Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 25, 2012

Mangling the Party: Vol. 1 of Tony Cliff’s Lenin By Pham Binh

Filed under: democratic centralism,Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

Mangling the Party:
Vol. 1 of Tony Cliff’s Lenin

By Pham Binh
January 24, 2012

 The following is dedicated to anyone and everyone has sacrificed in the name of “building the revolutionary party.”

Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party published in 1975 was the first book-length political biography of Lenin written by a Marxist. As a result, it shaped the approach of subsequent investigations by academics like Lars T. Lih as well as the thinking of thousands of socialists in groups like the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP, founded by Cliff), the U.S. International Socialist Organization, and Paul LeBlanc, author of Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and former member of the American SWP (no relation to Cliff’s group).

Cliff begins his biography by debunking the U.S.S.R.’s official state religion of Lenin-worship that “endowed [Lenin] with superhuman attributes.” Yet throughout the book Cliff refers to these “superhuman attributes”:

 Lenin adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation.

 [Lenin] combined theory and practice to perfection.

If these passing remarks were the main flaws of Cliff’s book it would still be useful to read, full of political and historical lessons. Sadly, this is not the case.

Cliff’s errors and distortions begin with Lenin’s political activity in mid 1890s. According to Cliff:

Ob Agitatsii had a mechanical theory of the relation between the industrial struggle, the struggle against the employers, and the political struggle against tsarism, based on the concept of “stages.” … [W]hatever the official biographers may say, the truth is that in the years 1894-96, [Lenin] did not denounce Ob Agitatsii as one-sided, mechanical, and “economist.” His writings of the period coincide exactly with the line which it put forward.

To show that Lenin’s writings of this period “coincide exactly” with the arguments of Ob Agitatsii, Cliff quotes Lenin’s 1895 draft Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) program and cites his article What Are Our Ministers Thinking About? in which Cliff claims “Lenin urged the expediency of leaving the Tsar out of the argument, and talking instead about the new laws that favored employers and of cabinet ministers who were anti-working class.”

Cliff later states in Building the Party that “[n]ot to point out the direct connection between the partial reform and the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism is to cheat the workers, to fall into liberalism.” Did Lenin fall into liberalism at this early stage of his career?

Anyone who reads either document will find that Lenin’s views do not “coincide exactly” with those of Ob Agitatsii. Neither the draft program nor the article Cliff cites are mechanical, one-sided, stageist, or “economist.” In What Are Our Ministers Thinking About? Lenin did not “urge the expediency of leaving the Tsar out of the argument.” Lenin did not fall into liberalism.

These egregious misrepresentations of Lenin’s views occur throughout Building the Party.

“Bending the Stick”

Cliff closes chapter two by claiming that Lenin’s penchant for “bending the stick” was “a characteristic that he retained throughout his life.”

[Lenin] always made the task of the day quite clear, repeating what was necessary ad infinitum in the plainest, heaviest, most single-minded hammer-blow pronouncements. Afterwards, he would regain his balance, straighten the stick, then bend it again in another direction.

Throughout the book Cliff makes reference to Lenin’s “stick bending,” by which Cliff means deliberately and one-sidedly overemphasising something one day and then the opposite thing the next day in different circumstances.

If “stick bending” was Lenin’s political method, it would mean that none of his writings should be taken at face value. Each piece would suffer from one-sided overemphasis and distortion. Such a method would also call into question Lenin’s intellectual and political honesty. How could anyone be sure what Lenin really meant or thought if his arguments were always exaggerated in some way? Furthermore, why would anyone in the Russian socialist movement take what Lenin had to say seriously if the only thing that was consistent about his message was its exaggerated character? Such a method would create a culture of disbelief and cynicism among Lenin’s followers that would grow more toxic with each “bend.”

