Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 23, 2011

What kind of party do we need? A reply to Ahmed Shawki

Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Ahmed Shawki

I am not exactly sure why the ISO reprinted a 2006 speech by party leader Ahmed Shawki on “What Kind of Party We Need” in their latest newspaper but it seems to be a retreat from Paul LeBlanc’s more recent thoughts on the subject that partially reflected the insights of scholar Lars Lih and others working through the problems of “Leninism”.

Mostly Shawki tries to communicate the idea that party-building concepts have evolved since the days of Karl Marx, almost in a Darwinian fashion. There are still lots of dinosaurs around but survival of the fittest—implicitly understood in terms of a superior program—will sort things out.

He says that Marx was too preoccupied with theorizing about capitalism to really give much thought to organizational questions:

Marx himself had placed some emphasis on the attempt to build political organization. But you were talking about a period of the rise of capitalist social relations, and therefore, in large part, the bulk of Marx’s own personal activity lay in developing theory rather than political organization.

Outliving Marx and ostensibly past the thorny problems of theorizing capitalism, Engels was more directly involved with such nitty-gritty efforts:

Engels participated much more effectively in the construction of the Second International and played a formative role in the construction of what was to be the model socialist organization of the day–the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), an organization that produced, after a period of illegality, dozens of newspapers, a mass membership, elected officials. The SPD was led by a man called Karl Kautsky who was described at the time as the Pope of Marxism–that was supposed to be a good thing as opposed a negative thing.

Understanding that “What is to be Done?” is quite clear about Lenin’s insistence that the German party was a model for what he advocated in Czarist Russia—allowing for the need to develop ways to fend off repression—Shawki tries to draw a distinction between Kautsky and Lenin that is a bit lost on me:

I’m not saying that Lenin was identical to Kautsky. You can go back and read Kautsky, for example, where he says clearly in the period of the late 1800s that the German Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. In other words, we’re a party that seeks the transformation of society, but we’re not about to make a revolution.

Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks, in part because they operated under Tsarism and in part because of events after the writing of What Is To Be Done?

Perhaps there is a subtle distinction that requires a higher level of dialectical insight than I can muster at this point, but the difference between a “revolutionary party” and a “revolution-making party” was not obvious to me at first blush. But after consulting chapter five of Kautsky’s “The Road to Power“, it all became clear to me. In fact Kautsky is simply warning against Blanquist schemas and trying to explain that revolutions cannot be “created”. They are the products of profound crises that serve as imperatives to fundamental change:

The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come.

One surely hopes that comrade Shawki does not object to the idea that “the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us”.

Furthermore, a strong case can be made that Lenin viewed Kautsky’s “Road to Power” as exemplary long after “What is to be Done?” had been written and even after he had broken with Kautsky over WWI. In the latest issue of “The Weekly Worker”, the organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain (a group devoted to fresh thinking about such matters even if does tend a bit toward scandal-mongering, a reflection of the bad habits of the British press no doubt), there’s an article–“Lenin, Kautsky and the ‘new era of revolutions‘”–by the redoubtable Lars Lih that documents Lenin’s respect for Kautsky’s book, couched as it was in anger at Kautsky’s subsequent evolution:

In autumn 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin wrote to his associate, Aleksandr Shliapnikov: “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy.” This pungent summation of Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky – an attitude that remained unchanged for the rest of Lenin’s life – is often cited. Ultimately more useful in understanding Lenin’s outlook, however, is another comment, made around the same time to the same correspondent: “Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”

Lenin took his own advice. He sat down a few weeks later, flipped through the pages of Kautsky’s Road to power, and came up with a page-and-a-half list of quotations that he inserted into an article entitled ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’. He then commented: “This is how Kautsky wrote in times long, long past, fully five years ago. This is what German Social Democracy was, or, more correctly, what it promised to be. This was the kind of Social Democracy that could and had to be respected.”

While I certainly agree with Lars on the need to see the continuity between the pre-WWI Kautsky and Lenin, I sometimes wonder if he tends to go overboard on all this. That continuity is certainly of immense interest to Lenin scholars but the more burning issue for revolutionists today is not the relevance of Kautsky’s turn-of-the-century socialist party but the kind that we need today. Breaking down the misconceptions about “Leninism” is of course important but unless we begin to think creatively about our tasks today—as both Kautsky for a time and Lenin did—we will not solve what Leon Trotsky described as: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” Trotsky might have been in error about the solution but he certainly got the problem right.

Which brings us back to comrade Shawki’s speech:

At this point [after 1914], Lenin begins to develop ideas about organization which I think are much more important and relevant to us–focused not on the question of illegality and professional revolutionism and so on…

He concludes that you have to begin by grouping together militants and activists–because we’re not talking here about commentators and writers, but people who are involved in the actual struggle against capitalism–into a party that can lead politically other sections of the working-class movement through the ebbs and flow of the working-class struggle.

