Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 22, 2008

The fight in the SWP: part three (Chris Harman)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Like John Rees, SWP leader Chris Harman feels the need to respond to an article by Neil Davidson that I dealt with in part one of this series. As always, we are grateful to Socialist Unity for making Harman’s article available.

Harman is troubled by Davidson’s claim that there is more democracy in the trade unions than in the SWP:

First, it is simply not true that party members have fewer rights than members of unions. We do not have the mass purges and intimidation of dissidents that characterises UNISON at the moment. Any comrade or group of comrades can raise matters directly at party councils.-a far more direct route than in any union. We actually have a disputes committee whose reports most years are characterised by the fact that they involve no expulsions-and the committee is chaired by a comrade who was outspoken in defending certain positions opposed to the CC just three years ago. There has never been any restriction on what people write for the preconference bulletins.

I am afraid that comrade Harman misses the point entirely. Unlike the more obvious bureaucratic practices of the Stalinist movement, the Trotskyist movement maintains orthodoxy through peer pressure rather than trials and expulsions. Here is how it works.

The leadership of these self-declared vanguards is based on the notion of “revolutionary continuity”, a term that was bandied about incessantly in the American SWP. Basically, it is closely related to the notion that the current leader or leaders of the “vanguard” grouping are descendants of Marx-not genetically but programmatically. You also have a preoccupation with “grooming”. For example, much was made in the American SWP about how Jack Barnes was “groomed” by Farrell Dobbs, who was in turn groomed by James P. Cannon, who was in turn groomed by Leon Trotsky. Instead of a race horse getting brushed down, you have a profound thinker at party headquarters channeling the essence of Marx-thought. When you decide to write a sharply critical article for a convention, your fear is not that you will be expelled but shunned because you had the temerity to question the disciple of Karl Marx.

This leads to self-censorship of the most extreme form. When, for example, I became convinced in 1977 that the “turn toward industry” was based on a hallucination, I would not dare write a document making this point. So instead I got up at a New York meeting of the SWP and made an idiotic speech about how the workers were waiting for our comrades’ leadership with bated breath. It was like a scene out of Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession”.

It is only after a deep political crisis sets in that you find factions forming in such groups, as they have in the DSP and now in the SWP. Eventually, the factions vie with each other as to who is best able to provide “revolutionary continuity” and don the crimson robes handed down from past Jeddi masters of the class struggle. Needless to say, there was no peer pressure like this in the Bolshevik Party before 1917. After 1917, the Kremlin became something like the Vatican and a culture of toadyism alien to the workers movement set in. The toadyism was enforced in the Stalinist movement by threats of expulsion and sometimes loss of life. In the Trotskyist movement it was enforced by peer pressure. Both forms of compulsion have to disappear in order for our movement to grow and flourish.

In trying to demonstrate to Neil Davidson that it is not easy to come up with organizational solutions, Harman appeals to the example of German Communism in the 1920s:

I suspect that whatever new structures we adopt may well need to be further reshaped in the light of practical experience. Neil points to the structures of the German Communist Party in 1922. He will be aware that it is a far from perfect example for us. The party had only the year before lost up to half its members and expelled one of its leading figures, Paul Levi. And it was plagued by a fight between two factions, one led by Heinrich Brandler, with years of exemplary practical experience, rooted in a strong working class district; the other led by the young intellectuals with ultra left tendencies, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. When Germany entered a new phase of very intense economic, social and political crisis in 1923, neither grouping was able to provide the leadership needed. The ultra lefts saw a revolutionary situation where none existed in the first months of the year, while Brandler did not have the confidence to follow his own instincts and fight for a decisive shift to the left required when the situation changed in June. The result was a party which certainly was not “considerably more flexible and open” than us, as Neil seems to believe.

Entirely missing from this brief analysis is any consideration of the role of the Comintern. As is customary in Trotskyist literature on the problems of German Communism, the blame is put entirely on the failure of the Germans to build a “vanguard” up to the high level of Lenin’s party. My reading of this history reveals something else entirely. The Germans would have been better off if they ignored the Comintern entirely, including one of its foremost leaders Leon Trotsky. In an article I wrote some time back, I questioned their heavy-handed intervention as follows:

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation…

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

What does any of this have to do with the SWP? Let me give you some hints: International Socialist Organization; Seattle.