Lenin’s letter to Georgi Plekhanov on the economist trend that Cliff uses to illustrate “stick bending” tells us something very different from what Cliff claims:

The economic trend, of course, was always a mistake, but then it is very young; while there has been overemphasis of “economic” agitation (and there still is here and there) even without the trend, and it was the legitimate and inevitable companion of any step forward in the conditions of our movement which existed in Russia at the end of the 1880s or the beginning of the 1890s. The situation then was so murderous that you cannot probably even imagine it, and one should not censure people who stumbled as they clambered up out of that situation. For the purposes of this clambering out, some narrowness was essential and legitimate: was, I say, for with this tendency to blow it up into a theory and tie it in with Bernsteinism, the whole thing of course changed radically … The overemphasis of “economic” agitation and catering to the “mass” movement were natural.

Here, Lenin’s real method emerges. The one-sidedness Cliff lauds is not Lenin’s but a feature of a particular stage of the Russian socialist movement’s development, namely the transition from study circles and propaganda to the field of mass action and agitation. In this transition some mistakes were inevitable and “one should not censure people who stumbled as they clambered up out of that situation.” However, when people elevated inevitable mistakes, errors, and stumbles into a full-blown theory and then connected it with Bernstein’s revisionism “the whole thing of course changed radically.” Once the whole thing changed radically, Lenin wrote A Protest by Russian Social Democrats in 1899.

Cliff conflates features and stages of objective development with Lenin’s subjective responses to them:

[F]ear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian “economism” and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 … motivated Lenin to bend the stick right over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and toward the organisation of a national political party.

Lenin did not transform from an armchair revolutionary in a study circle into an economist factory agitator, from economist factory agitator into top-down party-builder, and from top-down party-builder into a proponent of building the party from the bottom up around the elective principle in the name of the spontaneously socialist working class in 1905, attacking his own former positions all along the way. He continually grappled with the development of Russia’s worker-socialist movement through each of its distinct stages, each of which had unique challenges and opportunities (or “tasks”). Together, these stages were part of a single process that Lars T. Lih described as Lenin’s “heroic scenario” — the RSDLP would lead the workers, who, in turn, would lead the peasants, oppressed nationalities, and all of the downtrodden, exploited, and oppressed people of Tsarist Russia in a revolution that would destroy the autocracy, setting the stage for international socialist revolution.

In polemics Lenin typically reminded his readers about the importance of keeping the whole process of development in mind and instead of isolating its individual elements:

That which happened to such leaders of the Second International, such highly erudite Marxists devoted to socialism as Kautsky, Otto Bauer and others, could (and should) provide a useful lesson. They fully appreciated the need for flexible tactics; they themselves learned the Marxist dialectic and taught it to others (and much of what they have done in this field will always remain a valuable contribution to socialist literature); however, in the application of this dialectic they committed such an error, or proved to be so undialectical in practice, so incapable of taking into account the rapid change of forms and the rapid acquisition of new content by the old forms, that their fate is not much more enviable than that of Hyndman, Guesde and Plekhanov. The principal reason for their bankruptcy was that they were hypnotised by a definite form of growth of the working-class movement and socialism, forgot all about the one-sidedness of that form, were afraid to see the break-up which objective conditions made inevitable, and continued to repeat simple and, at first glance, incontestable axioms that had been learned by rote, like: “three is more than two”. But politics is more like algebra than elementary arithmetic, and still more like higher than elementary mathematics. In reality, all the old forms of the socialist movement have acquired a new content, and, consequently, a new symbol, the “minus” sign, has appeared in front of all the figures; our wiseacres, however, have stubbornly continued (and still continue) to persuade themselves and others that “minus three” is more than “minus two”.

It was Lenin’s appreciation for the totality of development, not “stick bending,” that led him to write polemics against economists, Mensheviks, followers of Bogdanov, liquidators, “left” communists, and Karl Kautsky, all of whom did not make the transition from one stage of the “heroic scenario” to the next by adapting themselves to the new “tasks”.

In chapter three, Cliff continues his “bending the stick” narrative:

It was fear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian “economism” and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 that motivated Lenin to bend the stick right over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and toward the organisation of a national political party.