He used the term vanguard for this, to mean people who are in advance [sic] in consciousness–that is, who are enemies of capitalism, rather than half opposed and half accepting. This isn’t an insult–it’s the reality for most people, that they hate the system, but don’t know what else you can put in its place.

There’s only one problem with this. After 1914 Lenin never writes about organization as such, something Shawki virtually admits when he states: “That idea became enshrined into the history of the revolutionary movement for one reason–it wasn’t Lenin’s writings so much as Lenin’s doing.” Yet there is no evidence that his ideas about the “vanguard” were any different than they were in 1903, ideas we must insist are exactly the same as the European social democracy. Furthermore, it is a bit problematic to extract party-building concepts out of “Lenin’s doing” especially since the party that came into existence in 1903 operated on the same basis as it did 14 years later.

There were no organizational “innovations”. Instead he is preoccupied with uniting the antiwar left internationally first of all and then seizing power in Russia, matters that involved strategy and tactics rather than new thinking about how a “vanguard” is constructed. Try as you may, the Marxist Internet Archives will reveal nothing along the lines of “What is to be Done?” between 1914 and 1917.

Once Shawki moves forward in time to the 1960s, things don’t get much better I’m afraid. He states:

Today, there is an idea that the construction of a socialist organization is in itself a flawed project. In short, it’s been there, done that–we tried it in the 1960s and ’70s, and this model of organization doesn’t work.

It is not exactly clear what this is a reference to. In my view, what was tried in the 60s and 70s is something I refer to as Zinovievism, a mechanical version of “democratic centralism” that led to sect and cult formation in the Trotskyist and Maoist movements. By this period, the CP’s had transformed themselves into something much more like the social democracy so they were out of the running in the race to construct “vanguard” parties.

Shawki does seem to recognize that the party-building methodology was flawed:

I think that there’s a reaction that we can sometimes have to say you just did it wrong–which is a good answer to a been-there-done-that kind of remark.

But I think the more sophisticated answer would be that not only did the left in the 1960s inherit models of organization from the past, but it was itself dislodged from its historic role and placed outside of the working-class movement. And this is despite valiant efforts of many sections of the left to reconnect with the working class, which should be applauded, not derided.

Now it would be useful to get his thinking on inheriting “models of organization from the past” but to my knowledge this is just something that never gets explored much in ISO publications. Unless there is something about the ISO that I have missed, the methodology is pretty much the same one that they inherited from the British SWP, their one-time mother ship. For about as succinct a presentation of their ideas on “democratic centralism” as can be found, you can read Todd Chretien’s article on “Lenin’s Theory of the Party”  that appeared a year after Shawki’s speech. I should say at the outset, however, that Lenin had no theory of the party. Tony Cliff did, and that’s where Todd’s ideas come from basically. He writes:

So what is democracy? It’s not a happy-go-lucky-everybody-gets-a-say kind of thing for the sake of fairness. Instead, democracy, if it works, has to be a contentious, active, participatory, argumentative, organized process. We have formal votes on agendas, delegates, leaders, actions, policies, etc. In fact, I’d venture a guess that the ISO is one of the most democratic organizations in the world. So, yes, there have to be formal mechanisms of democracy within the party, but more than that, democracy has to be active and participatory. Why? In order to confront the beast we are up against, you need to have as many people as possible looking at the problem, studying the problem, engaged in trying to get rid of the problem…

The second part is centralism, because if the ISO is not a utopia, it’s also not a talk shop. We don’t have academic conferences. Now there are some very good academics, but there are also many academic conferences where everyone talks and nothing comes out of it because no one ever expected anything to come out of it. The ISO is not a talk shop. We want to act. We want freedom of discussion to have our debates out, but then we want to take a vote. Whichever side wins will be put into practice and then we’re going to see if it works. If our decision is wrong, then the people who opposed it can come back and say, “See that was wrong.” But the only way to test things in practice is to make a decision, have all members try to implement that decision to the best of their ability, and then assess the outcome. If members don’t take decisions and actions seriously, then you never know if it was your tactics that were wrong, or it was in the implementation that went wrong. In other words, giving something a half-assed try is no test at all.

I doubt if any veteran of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. or the RCP et al would have described how it was put to them as a new recruit any differently, and that’s the problem.

This business about a “talk shop” is something I heard when I joined the SWP in 1967. It meant that you could talk until you were blue in the face during preconvention discussion but once the party made up its mind about a given orientation, then you had to switch gears and to into action mode. As we know today, this is not really the way that the Bolsheviks operated in real life, no matter how hard Zinoviev tried to give that impression. They did not designate special periods when party members could debate with each other behind closed doors. Their debates were held in public.

If you want proof of this, just read John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” where there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” Reed continues: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.

So during the heat of battle, not only do you have “Bolsheviki” arguing against Lenin, they vote against him in public. Neither was expelled. In fact not a single Bolshevik was ever expelled except Bogdanov and I probably would have voted for that myself.