The remainder of Chris Harman’s article is a defense of the appropriateness of calling Respect a “united front” and not worth a reply since this defense has been so obviously refuted by real world events.


  1. You can find Permanent Revolution’s discussion of the same piece here


    I don’t really agree with you on Trotstky and Brandler and so on. Broue’s book is pretty clear that there was a revolutionary opportunity for the KPD, but it was in late summer at the peak of the anti-fascist mobilisations and hyper inflation. Trotsky can’t really be faulted for trying to gee the German leadership along, when they spurned so many golden opportunities in the early 1920s.
    Oh and I gather that the reasons for the split with the ISO had nothing to do with the published explanation either, but were altogether more base.

    Comment by bill j — December 22, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

  2. Until I read more scholarly literature without an axe to grind, I would have agreed with Broue myself. Here’s something I found indispensable for understanding the Comintern and the German CP: “Stillborn Revolution, the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”, Werner T. Angress, Princeton, 1963

    Comment by louisproyect — December 22, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

  3. Just wanted to congratulate you on these articles. I have read them all and the original documents and they have been very interesting reading.

    Was wondering if you have done anything by way of setting out what you consider to be more apposite organisational forms elsewhere already. I see that you condemn Zinovievist organisational norms and point to the Leninist model (in practice) being more democratic but do you consider it appropriate to today’s conditions in imperialist countries? Yours.

    Comment by Domhnall O'C — December 22, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

  4. In my final installment, I will try to suggest what “Bolshevism” means in a country like the USA or Great Britain in 2008 (or 2009 probably.)

    Comment by louisproyect — December 22, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

  5. Proyect conveniently leaves out of his “analysis” of the Comintern’s, and Trotsky’s, push for a seizure of power by the KPD in 1923 the fact that the KPD hesitated at the last minute, refused to take the leadership of a clearly revolutionary situation, thereby confusing and demoralizing the workers who looked to them, especially the Silesian miners, who were awaiting the call and were ready to move. The moment passed, and the revolution was lost, with all the consequences we know.

    Perhaps Proyect should quit this peculiar revisionist dance of his and just put Marxism aside completely. In complaining that the push to take power is not acceptable even at the right historic moment, he is revealing his distaste for revolution itself.

    Comment by John Schneiderman — December 23, 2008 @ 3:44 am

  6. unrelatedly, but perhaps of interest: http://euobserver.com/9/27330

    Comment by Victor S — December 23, 2008 @ 6:47 am

  7. …don the crimson robes handed down from past Jedi masters of the class struggle…

    “This was your father’s copy of The Transitional Program. It still bears his annotations. An elegant weapon for a more civilised age.”

    Then Stalin turns up:

    “Did Trotsky tell you the truth about The Revolution.”
    “He said you killed it.”
    “No, Luke, I am the father of your revolution.”

    Comment by Fellow Traveller — December 23, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  8. Notwithstanding the pointlessly angular tone of John S post, I do think there was a revolutionary opportunity in 1923, not least because Paul Levi, by then decamped into the left wing of the SPD even called for a united front to seize power. As Broue’s book makes clear I think, Levi was easily the most astute thinker on the German left.
    A big part of the problem with the SWP (UK) in my view, and one which is shared by pretty much the whole left is its terrible hierarchical and bureaucratic structure. There are endless committees all superior to each other which end at one point – whoever is the deigned leader at the given moment. It was Rees, now its Callinicos and Harman.
    In my view this structure needs to be totally rejected. The Bolsheviks paradoxically, were a very decentralised organisation which relied on the personal initiative of their cadres. Lenin was abroad and had no organisational control over local activity. He could fight for his ideas politically that’s all. A striking feature of the Callinicos, German and Rees documents are they are almost entirely devoid of politics. Instead you get rubbish about recruitment drives and whether too many placards were taken on a demo.
    They place organisation above politics. This is the fatal mistake.