This is totally false. The 1895 draft RSDLP program Lenin wrote and Cliff cited in chapter two proves that Lenin sought to build a national political party years before the economist trend emerged:

The Russian Social-Democratic Party declares that its aim is to assist this struggle of the Russian working class by developing the class-consciousness of the workers, by promoting their organisation, and by indicating the aims and objects of the struggle. The struggle of the Russian working class for its emancipation is a political struggle, and its first aim is to achieve political liberty.

Anyone who reads Lenin’s draft program will know where he stood on the party question in 1895. Fear had nothing to do with Lenin’s commitment to organizing a national political party.

Lenin and Party Rules

Cliff’s chapter on Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? is unremarkable except for the section dealing with Lenin’s attitude towards party rules. Cliff quotes Lenin’s 1902 Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks that was circulated as an RSDLP pamphlet in 1904 to show that Lenin had a “distaste for red-tape and rule-mongering.” Cliff goes on to say:

Lenin’s faction was for a long time very informal indeed. He started to build his organisation through Iskra agents. When, after the second Congress, as we shall see, he lost the support of his own Central Committee, he reorganised his supporters around a newly convened conference that elected a Russian Bureau.

There are a number of errors here.

The first is that the purpose of Iskra agents was to build the RSDLP, not an organization loyal to Lenin (another falsehood that runs throughout Building the Party is the notion that Bolsheviks and/or the central committee were “his”).

The second and more serious error is to use Lenin’s actions in the aftermath of the RSDLP’s second congress that gave birth to the Menshevik-Bolshevik split as proof of Lenin’s preference for informal or loose rules. One of the central charges that Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers levelled at the Mensheviks was that their resignations, boycotts of party institutions, refusal to call a third congress despite the expressed will of the majority of the 1903 congress delegates, and declaration that the League of Social Democrats Abroad was autonomous from the RSDLP all violated the rules adopted at the 1903 congress.

Anyone who reads Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back will find that Lenin paid very close attention to rules, regulations, procedural minutiae, and abided by them. One of the central reasons why Lenin spent years working to convene the 1903 congress in the first place was to eliminate the informal rules and procedures that prevailed in the socialist circles and replace them with the formal rules necessary to govern the workings of a professional political party. In contemporary terms Lenin sought to overcome what feminist Jo Freeman described as “the tyranny of structurelessness.”

Lenin’s Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks proves the opposite of what Cliff claims. In that letter Lenin writes:

It would be all the less useful to draw up such Rules at present [1902] since we have practically no general Party experience (and in many places none whatever) with regard to the activities of the various groups and subgroups of this sort, and in order to acquire such experience what is needed is not Rules but the organisation of Party information, if I may put it in this way. Each of our local organisations now spends at least a few evenings on discussing Rules. If instead, each member would devote this time to making a detailed and well-prepared report to the entire Party on his particular function, the work would gain a hundredfold.

 And it is not merely because revolutionary work does not always lend itself to definite organisational form that Rules are useless. No, definite organisational form is necessary, and we must endeavour to give such form to all our work as far as possible. That is permissible to a much greater   extent than is generally thought, and achievable not through Rules but solely and exclusively (we must keep on reiterating this) through transmitting exact information to the Party centre; it is only then that we shall have real organisational form connected with real responsibility and (inner-Party) publicity. For who of us does not know that serious conflicts and differences of opinion among us are actually decided not by vote “in accordance with the Rules,” but by struggle and threats to “resign”? During the last three or four years of Party life the history of most of our committees has been replete with such internal strife. It is a great pity that this strife has not assumed definite form: it would then have been much more instructive for the Party and would have contributed much more to the experience of our successors. But no Rules can create such useful and essential definiteness of organisational form; this can be done solely through inner-Party publicity. Under the autocracy we can have no other means or weapon of inner-Party publicity than keeping the Party centre regularly informed of Party events.