Finally, I want to address myself to the key political question in Shawki’s speech that he formulates as follows: “there isn’t much space for a broad, anti-capitalist party in the United States.” Now since this was written 5 years ago, it is understandable that he might not have anticipated what has transpired over the past few months. But with that in mind, I strongly recommend that the ISO comrades pay careful attention to Pham Binh’s article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists“, especially the conclusion:

The most basic and fundamental task facing socialists is to merge with Occupy and lead it from within. Socialist groups that insist on “intervening” in the uprising will be viewed as outsiders with little to contribute in practice to solving Occupy’s actual problems because they will be focused on winning arguments and ideological points rather than actively listening to, joining hands with, and fighting alongside the vanguard of the 99% in overcoming common practical and political.

One difficulty the socialist left faces in accomplishing this basic and fundamental task is the divisions in our ranks that serve in practice to weaken the overall socialist influence within Occupy, thereby strengthening that of the anarchists. They have their Black Bloc, but where is our Red Bloc? Where are the socialist slogans to shape and guide the uprising’s political development?

Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines, and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.

Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters. Initiatives like Socialist Viewpoint’s call for a joint revolutionary socialist organizing committee in the Bay Area is a step in the right direction. We need to take more of those steps, sooner rather than later. The opportunity we have now to make the socialist movement a force to be reckoned with again in this country depends on it.

Anyone who agrees with this conclusion, whether they are in a socialist group or not, and wants to take these steps should email me so we can find ways to work together.


  1. “Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.”

    I went to the copy of “Ten Days that Shook the World” at marxists.org, just to make sure I read this right. I can’t help but wonder if that was mis-typed when it was uploaded to marxists.org, but it seems a little far-fetched that Riazanov and Lovovsky would find themselves opposed to voting against freedom of press in every instance. I don’t know anything about Riazanov and Lovovsky — it’s just that people express views like that very rarely.

    Comment by Hank — December 24, 2011 @ 2:50 am

  2. I wonder if Shawki’s experience overlapped with Hal Draper’s in the forerunner to ISO, the International Socialists. Before that section of the IS embraced Tony Cliff, they entertained but eventually rejected Draper’s much more serious and historically-grounded view of revolutionary parties, their role and how they are built (and by whom). ISO still values Draper’s Two Souls of Socialsm by they would do well to review this and this .

    Comment by ethan young — December 24, 2011 @ 3:50 am

  3. I’ve always liked the idea of a broad party, but there are substaintial weakenesses in this approach ala Socialist Alliance in Australia (which never managed to build even a minority mass base of members among the Australian population, which remains quite small, and is only now an ‘Alliance’ in all but name, as compared with Socialist Alternative, which is growing growing growing, and will most likely soon be bigger than Socialist Alliance if they aren’t already, with the tendency ending up larger and more effective than the ‘broad’ party) Communist Refoundation in Italy, the NPA in France, which started off with lots of excitement and seemingly made some headway, but seems to be floundering a bit now. We obviously don’t want a million competing sects, but often an organised socialist tendency, not merging with but allied to sympathetic organisations and other political groupings, can be stronger and not dilute its forms and practices into a kind of mildly radical sounding progressivism, which is more Keynesian than socialist.

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — December 24, 2011 @ 11:56 am

  4. In reply to #4:

    The model should be the Bolsheviks. The problem with groups like Socialist Alternative is that their model is the Bolsheviks as interpreted by Tony Cliff. The Bolshevik party was a lot more open and diverse than the “democratic centralist” outfits of today. All you need to do is study independent and reputable scholarship such as Lars Lih’s. I figured this out for myself 20 years ago, mostly by reading Neil Harding and Lenin himself.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 24, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  5. In response to #1:

    I discovered the debate/voting incident not online but in a print edition of John Reed’s book that I was specifically reading to get a handle on how the Bolsheviks functioned in the mass movement.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 24, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  6. I’m not sure what people mean when they go on–abstractly rather than concretely–about the need for “unity” on the Left (as in the quote from Bihn above). This strikes me as idle hand waving. Sure, it would be nice if everyone could get along and work together as one–but it is pointless to talk about this without discussing what it would take for that to happen. As long as there are Stalinists running around confusing socialism from below with bureaucratic domination, I’d rather that there weren’t unity. Those disagreements aren’t superficial or sectarian–they are substantive, political and deeply important for the movement to navigate. And as far as the Black Bloc is concerned, I don’t think they represent the anarchist movement as a whole, which is shot through with even more internal discord than the socialist Left. Moreover, the undemocratic character of the Bloc’s interventions in movements reeks more of the worst excesses of sectarianism–hardly a role model for socialists.

    To be sure, Bihn is right about operating within the movement via active participation in the concrete tasks facing Occupy on the ground. But the ISO (among others) are already doing this effectively–not as “outsiders” or “entryists” but as respected comrades in struggle who have proven themselves by facing arrest and personal injury through their participation on the front lines of the movement. The fact that Binh could fail to recognize this leads me to suspect that he is somewhat out of touch with the movement. Moreover, I think groupings like the ISO are far more effectively positioned to win support within the movement because of how they organize themselves. Joint revolutionary organizing committees are a great idea–but they don’t preclude groupings like the ISO having a crucial place within them and within the struggle writ large. Alliances and coalitions can only be formed on the condition that there are determinate entities capable of coming together to form them. The ISO participated in the joint Socialist Contingent at a big labor march last year–and the group has always stood in favor of working with others on the Left toward shared goals. But none of this obscures the fact that a well-organized, dynamic but politically clear, fiercely democratic, and nationally coordinated party like the ISO is exactly what our present conjuncture calls for.

