Last week I received this request:
I want to ask you a favor….
I am engaged on a major writing project criticizing the rigid model of “leninist vanguard party” that was established (and mythologized) in the 1920s in the comintern. And (obviously) it is part of a larger project of conceiving of new forms of communist organization for now.
I’m well aware that this whole issue has been close to your heart…. so i want to ask you a favor:
Can you point me toward all your writings and explorations of this? Can you suggest what other writings I should give a close study? Are there valuable books demythologizing the Cominterns “bolshevization” campaign? The Zinoviev decisions of universal party formation? etc.?
Where are creative writings on the other possible forms and conceptions of communist organization?
I’m hoping that the names of works are at the tip of your tongue — so that it won’t be a lot of work to share them with me.
Thanks (in advance) for your help and advice.
This is a preface to the list of electronic and print resources below that might help put my response to this request in context.
To start with, I should begin by stating that my interest in Lenin’s party-building concepts is completely separate from what have been called “programmatic” questions. For example, I agree with perhaps 90 percent of what the Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain or the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia have written about ecology, the war in Iraq, the labor movement, etc. But I have sharp differences with them on organizational questions. When I first joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I was told that political and organizational questions cannot be separated. I no longer believe that.
In particular, I believe that unless revolutionaries really get to the bottom of what Lenin was trying to do when he built the Bolshevik Party they will continue to end up with sectarian formations no matter their best intentions. In my opinion, the following set of overlapping assumptions that “Leninists” share today have little to do with the way that the Bolshevik party functioned historically:
1. Democratic centralism must include defense of the party’s analysis of political questions in public as well as its discipline in actions such as demonstrations, strikes, votes in parliament, etc.
2. Party members must avoid disagreeing with each other in the mass movement. In the labor movement and the social movements, the party must speak with a single voice.
3. Debates in the party must be internal. Prior to conventions, party members have the freedom to submit resolutions that go against the current party line but once the convention is over, the debate ends as well.
4. Violations of these “norms” must be punished by expulsion.
5. Deep political differences reflect different class orientations. The Leninist party is subject to class pressures from outside society and must periodically purge elements that have caved in to petty bourgeois prejudices.
This bibliography is organized in chronological order roughly, but it also follows a certain conceptual framework since my thinking has naturally evolved over the years. For example, in the very first article I ever wrote on organizational questions I referred to the ANC and the Workers Party positively. History has of course rendered its unfavorable judgment on these two parties, at least from the standpoint of Marxism.
1) Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism”
In 1983 I became increasingly concerned about the SWP’s abstention from the Central American solidarity movement and began asking current members and ex-members like myself what was going on. Librarian union leader Ray Markey, who was still in the party but on his way out, sent me a copy of Peter’s article “Against Sectarianism” that had a major impact on my thinking about these questions. Although Peter was focusing on the SWP’s workerism, much of what he wrote has a general application.
In 1995, on the original Marxism list operated by the Spoons Collective, John Plant, a British Trotskyist who belonged to no party as far as I know, asked whether Lenin’s party-building concepts were still viable. This led me to post a series of articles that included the favorable reference to the ANC and the Workers Party. Except for the deletion of this reference, nothing has changed.
3. Three important books
In writing the article above, I found Lenin’s “What is to be Done” very useful but two books on Lenin helped me sharpen my analysis. One is Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought” that received the Isaac Deutscher prize in 1981. The other is Paul LeBlanc’s “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” that was written in 1993. Harding’s book, alas, is out of print but Paul’s is now available in paperback. Harding’s book was a scholarly effort to understand Lenin in his historical setting in the same spirit as Lars Lih’s recently published “Lenin Rediscovered“, a study of “What is to be Done”. Although I have not read Lih’s book, it is consistent with Harding’s analysis that “democratic centralism” and “vanguard” were not innovations by Lenin but concepts that he borrowed from Western European social democracy. Paul wrote his book for pretty much the same reason Peter wrote “Against Sectarianism” and I began writing about party-building questions. It was an attempt to diagnose the degeneration of the SWP into a workerist sect. George Breitman, a long-time SWP leader who had been expelled with LeBlanc from the SWP, pretty much commissioned Paul to write the book. They were grappling with the problem of what went wrong. Although I found much useful information in Paul’s book, it did not really go to the roots of the SWP’s collapse. He and Breitman pinned their hopes on a return to the party-building norms that were in place under SWP founder James P. Cannon and his successor Farrell Dobbs but I had come to believe that it was these “norms” that sank the SWP. This was the focus of my next article below.
In August of 1998, I began writing a series of articles on Marxmail, which had been launched in May of that year, about the origins of Zinovievism, a term I coined to describe the kind of mechanical “democratic centralism” that was accepted by virtually all self-styled Leninist organizations whether Maoist, Trotskyist or Stalinist. I used that term since the organizational principles were the product of the 1924 “Bolshevization” Congress of the Comintern which adopted a proposal by Zinoviev to launch parties using the schemas I alluded to in my preface. I found Werner T. Angress’s 1963 “Stillborn Revolution, the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” very useful as background material but it does not really address the organizational problems that were of interest to me.
5. The Cochranites
Not long after Marxmail was launched, someone named Sol Dollinger became a subscriber. The name rang a bell. I remembered that Genora Dollinger was a leader of the woman’s auxiliary in the Flint Sit Down strikes of 1938 and I asked if he was related. It turned out that this was his wife who had died in 1995. I also learned that the two were very involved with a non-sectarian initiative called the American Socialist Union that had split with the SWP in 1953 because of objections similar to those that Camejo and I had raised. Sol put me in contact with Cynthia Cochran, the widow of Bert Cochran who led the ASU with Harry Braverman, who would eventually join Monthly Review after the ASU folded in 1959. I scanned articles from their magazine American Socialist which can be read here. I also made available a number of documents related to the Socialist Union that deal with party-building questions including Bert Cochran’s “Our Orientation” that is of key importance to me. Another document worth reading is my own on “The Cochranite Legacy” that was presented to a conference on American Trotskyism organized by Paul LeBlanc in 2000.
6. Hal Draper
Around the time I began writing about Leninism on the Internet, I discovered Hal Draper’s writings. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, this veteran of the Trotskyist movement in its Shachtmanite flavor had rethought many of the same questions. I recommend the following:
1973 – Anatomy of the Micro-Sect
7. Critiques of the DSP, Socialist Alternative, and the British SWP
In the most recent past I have tried without much success to persuade the Australian DSP that they were going about things in the wrong way. I suppose if Peter Camejo could not penetrate through their thick wall of “Leninist” orthodoxy, there was not much I could do. Peter wrote a superb article in 1995 titled “Return to Materialism“ that like “Against Sectarianism” has general interest even though it was offered as advice to the DSP. My own advice was proffered in an article titled A debate with Links over the revolutionary party. The comrades don’t appreciate my advice but I will continue to offer it when the need arises. Socialist Alternative is a “state capitalist” formation in Australia that is sort of Avis to the DSP’s Hertz. Although they will have none of my ideas on party-building either, they at least took the trouble to publish my critique of the orthodoxy contained in an article by SA leader Mick Armstrong. It is a useful summary of my views on “Zinovievism”. Finally, as many of you know, the British SWP has been going through a crisis that I view as rooted in “Zinovievist” misconceptions, although they obviously would not see it this way. The articles can be found on my Columbia web page on organizational problems of the revolutionary movement, along with a number of other articles not mentioned in this piece.