Here Lenin stressed the importance of reporting and inner-party publicity as opposed to rules because he believed (correctly) that proper decisions about rules could only be made if the RSDLP’s leaders were fully aware of the work each of its members engaged in. (Lenin viewed the centralization of information regarding members’ activity into the hands of the party leadership as a response to operating as an illegal organization; presumably information would be decentralized among the membership as a whole through the medium of a newspaper if the party was legal.)

Lenin closed this letter with the following words:

And only after we have learned to apply this inner-Party publicity on a wide scale shall we actually be able to amass experience in the functioning of the various organisations; only on the basis of such extensive experience over a period of many years shall we be able to draw up Rules that will not be mere paper Rules.

So while it is true that Lenin detested rule-mongering, it is equally true that Lenin spent the better part of 1904 and 1905 fighting in defense of the rules adopted by the 1903 congress and against the informal methods that the Mensheviks proved unwilling to part ways with.

Chapter five on the 1903 congress is again replete with errors. In discussing the famous debate between Lenin and Martov over what the definition of a party member should be, Cliff attacks Martov and Trotsky for supporting Lenin’s organizational plan as laid out in What Is To Be Done? and then opposing Lenin’s formulation on membership, writing:

To combine a strong centralist leadership with loose membership was eclecticism taken to an extreme. … [T]he revolutionary party cannot avoid making strong demands for sacrifice and discipline from its own members. Martov’s definition of party membership fitted the weakness of his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Cliff fails to note that Martov’s membership definition became the basis for recruitment into the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP for three years until the Mensheviks agreed (in conjunction with the Bolsheviks) at the 1906 party congress to a formulation in line with Lenin’s 1903 wording. According to Cliff’s logic then, the Bolsheviks during 1903-1906 were guilty of “eclecticism taken to an extreme” for combining “strong centralist leadership with loose membership” and “weakness” with regards to proletarian dictatorship, while the Mensheviks were innocent of these things after 1906 because they supported Lenin’s definition of party membership.

Eclecticism indeed!

In this regard, Cliff is like most other “Leninists” who invest the 1903 membership debate with an artificial and ahistorical significance. If Lenin did not mention the issue in his discussion on the “Principle Stages in the History of Bolshevism” in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder  written for foreign communist audiences unfamiliar with RSDLP history it could not have been a terribly important issue from his point of view.

Cliff’s next egregious error comes in his discussion of Lenin’s actions after the 1903 Congress that gave birth to the Menshevik and Bolshevik trends within the RSDLP:

With the aid of Krupskaya in Geneva, and a group of supporters operating inside Russia, [Lenin] built a completely new set of centralised committees, quite regardless of Rule 6 of the party statutes, which reserved to the Central Committee the right to organise and recognise committees.

He goes on to say that these “completely new” and “centralised committees” began to agitate for a new RSDLP congress in 1904 to resolve the disputes that arose between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks at the end of the previous congress.

If Cliff’s statement is true, then Lenin was a hypocritical and ruthless faction fighter who attacked his political opponents for not playing by party rules that he exempted himself from. If true, it would have fatally undermined the whole basis of post-1903 Bolshevik agitation for a new congress because it was based on the following rule adopted by the second congress: “The Party Council must call a congress if this is demanded by Party organisations which together would command half the votes at the congress.” If Lenin himself violated these rules by creating “completely new centralised committees” it would have been impossible for him to attract support within the RSDLP for his claim in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back that it was the Mensheviks who were making a mockery of the RSDLP’s rules.

Cliff’s assertion has no footnote, so it is unclear what the source of his claim is. What is certain is that there is no mention of illegal (in the sense of being against the RSDLP’s rules) and “completely new set of centralised committees” in Krupskaya’s memoirs. Surely if Lenin had done what Cliff claims the Mensheviks would have pounced on this monstrous fact and included it in their bitter attacks on Lenin in the pages of the post-congress Iskra.