    Comment by t — December 24, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

  7. Shawki’s piece is essentially a rehash of Chris Harman’s “Party and Class” (http://www.marxists.de/party/harman/partyclass.htm) and John Molyneux’s book “Marxism and the Party.”

    Major problems:
    – insisting that World War One is relevant to the question of how socialists should organize today. We’re approaching the 100 year anniversary of that event and no one on the left internationally has any living memory of the Second International era.
    – “Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks…” The “revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks” implies that the Mensheviks were not revolutionary. They were. Both factions viewed the RSDLP as “the revolutionary party.” Both were right.
    – Shawki advances two definitions of “vanguard.” The first (correct) one is the layer of people actually leading fights against capitalists, oppression, and the state. This is a material, concrete relationship to objective forces. The second one is based on consciousness, on ideas, not on their relationship to the material world, class forces, or struggle. Peter Camejo called this the “ideological vanguard.” At this stage of the game the two are not identical; not even close.
    – The unspoken assumption that “Leninism” is the default position of the “socialism and organization” question. There is no discussion of the Social Democratic model, SP USA, DSA, and other socialists who reject the ISO’s definition of “party building” but want socialist organization of some type.

    Hank: Riazanov, like Trotsky, was a Menshevik up until 1917. Both of their trajectories are proof that the Bolsheviks were not a separate party from the Mensheviks until 1917, and even then the date of actual separation at the rank and file level is unclear at best. It was a process of development, not a fixed point in time.

    Ethan: As an ISO member for seven years and a supporter for five I rejected Draper’s view out of hand (because of his “anti-Leninism”). I came to regret that mistake once I realized there is no such thing as Lenin’s “theory of the party.”

    Red Star: The Bolsheviks were always part of a broader RSDLP until the 1917 revolution.

    T: I never used the word “unity” in my conclusion. If calling on the existing socialist left grouplets to liquidate themselves in favor of a broader radical party is abstract, I wonder what your definition of concrete is?

    From your comment re: Stalinists it seems that you (and the ISO) continue to mistakenly believe that opinions about the class nature of foreign governments is a good reason to have separate, competing organizations, a practice thoroughly at odds with Bolshevik/early Comintern practice. Ironically, all of the Trotskyist groups practice bureaucratic centralism, so while in theory they are opposed to Stalinism in practice the two are not terribly at odds with one another.

    For your information, the ISO is largely absent from OWS and its 40-80 working groups and has almost zero influence on the direction of OWS. This picture is somewhat different in places where Occupy is much smaller, like in Cincinnati and Boston, but the fact that the socialist left participates in only a handful of working groups is pretty much universally true (comrades are welcome to prove me wrong provided they give some examples).

    The ISO has spent years saying it would favor some type of regroupment should circumstances change. Circumstances have changed. Now it is time for the ISO to catch up and match its words with its deeds on this question. So far it has done neither on this question.

    I’ll let the readers decide whether it is me or Socialist Worker that is not in touch with Occupy. The full text of the piece Louis quoted at the end will settle that (thanks for the citation Louis).

    Comment by Binh — December 25, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

  8. …responding to “the red star who twinkled mischieviously”:
    The Australian left groups you mention do make an interesting contrast. Socialist Alternative have indeed grown a lot over the years. Their active membership in Melbourne is pretty big, they did a good job bolstering the picket line with their numbers at Baiada Poultry recently, hopefully this kind of activity will continue. But they are big because they focus on more or less one thing only: recruiting to a particular set of historical and theoretical ideas.

    The Australian DSP and ISO, who jointly founded the Socialist Alliance, also followed that model more or less, and were both relatively large cadre organisations in the context (2-300 members each). When they started to deal with issues outside their party-building orthodoxy, ie Socialist Alliance, both suffered serious splits and difficulties. I was in the DSP and I’m happy that the majority of it have at least remained committed to trying a new, more open and creative way of organising with the Alliance, despite difficulties and setbacks and mistakes.

    The kind of party-building that keeps its members within their ideological comfort zone is like an army that looks fine while on parade within the barracks. It does not mean the won’t fall apart when faced with new situations not learnable by rote from the works of Trotsky, Mao, Cliff, Cannon etc.

    And what the hell is this ” kind of mildly radical sounding progressivism, which is more Keynesian than socialist” that you mention? What do you even mean by that?

    It reminds me of some silly 1990s sectariana: The (Australian) ISO and Cliffites always used to say similar things about the DSP having a newspaper called “Green Left” because as we all now know, socialist newspapers must always say SOCIALIST in the headline, and not interact with new political actors (the green movement in this case) — right?

