Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.


  1. Indeed. from my experience with these groups aside from organisational questions (which are Louis’ focus) is the recognition that there are objective forces that impact (as well as subjective errors). You can certainly learn from the experience of the LCR (or the SSP or whoever) but they can’t be a MODEL because they arise out of the conditions. If any of us in involved in a far-left group whose leader is involved in a run-off election for presidency and is one of the most popular figures in national politics then we probably wouldn’t be looking to model ourselves on France because we would had to have become masters of our own situation. Its movements that create parties – not models or geniuses.

    Comment by Shane H — March 3, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  2. Louis seems determined to attribute to Socialist Alternative an adherence to a “democratic centralist model” that we simply do not have.

    Below is the start of an article, available on the SA website, putting forward our arguments against the bureaucratic organisational methods flowing from trying to apply a “Leninist” democratic centralism to small socialist groups.

    “One of the dangers facing a small socialist group is to puff up its own importance in the world. It is tempting for revolutionar­ies to try to compensate for their lack of genuine influence in the working class by pretending they are the latter day Lenins and Trotskys. By vastly overstating your importance you may be able to boost internal morale and attract a few more people in the short term. However in the long run it can only breed an air of unreality in the group and foster sectarian tendencies which help to wall you off from the mass of workers and students you need to recruit if you are to become a genuine revolutionary party.

    The tendency to exaggerate a group’s self-importance can take a variety of forms: from grandstanding gestures in political campaigns, to overblown rhetoric in papers and journals to attempting to run your organisation as though you were a mini-version of the Bolshevik party at the height of the Russian revolu­tion. Typically this is accompanied by grandiose rhetoric about the need for a Leninist party, the importance of strong leadership and discipline and the need for democratic centralism. It can lead to farcical attempts to replicate the internal structures of the Bolsheviks in a group a few hundred strong.”

    Full article: http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=74&Itemid=124

    Comment by Corey — March 3, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

  3. Corey, can you point me in the direction of open debates between SA members?

    Comment by louisproyect — March 4, 2009 @ 12:02 am

  4. Lou, debates are normal at our meetings, and the meetings are almost all open to the public. You could either hop on a plane and see for yourself, or take my word for it. 🙂

    Maybe this is a good time, however, to note that Marxist Interventions is not a publication of Socialist Alternative. It is intended more as an attempt to bring together a broad range of “Cliffite” material, though even that isn’t a firm boundary. (I set up the old version of MI when I was in the ISO.)

    Comment by Tom O'Lincoln — March 5, 2009 @ 7:51 am

  5. […] comrades wanted to “imitate SAlt’s sectarianism”. As I have tried to point out in a critique of this group’s leader’s ideas about party-building, it rests on a schematic […]

    Pingback by The Democratic Socialist Perspective’s dirty laundry « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 17, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  6. […] Like Louis Proyect, I see some utility in the model of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Members oblige themselves to take part in the political work of the party and in return are accorded a free say in the aims and tactics of the party. Those organs (e.g. newspapers) created out of party funds give room to different factions to argue their perspective according to their support, and collectively the party chooses which perspective is the one to follow in practice. […]

    Pingback by For democratic centralism? « Though Cowards Flinch — October 19, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

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