Another element that appears in this chapter and throughout Building the Party is Cliff’s “truisms” about a variety of topics that have no basis in things Lenin said or did. For example:

[T]he leadership of a revolutionary party must provide the highest example of devotion and complete identification with the party in its daily life. This gives it the moral authority to demand the maximum sacrifice from the rank and file.

Lenin certainly appreciated the sacrifices people made for the revolutionary movement, but this was not limited to those who were party leaders or even party members (for example, his attitude towards earlier generations of Russian revolutionaries, the Narodniks and Decembrists). At no time did Lenin use his position as a party leader to demand “maximum sacrifice from the rank and file.” This sounds like something from the Stalin era or from Mao’s Little Red Book which is full of timeless, moralistic phrasemongering.

Cliff’s references to Lenin’s imaginary disregard for rules serves an important purpose in the Building the Party narrative: Lenin has to constantly circumvent rules and fight against his own followers who become “conservative” and “formalistic” in their approach to politics by resisting Lenin’s continual “stick bending.” This narrative reaches its climax in chapter eight which celebrates Lenin’s fight at the third RSDLP congress held in April 1905 against the Bolshevik committeemen over two issues: recruiting workers to party committees and democratizing the party in the midst of the 1905 revolution. According to Cliff, “[b]uttressing themselves with quotations from What Is to Be Done? [the Bolshevik commiteemen] called for ‘extreme caution’ in admitting workers into the committees and condemned ‘playing at democracy.’”

The problem with Cliff’s account is that Lenin and the Bolsheviks never fought about either recruiting workers to party committees or democratizing the party at the third congress. It simply did not happen. Lih discovered that this episode in Building the Party was “lifted wholesale from Solomon Schwarz,” a Bolshevik-turned-Menshevik who wrote The Russian Revolution of 1905: the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (“wholesale” meaning copied word for word).

Cliff’s plagiarism is a relatively minor issue compared to the real scandal: he evidently never bothered to read Lenin’s Report on the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party written in May 1905! Had Cliff read Lenin’s account of the third congress he would have discovered that Lenin makes no mention of any conflict, debate, or friction over whether to recruit workers and democratize the party in light of the new conditions created by the 1905 revolution. The report is positively glowing about the results of the third congress, which included more clearly defined party rules (so much for Lenin’s alleged informality) and a series of resolutions guiding the RSDLP’s conduct during the 1905 revolution.

The conclusion is inescapable: either Cliff did not read what Lenin said about the 1905 third congress or he knowingly repeated a falsehood taken from someone else’s work in order to support his narrative of “Lenin versus the party machine he built.” Neither is acceptable for a political biographer of Lenin.

It is in this chapter that the contradictions embedded in Cliff’s “Lenin must continually fight the party machine he built” narrative become most apparent. Suppose that Cliff was right that the committeemen did indeed defeat Lenin on the issue of recruiting workers at the third congress and stubbornly resisted such recruitment efforts. The question then becomes: how did the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP grow so rapidly? How could workers join the party against the will of the people who were the party? Cliff does not explain this impossibility but exclaims, “nevertheless it moves” and quotes figures showing the rapid growth of the Bolsheviks in 1905 and after. Cliff’s Lenin was evidently a magician who could make the party take actions the people who constituted the party opposed.

“Democratic Centralism” and Party Discipline

In chapter 15 Cliff’s litany of errors continues. The 1905 revolution created strong pressure from the RSDLP’s rapidly growing ranks to unite the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions. This unity was consummated at the RSDLP’s 1906 congress held in Stockholm. Cliff neglects to mention that this congress elected a central committee of three Bolsheviks and six Mensheviks. He recounts that an RSDLP conference in Tammerfors held in 1906 decided to create an electoral bloc with the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), a liberal party backed by big business. Lenin insisted that the decisions of this conference were not binding on local party bodies. A surprised Cliff writes:

What had happened to the democratic centralism so dear to Lenin? For years he had argued for the subordination of the lower organs of the party to the higher, and against the federal concept of the party. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, written February-May 1904, he had said that “the undoubted tendency to defend autonomism against centralism … is a fundamental characteristic of opportunism in matters of organisation.”