    Comment by Ben Courtice — December 26, 2011 @ 9:55 am

  9. Reading this together with Bamh Phimn
    s piece along with Lou’s stuff on Gene Sharp, together with my in-depth experience with Occupy, is causing me to re-evaluate my involvement. At our camp, the Ron Paulists are the hard working disciplined cadre that make the camp run on a day to day basis, the stuff Bamh rightfully thinks socialists should be doing. There is a reluctance to challenge the Paulites within the movement, for this and other reasons.
    Then adding in the Catholic Worker and Democratic Party operatives who are organizing a new layer of Occupy that is comprised of more privileged activists rather than what originally was an on site school for solidarity between the homeless, unemployed, and the activists, and then the probability of Gene Sharp as a CIA operative (in my view extremely high), who is valorized by the peace loving hipster technocrats, and the whole brew starts to stink a little bit.

    Comment by Robert Allen — December 26, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

  10. I find that the left is in such a fragile and marginalized condition that finger-pointing at this or that group is like smashing fleas with a sledgehammer.

    The idea that the CIA WANTED the Arab Spring tickles the conspiracist brain cells, but once again attributes more power & intelligence to the intel community than history allows. And turns the Arab resisters into Western dupes.

    Binh, my question is – are the occupys better or worse off for lack of what are essentially propaganda groups playing a big role? What proportion of occupiers identify with socialism DESPITE their being unaffiliated? What is the danger of the movement becoming anti-socialist?

    Comment by ethan young — December 26, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  11. In reply to louis and Ben Courtice: Louis, I want nothing more than the most broad, diverse and open socialist organisations to flourish- and I think the ISO, at least in the States, are among the most open- of course, since I don’t live there I can’t comment on that concretely, but reading their press and their wide embrace of an array of socialist figures, not just the typical “Marx, Engels, etc, etc” and their success in not declaring betrayal or revisionism on the part of anyone within their organisation who would make cogent criticisms about these figures is to be admired. The basis of their politics, despite its problems, is much better than every other socialist group in the US, except perhaps Solidarity. Are the Stalinists in the Party of Socialism and Liberation, with their “there was no massacre in Tianamen Square” line, the now irrelevant cult US SWP constantly shouting “CUBA, CUBA, CUBA”, the ultra sectarian ICFI, whose only fame comes from the World Socialist Web Site and their total inability to see anyone but themselves as the most pure, noble, theorectically correct Trotskyists around, seeing the proletariat constantly betrayed because it is not organised under their banner- are any of these hack groups any kind of real alternative to the ISO? Furthermore, unlike virtually every single other group on the socialist left in the US, and I think this is because it comes out of the IS tendency, as far as I’m aware, I’ve never seen the ISO compromise on a militant defence of a radically democratic, emancipatory, and libertarian society- i.e. socialism. That is, you’ll never hear them say “Fidel had to lock up those journalists because they were Yankee imperalist spies” or defend repressive actions by any government or entity, whether “socialist” or not. Which means their is no blood and smelly hypocrisy on their banner.

