate at the moment. It would also be useful to read the article “The Democratic Socialist Perspective and the Socialist Alliance” in the same issue of Links. (http://www.dsp.org.au/links/node/218 )

    This is probably a more representative view of the DSP majority’s approach to the question of the revolutionary party than the more abstract historical debate between Lorimer and Smith.

    Comment by Alan B — October 27, 2007 @ 5:59 am

  2. I agree with your take on the Comintern and Levi for the most part. However, Levi was over-the-top and hysterical in his attack on the ultra-left leadership. More importantly, he abandoned his post by resigning in his party’s hour of need, ceding the CC to the overwhelming dominance of the ultra-lefts. So he also bears responsibility for the March Action because he failed to fight for his position within the CC, and he never came to terms with that. That’s why Lenin was so hard on him – he couldn’t understand why a party leader would resign his post and the let party blunder into something as stupid and costly as the March Action.

    The other thing that needs to be taken into account is the fact that the Comintern faced the very real threat of losing the German party if they were too harsh in their condemnation, which would have provoked a split. That fear of a split is what drove the Comintern to adopt that mealy-mouthed resolution and abandon Levi. If the KPD left the Comintern over the March Action assessment, that would not have benefitted the cause of world revolution either.

    The lesson of the early Comintern is that you have to start building a revolutionary party with strong roots in the working class well in advance of a revolution, because doing so in the middle of one is all but impossible and can lead to disaster.

    Comment by Binh — October 29, 2007 @ 9:07 pm

  3. I wish we would argue less about what happened in the German CP or the CPSU(B) in the 1920’s and more about why we lost the only mass socialist party the US has ever had (to a combination of the WW I repression by the Wilson Administration and the post-war split into the CP and the rest of the party), and whether it is possible, now that the US CP has finally met, for the most part, its well deserved end, it is possible to recreate what was there in the Progressive Era. And I would rather we talked more about Debs than Lenin or Trotsky. Granted Debs was no theorist, but he was able to talk Socialism to the masses in the US in a way no one after him such as Foster, Browder, et al, or Norman Thomas could.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — November 4, 2007 @ 5:01 am

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