What Cliff means by “democratic centralism” is “subordination of the lower organs of the party to the higher” and a non-federal party. What Lenin meant by “democratic centralism” was altogether different.

The quote Cliff cites from One Step Forward, Two Steps Back is misplaced because Lenin was arguing against those, like Trotsky, who held that the editorial board of the party’s newspaper should be autonomous and not subject to the democratic control of the party congress, a very different issue from the autonomy of local committees or local party branches to make decisions regarding local work. The notion that local autonomy was a new element in Lenin’s thought in 1907 is mistaken. Lenin noted that the third congress of the RSDLP in 1905 affirmed this principle:

The autonomy of the committees has been defined more precisely and their membership declared inviolable, which means that the C.C. no longer has the right to remove members from local committees or to appoint new members without the consent of the committees themselves. … Every local committee has been accorded the right to confirm periphery organisations as Party organisations. The periphery organisations have been accorded the right to nominate candidates for committee membership.

The principle of autonomy was first affirmed at the RSDLP’s second congress in 1903:

All organisations belonging to the Party carry on autonomously all work relating specially and exclusively to the sphere of Party activity which they were set up to deal with.

Another element missing from Cliff’s account of “democratic centralism” is the following rule, also adopted at the second congress:

Every Party member, and everyone who has any dealings with the Party, has the right to demand that any statement submitted by him be placed, in the original, before the Central Committee, or the editorial board of the Central Organ, or the Party Congress.

This rule seems to have been designed to prevent secret expulsions and other abuses of power by party officials that plague all “Leninist” organizations, abuses which are almost always justified on the grounds of “democratic centralism.” The term has been abused to such an extent that it no longer conveys the organizational norms that prevailed within the RSDLP among Mensheviks (who first coined the term) and Bolsheviks alike until the 1917 revolution.

Lenin famously defined “democratic centralism” as “freedom of discussion, unity in action.” Cliff appropriately quotes Lenin on what this meant in practice:

After the competent bodies have decided, all of us, as members of the party, must act as one man. A Bolshevik in Odessa must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing a Cadet’s name even if it sickens him. And a Menshevik in Moscow must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing only the names of Social Democrats, even if his soul is yearning for the Cadets.

Note what “freedom of discussion, unity in action” did not mean. It did not mean that the minority had to publicly champion the “line” or argument of the triumphant majority. “Unity in action” for a dissenting minority simply meant acting in concert with the majority, not singing their tune or arguing for their “line.” Nowhere did Lenin say “a Bolshevik in Odessa must argue with his workmates that supporting the Cadets is the way to go,” or “a Menshevik in Moscow must convince everyone he knows to vote Social Democrat even if his soul is yearning for the Cadets.” A line of action and a line of argument are two different things; “unity in action” did not mean unity in argument or political position.

Given this understanding of what “democratic centralism” meant to Lenin and the RSDLP, the following lines by Cliff are wildly, unfathomably wrong:

A couple of months later, in January 1907, Lenin went so far as to argue for the institution of a referendum of all party members on the issues facing the party – certainly a suggestion that ran counter to the whole idea of democratic centralism.

Polling the party to determine the party’s course of action is antithetical to “democratic centralism” only if we use Cliff’s definition of the term and not Lenin’s. The answer to Cliff’s question, “What had happened to the democratic centralism so dear to Lenin?” is simple: nothing.

Cliff’s failure to understand the meaning of “democratic centralism” becomes a problem again in chapter 17 when he discusses a Menshevik-led party trial of Lenin in 1907. Surprisingly, Cliff agrees with the Mensheviks that Lenin was guilty of violating party discipline, writing:

Lenin’s behavior at the trial is very interesting, because it shows the relentless way in which he conducted a faction fight against the right wing of the party. As the trial opened, Lenin calmly acknowledged that he used “language impermissible in relations between comrades in the same party,” but he made absolutely no apology for doing so. Indeed, in fighting the Liquidationists and their allies in the movement, he never hesitated to use the sharpest weapons he could lay his hands on. Moderation is not a characteristic of Bolshevism.