    Ben, I have great respect for a lot of what the Socialist Alliance does. I am always reading Green Left Weekly, and think it is an excellent, non-sectarian publication that draws in wide layers of the Left for news, debate, analysis and comment. I also like the fact that Socialist Alliance clearly lays out its policies, which gives it a sense that you guys actually know what you are talking about when you are talking about real alternative approaches to particular problems. Unlike myself (who has yet to really get involved in the socialist movement- mainly for geographical reasons and lack of comrades where I live, for people to talk politics with and get engaged in movements with) from what I read on the Socialist Alliance website, you have actually been part of the socialist movement for quite a while, a union activist, etc, and I have great respect for your committment to the cause. I even thought of joining the Socialist Alliance, or Resistance, since I’m still young. But when I investigated further, I developed more issues with some of the particular political stances the Alliance takes (though I will congratulate you on the well thought out environmental proposals). No 1 in my mind is Cuba. In no way do I consider Cuba some kind of step forward for humanity, which is how it often seems characterised by the Alliance, with the requisite mentions of the doctors, etc, usually in the grand language of Cuba’s “international solidarity” and not simply an isolated state trying to leverage influence with other states, as if somehow the laws of statecraft did not apply to “socialist” Cuba. The fact that’s its a one party dictatorship, where there is no independent trade unions, no political pluralism, no Left opposition outside or inside the government that is not crushed- I mean, even the authoritarian state that had developed under the Bolsheviks, partly due to civil war, etc, partly due to poor policies, had the Left Opposition to in some way debate and oppose government policies even within this increasingly bureaucratised state in the mid 1920s, which was an organised tendency among the party branches as well, is at least something. Unlike Cuba, where there is nothing of the sort as far as I’m aware, says volumes about civil and political freedom in Cuba- that there isn’t even an organised oppositional tendency within the Cuban Communist Party, let alone outside it. Plus the fact that Cuba is a monarchy, as power passed directly from Fidel to Raul, with not even the mere consultation of the Cuban population- a clear cut sign of nepotism, no different from Napoleon appointing his own brothers as the Kings and Emperors of Europe following his conquests. What is there to defend here? Just because they have a decent healthcare system and are isolated internationally by the US does not make the ruling elites in Cuba immune to criticism, nor is it aiding US imperalism to criticise the bureaucratic and authoritarian regime. Ho Chi Minh wiped out the Left Oppositionists in Vietnam, the Trotksyists basically, in a horrific slaughter because the Stalinists felt threatened by them- do you really think Fidel would have acted any differently to Ho Chi Minh? From what I remember, Cuba had quite an anarcho-syndicalist movement that played a role in overthrowing Batista. What happened to them after Fidel came to power? They must have disappeared somewhere, because they are no longer around. In Spain, the socialists, such as the POUM, fought with the anarchists together against both the Stalinists and the fascists. Both Fidel and Ho Chi Minh eliminated the left outside of themselves in their respective countries. And both remain one party states. This idealisation of Cuba then makes me concerned about how some of your policy proposals would play out if they were implemented, if you think Cuba is doing such wonderful things, and importing aspects of that bureaucratic model here. While I disagree with the Alliance strongly on the Cuba point, I still think you are more consistently democratic and pluralistic than the reactionaries and the ALP bureaucrats would try and stereotype you as, and like I said previously, I admire the work of the Alliance in helping to build the progressive movements of today. Of course, I agree papers don’t have to shout SOCIALIST on the headline to still be worthwhile, interesting and radical. What I meant on the Keynesian point is that I think Keynesianism has infected a lot of the Left, even radicals, when Keynes was an elitist bureaucratic prig hostile to the Left- he even thought the British Labour Party was too radical for him, too much of a “class” party, even though they were later to adopt many of his ideas to try and save British capitalism from itself. Note- I am not saying your party is Keynesian- but I think there are perhaps some left-Keynesianism elements there. When I read through the Alliance’s policy proposals, I run into the word “nationalistion” quite a bit, which usually means centralised state control ala Soviet Union or a reformist social democratic program ala Sweden a few decades ago, at its social democratic height- and I’m not quite sure how your proposals for a massive expansion of the public service, of nationalisations and state control which take the “commanding heights” from the capitalists and then institute state planning (with some mentions of how this will be overseen and done democratically, of course, with mentions of opening the books of business to workers, etc, abolishing business secrets, giving more power of administration over to workers, but which still leave these “commanding heights” in the hands of a state bureaucracy) etc, will end up being any more succesful in an attempt to transition towards socialism, that is a radically democratic, emancipatory and libertarian society on the path to a position of freedom and abundance in a stateless and classless society, than reformist social democracy or the revolutionary Bolshevik experience. Should we not be arguing for socialisation, worker and community control in a democratic and libertarian fashion over production, distribution and exchange, decentralising and democratising the state bureaucracy as much as possible, self-management over the economy and enhanced autonomy for individuals, collective enterprises and communities, etc, under a democratically planned and participatory economy that is geared to extending individual and social freedoms and fulfilling human desires and needs (i.e. food, shelter, education,etc). I might just be arguing over the semantics of a word here, since you would essentially agree with everyone I’m saying, which of course I realise if pure fantasy if there is no strong and organised socialist movement, with at least a considerable majority of the population in favour of socialism, but I think there is still a statist element of a socialist solution here, and I’m not sure if it can really be pulled off, or get the results both you and I desire to see. The people over at Direct Action, the socialist newspaper basically sympathetic to the mainly former DSPers who now compose the Revolutionary Socialist Party, have characterised some of your positions as Keynesian (this was in 2009), and which you will have to tell me if you think they are unfair or reductive criticisms of your policies. For example, they say: “DSP national executive member and SA co-convener Dick Nichols calls on the Rudd government to launch a “green New Deal” — that is, to include an ecological element in its Keynesian program for saving capitalism at workers’ expense. Another SA-DSPer later adds in GLW that Qantas, if renationalised by the current government, “could be run in the interests of those that work for it, society as a whole and the environment”. Is that how it was run before it was privatised? Peter Boyle, on the GLW internet discussion list, refers to the capitalist rulers’ prisons as “our prisons”: “A rally … as a show support for those opposing privatisation of our Prisons and other Public Services and Utilities”. In GLW’s September 20 SA “Our Common Cause” column, SA-DSP member Ben Courtice calls for “government assistance, including investment” in renewable energy-related manufacturing industry. Government ownership is described as an option (“perhaps”) that is needed only to ensure “a fair outcome” for the workers concerned: they can rely on Rudd Labor, apparently, to look after the interests.” http://directaction.org.au/issue18/the_sad_end_of_the_dsp

    If I am misinterpreting your policies as regards nationalisation, let me know where I got it wrong.