    Comment by bill j — December 23, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

  9. Louis can tell whether 1923 Germany was in a revolutionary phase better than Trotsky! He also knows the internal regime of the Bolshevik party better than Zinoviev! Louis, I seem to recall reading somewhere that you left the SWP(USA) to write ” The Great American Novel”, how is it coming along? Seriously, why do you care what’s going on in the SWP(UK)? I’ve read your comments on party democracy and I’m baffled b your idea of a party. What does a party member owe his party if he is free to take any position he wishes whenever he feels like it?

    Comment by lex the impaler — December 23, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  10. In reply to #9: The question is not whether Germany was in a revolutionary situation or not. When miners throw dynamite at the cops and army, that is a pretty good sign that it was. If I had been around in 1923, I would have advised Leon Trotsky not to micromanage the German revolution. That is not the kind of movement we need. If anything, Fidel Castro has learned that the hard way. A world revolutionary party does not need a Kremlin to guide it along. As I pointed out, maybe too subtly, the SWP was wrong to lord it over the American ISO in old-time Comintern fashion. You ask why I care about what’s going on in the SWP? Because there are lots of young people who read my blog and who are learning about the problems of building revolutionary parties from my discussion of the SWP, the DSP, et al. You seem worried about party members taking “any position”. Sensible people understand that this means having different ideas about the class nature of Cuba, not whether the NED has a right to meddle in Cuban politics. You might recall that the ISO criticized the open letter that Joanne Landy, a miserable social democrat, was circulating against Cuba’s right to prevent imperialist interference with its internal political affairs. I would not belong to a group that supported such an open letter. That’s the difference. As far as writing novels is concerned, I did entertain that thought briefly after dropping out of the SWP about 30 years ago. Within a year or two, the Central American revolution convinced me that there were better uses of my talent. Having said that, a comic book based on my life is supposed to be published by Random House next year unless the financial crisis puts the kibosh on the project. That’s about as far as my appetite for “creativity” goes nowadays.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 23, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  11. “If I had been around in 1923, I would have advised Leon Trotsky not to micromanage the German revolution. That is not the kind of movement we need…” Ok, Trotsky having led two (2) revolutions (1905 and 1917) should have deferred to Brandler and the other Germans because It was their country. what’s the aim of the movement you think is needed? Will everyone be on an equal footing? Will experience count for nothing? I would appreciate it if you would review the book you mentioned(“Stillborn Revolution, the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923″, Werner T. Angress, Princeton, 1963.) Good luck with the comic book

    Comment by lex the impaler — December 24, 2008 @ 6:20 am

  12. “In my final installment, I will try to suggest what “Bolshevism” means in a country like the USA or Great Britain in 2008″

    Louis, maybe you’ve already read it but I thought you may want to take a look at Alain Badiou’s interview (“We Need a Popular Discipline”: Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative)before writing the last section of this very illuminating series. It tackles a similar question:


    Meanwhile, with overstepping the mark, I would like to give a short answer to Lex’s question, “Will experience count for nothing?”.

    Hitherto, experience has shown to us that it generally counts for nothing at all and there is not a clear sign that it will count for something in the future other than bolstering our established knowledge. This is the well-worn Hegelian lesson that individuals and states learn nothing from the history. A pious man takes a religious lesson from his experience of external reality, an economist lands an ear to the partial communication between his theory and a given economic crises: he rigorously interrogates the reality and the real always gives the answer that he wanted to hear.. and so on.. The lesson here is, one should examine the very theoretical framework that induces one to estimate the reality in a particular anticipated way to learn a worthwhile lesson from any experience.

    Comment by Memet Çagatay — December 24, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  13. #10: “The question is not whether Germany was in a revolutionary situation or not. When miners throw dynamite at the cops and army, that is a pretty good sign that it was.” This is mistaken. Revolutionary crisis is when army/ police discipline breaks down in response to the mass movement, i.e. enough of the cops and the army stop obeying orders to fire on strikers/ demonstrators etc or the central government loses its nerve and abandons repression of the mass movement. Germany was in such a situation in 1918-19 but by 1921, and certainly in 1923, the state core had been restabilised.

    Comment by Mike Macnair — December 31, 2008 @ 9:21 am

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