The incident that precipitated the trail occurred after the Mensheviks in St. Petersburg created an electoral bloc with the Cadets in defiance of the majority of the local RSDLP organization. Lenin wrote a pamphlet attacking the Mensheviks for doing so. The Mensheviks retaliated against Lenin by having the RSDLP central committee, on which they had a majority, charge Lenin with violating party discipline. So it was the Mensheviks who were violating the rules of the RSDLP, not Lenin.

The Bolshevik Party: Not Formed in 1912

In chapter 17, Cliff discusses Lenin’s fight against the liquidationist trend in the RSDLP. He notes that a January 1910 RSDLP conference vote forced Lenin to disband the Bolshevik faction, close its newspaper, and break off relations with the “boycottists” in their ranks while the Mensheviks were obliged to do the same: disband their faction, close their newspaper, and break with the liquidators in their midst. Lenin dutifully complied. His Menshevik counterparts did not.

After the Mensheviks proved unwilling to follow through with their obligations, Lenin launched a new weekly paper at the end of 1910, Zvezda. Cliff omits this fact and instead picks up the story with the Prague Conference held in January 1912. He also omits the fact that this conference elected a pro-party Menshevik (one of two who attended) to the RSDLP’s central committee. This is important because the 1912 Prague Conference is almost always referred to as the beginning of the Bolsheviks as a separate party from the Mensheviks. Cliff evades this issue by referring to those elected to the central committee in 1912 as “hards,” a term used nowhere else in Building the Party.

After chapter 17, Cliff claims the RSDLP’s daily newspaper Pravda played “a central role in building the Bolshevik Party,” declares that the Bolsheviks became “a mass party” in 1912-1914, and says that the Bolshevik Duma deputies “finally ended” relations with their Menshevik counterparts in late 1913 (when World War One broke out the deputies issued a joint statement, so this is false). Based on these claims it is clear that Cliff adheres to the myth that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks separated into two parties in 1912.

However, a cursory glance at Lenin’s writings in 1912 reveals how wrong this view is. Shortly after the 1912 Prague Conference, Lenin wrote the following in an explanatory note to the International Socialist Bureau:

In all, twenty organisations established close ties with the Organising Commission convening this conference; that is to say, practically all the organisations, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, active in Russia at the present time.

The 1912 Prague Conference separated pro-party Mensheviks and Bolsheviks from the liquidators. The Menshevik-Bolshevik divide did not culminate in two separate parties until the 1917 revolution. Cliff’s account of the 1912-1914 period is terribly flawed because it is predicated on falsehoods. The Bolsheviks were not a party, therefore they could not “become a mass party,” nor could Pravda have played “a central role in building the Bolshevik Party” because such an entity did not yet exist. This explains why, when Lenin referred to Pravda’s success against its liquidationist rival Luch he wrote, “four-fifths of the workers have accepted the Pravdist decisions as their own, have approved of Pravdism, and actually rallied around Pravdism” instead of using the terms “Bolshevist” and “Bolshevism.”

Cliff’s treatment of the history of Lenin and Pravda is just as error-ridden as the rest of Building the Party. For example, he claims, “Lenin practically ran Pravda.” What he neglects to mention is that 47 of Lenin’s articles were rejected, and that many of Lenin’s published articles were heavily edited to weaken their factional content. If Lenin “practically ran Pravda,” why would he reject so many of his own articles and censor himself politically?

Pravda was run by a team of editors, not by Lenin, and the initiative for it came from the lower ranks of the party. It was not “Lenin’s Pravda” as Cliff claims, but a workers’ paper to which Lenin was one contributor among many (Plekhanov, Rosa Luxemburg, and Kautsky also wrote for it). The overwhelming majority of Pravda’s content, including poems and humor columns, was written by workers, not by higher-ups in the party or the paper’s editorial team.