    Note: I do think it was probably better for the DSP to merge into SA rather than continue on as a “Marxist-Leninist” group- the last thing people should be calling themselves is Leninists, which I think has put off a lot of people sympathetic to socialism (including myself), who even have some respect for some of Lenin’s ideas, but feel no pressing need to defend inexcusable actions on his part, or act as apologists for Trotsky as regards Kronsdadt, for example, (even though there is plenty of positive things to learn from him too) or other serious violations of human liberty that have tainted the cause of socialism.

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — December 29, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  12. I think Louis is wrong to suggest that Kautsky’s distinction between a “revolutionary party” and a “revolution-making party” is nothing more than a “warning against Blanquist schemas” . What it suggests to me is a distinction between a party that favours in principle a revolutionary change in the structure of society, and a party that sees such a process of change as a concrete political project.If the latter is rejected simply on the grounds that the objective circumstances at a given time do not make it feasible, then we might have Louis’ “anti-Blanquist Kautsky”. But if that is the case then we would expect to see some discussion of the circumstances that would place revolution “on the order of the day” and at least tentative efforts to sketch out how the party should behave under such conditions. I don’t think Kautsky ever does this, even when the political situation in Germany starts to call for it, giving us a “centrist Kautsky”. I have always understood that it was this which led to the disaffection between Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg from 1905 on.For me, the interesting question is how Lenin, normally such a forensic reader of other people’s texts, could not see this.

    Comment by Brian. O. — December 31, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  13. Robert Allen: I suggest challenging the Paul people to a moderated debate on the topic, “capitalism versus socialism?” or “ending the Fed: a real solution for the 99%?” I have found a tremendous openness to discussing these issues, even with the Ron Paul types, many of whom are attracted to his progressive positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the drug war but swallowed the rest of his libertarian garbage along the way. I know of at least two Republicans who became revolutionary socialists back in my days in Rochester, so it is possible.

    Ethan: OWS got off the ground precisely because the socialist left was mostly absent/inactive in the planning stages. A few of the grouplets are now involved in Occupy but in a meagre way (the link I post below of my Occupy piece discusses the socialist left’s response to the rise of Occupy).

    I’d like to suggest that any further discussion of tactics and Occupy go here https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/occupy-and-the-tasks-of-socialists/ instead of this thread which is about Shawki’s piece on socialists and organization.

    theredstartwinklesmischievously: You’ve never had the pleasure of being put before one of the group’s kangaroo courts and expelled for nonsense, so you can be forgiven for your continuing illusions. Whether or not they can lead a fight to create a “radically democratic, emancipatory, and libertarian society” is not determined by their formal politics or what they say about Fidel Castro, it’s determined by their practice of which their organizational practices are an important part. So yes, there is no blood on their banner, but smelly hypocrisy is a different issue.

    Brian O: I suggest reading Lars T. Lih’s work on Lenin and Kautsky. Lenin’s issue with Kautsky wasn’t so much what he wrote, it was Kautsky’s failure to live up to what he wrote from 1914 onwards.

    Comment by Binh — January 3, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  14. Thanks Binh. I have read some of Lih’s stuff on Kautsky/Lenin and while its very interesting I think he’s a bit off-beam too. It seems to me that you can without great difficulty identify Kautsky’s political weaknesses in what he wrote prior to 1914 – although perhaps more throiugh what he failed to say than what he said. The question is why was Lenin so blind to this?

    Comment by Brian. O. — January 3, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

  15. Because Lenin was an orthodox Kautskyite. The real question is why no Leninist organization has been able to become mass party in the last eight decades internationally.

    Comment by Binh — January 9, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  16. @Binh “Lenin was an orthodox Kautskyite”.

    In what possible universe could this even appear plausible to someone familiar with Kautsky and Lenin? State and Revolution is a sustained polemic against Kautsky on the question of the State, among other things. Lenin (as well as Luxemburg and Trotsky and others) also excoriated Kautsky and the 2nd International parties for caving in to chauvinism and supporting the inter-imperialist WWI. Kautsky’s SPD would eventually play a role in violently supressing workers uprisings in Germany (not to speak of murdering Rosa Luxemburg). Lenin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had defended the October Revolution on grounds that it had the potential to spark a revolution in Western Europe–in Germany in particular. Either you mean something very eccentric by “Kautskyite” or you have eccentric views about what Lenin stood for theoretically/politically. This isn’t to say that Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg weren’t influenced by some of Kautsky’s ideas. They surely were–and not everything Kautsky said was false. He was taken to be an authority on Marxism internationally. To be sure, Lenin quotes Kautsky favorably in various places in his work. But the theoretical/political trajectory of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky is wildly different from Kautsky’s parliamentarian reformism. On the question of self-emancipation and the question of the State, their positions couldn’t be more different. Lenin didn’t oppose everything Kautsky stood for, but he and other revolutionaries in the early 20th century defended a very different kind of politics and nothing is gained by muddying the waters here and declaring Lenin an “orthodox Kautskyist”.

    Kautsky might say a few nice words about why he opposes Blanquism, but his own theory, as well his political practice, is substitutionist through and through. Kautsky is for socialism from above–not for working-class self-emancipation. He wanted the SPD politicians to hand socialism down to the workers from on high. He endorsed a non-Marxist (basically liberal “pluralist”) view of the State. One has to *earn* their right to being for socialism from below–it’s not enough to simply state that you support it by rhetorically denouncing Blanquism.

    Comment by t — January 12, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

  17. @17, apparently you didn’t read my post:

    Furthermore, a strong case can be made that Lenin viewed Kautsky’s “Road to Power” as exemplary long after “What is to be Done?” had been written and even after he had broken with Kautsky over WWI. In the latest issue of “The Weekly Worker”, the organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain (a group devoted to fresh thinking about such matters even if does tend a bit toward scandal-mongering, a reflection of the bad habits of the British press no doubt), there’s an article–”Lenin, Kautsky and the ‘new era of revolutions‘”–by the redoubtable Lars Lih that documents Lenin’s respect for Kautsky’s book, couched as it was in anger at Kautsky’s subsequent evolution:

    In autumn 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin wrote to his associate, Aleksandr Shliapnikov: “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy.” This pungent summation of Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky – an attitude that remained unchanged for the rest of Lenin’s life – is often cited. Ultimately more useful in understanding Lenin’s outlook, however, is another comment, made around the same time to the same correspondent: “Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”

    Lenin took his own advice. He sat down a few weeks later, flipped through the pages of Kautsky’s Road to power, and came up with a page-and-a-half list of quotations that he inserted into an article entitled ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’. He then commented: “This is how Kautsky wrote in times long, long past, fully five years ago. This is what German Social Democracy was, or, more correctly, what it promised to be. This was the kind of Social Democracy that could and had to be respected.”

    Comment by louisproyect — January 12, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  18. T: Lenin continued to recommend Kautsky’s writings to people even after 1917. See:

    Comment by Binh — January 31, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

  19. I don’t know where Bihn has been in terms of Occupy but the ISO on the *West Coast* were totally integrated into it’s structures and provided leadership. In fact, I think they appeared to do Bihn one better and almost dissolved into it. I’m not in ISO but I got to see them work in the two main Bay Area Occupy’s and it is the *opposite* of the way Bihn describes the ISO.

    Comment by D. Walters — December 21, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

  20. The problem with the ISO and, generally those involved in discussions, is the avoidance of the tasks needed for any revolutionary party to work. It’s as if only all the smaller socialist groups (ISO on down) would only unite, then things would be peachy in terms of leadership.

    At the recent ISO Marxism Conference, where myself and other members of my group, Socialist Organizer were invited to attend, there was a kind of avoidance of the issue of leadership, IMO, with regards to how the ISO views winning workers to a revolutionary perspective. I think the ISO still believes that the development of a revolutionary party of workers will inevitably be in the form of increasing vertical recruitment to their organization. Basically the same mistaken position the SWP took in 1946 after recruiting several thousand workers during WWII. That all it will take will be for socialists to be involved in serious solidarity with workers and oppressed struggles and everything will fall into place.

    They are of course open to regroupment though it never came up at this interesting conference. But more importantly, what never came up was the “issue of class”. That is: how the *class* needs to develop class consciousness (see the entire theme of LeBlanc’s book on Lenin as the tasks for the RSDLP) and as part of this, to ‘move’ in the direction of conflict with the bosses. How to move *the class* in the direction of greater struggle and how socialists could provide *assertive, organized and clear leadership for this*. The Conference generally focused on what the ISO could do, expressed honestly, to how, and build solidarity with various struggles (Walmart, Chicago teachers, Occupy, etc). But never about a *national* perspective for initiatives that could move our class to engage in struggles in a more focused way. The ISO appear to be more ‘reactive’ than ‘assertive’ in this regard. (the discussion was quite good, I might add, with differences expressed and debated throughout).

    I think what is said here in some ways about ISO applies to all the purveyors of regroupment, being it Proyect to Bihn to the recent Australian efforts. The problem is not the myriad “number of competing socialist groups” it is how any such group, or group of groups, can relate to the problems of class consciousness and independent working class political action. The issue for the early RSDLP was never, ever, about the “left” or other socialists, but it was about how social-democrats need to focus on the building of cadre, and develop a social democratic leadership for the class as a whole. That is “Program”. This perspective is amazingly lacking in every discussion about regroupment, be it in the still-born British efforts, the decaying French one, or the just-started Australian one. And certainly in the U.S. as well.

    In one sense, Bihn did correctly approach this issue, though I believe he totally exaggerated the situation and analysis of Occupy, with his essay on Socialists and Occupy the link for which is up aways in this commentary. Methodologically he was correct, IMHO. I think he was wrong as to what Occupy represented, but then he was in NYC and not, say, in San Francisco or Spokane, where Occupy, while in the news and briefly attractive, pretty much just as quickly disappeared or descended into a shrinking whirl-pool of anarchist counter-cultural nonsense. But no one is really dealing with how to approach the class a whole.

    Comment by D. Walters — December 21, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

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