Conclusion

Building the Party
has so many gross factual and political errors that it is useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts. This conclusion is inescapable for anyone who reads the book closely and compares it with the writings of Lenin and the historical record. Those who read Building the Party and take it seriously will need to unlearn the falsehoods and misinformation contained in its pages if they want a reasonably accurate picture of Lenin’s work in the context of the Russian socialist movement of the early twentieth century.

Bookmarks in Britain and Haymarket Books in the U.S. should think twice before republishing, selling, and profiting from Building the Party since it contains so many errors, falsehoods, and lies about Lenin.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, The Indypendent, Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch and thenorthstar.info, a collaborative blog by and for occupiers from across the U.S. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net

89 Comments »

  1. pedantic in the extreme. really: no pretense of offering a coherent critique of cliff’s overall interpretation of lenin, just a long list of disjointed ‘errors’. what a waste of energy. i’m sorry for pham’s great ‘sacrifice’, but he really needs to get over it. and how does any of this inform his current perspective on the occupy movement, which seems almost classically movementist? is there anything in lenin that he might be able to learn from?

    Comment by bringiton — January 25, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

  2. I started this piece months before Occupy emerged and if you think representing Lenin’s views with a reasonable degree of accuracy is “pedantic,” how can there by any discussion of what can be learned from Lenin in the context of Occupy? Furthermore, what value is there in even discussing “Cliff overall interpretation of Lenin” when said interpretation is a series of lies, distortions, and falsehoods? Lastly I never claimed to have made any great sacrifice, but I know quite a few people who have spent decades building groups based on the sayings and writings of Chairman Cliff only to see such groups fail, split, and self-destruct. Those are the people I had in mind with the dedication, not myself.

    Comment by Binh — January 25, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  3. Throughout the book Cliff makes reference to Lenin’s “stick bending,” by which Cliff means deliberately and one-sidedly overemphasising something one day and then the opposite thing the next day in different circumstances.
    If “stick bending” was Lenin’s political method, it would mean that none of his writings should be taken at face value.

    You tendentiously interpret Cliff’s meaning, and because you have turned it into an absurdity you are free to draw an absurd conclusion. You’d already pulled the same trick with “superhuman attributes”, and I stopped reading at this point. Try reading Cliff again and come up with assessment that doesn’t caricature him.

    Comment by skidmarx — January 25, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

  4. I think Pham Binh’s article raises an important issue. Cliff’s comments reflect the basic non-partyism which is inherent in Trotskyism. This led Trotsky to vacillate between denigrating party-building and having an authoritarian or ultra-rigid idea of party discipline and structure, as manifested, for example, in the way he built up the fourth International. You can find a discussion of this in part 3 of my overall critique of Trotskyism. It deals with the concept of the party, but also with Trotsky’s tendency to flesh out his theory with fantasy assessments. This article is written from the standpoint of opposing both Stalinism and Trotskyism.

    An Outline of Trotsky’s Anti-Marxist Theories (part 3)
    http://www.communistvoice.org/34cTrotsky.html

    Fantasy assessments
    —————————
    –The search for an anti-imperialist dictator
    — The French revolution that wasn’t
    — World War II would bring either world revolution or world totalitarianism
    — The supposed capitulation of the Chinese communists to Chiang Kai-shek
    — No intermediate trends
    — The abstract hypothetical

    Disregard for party-building
    ———————————-
    — Substitutionalism
    — Denigration of committee-members
    — Trotsky as disciplinarian
    — The history of the proletarian party
    — The International Left Opposition and the Fourth International
    — Regroupment
    — Factionalism

    The cult of pure administration
    —————————————
    — The preconditions of centralism
    — The statization of the trade unions

    Comment by Joseph Green — January 25, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

  5. So tell me skid, what is stick bending? You would do well to finish reading something before you attempt to criticize it.

    Comment by Binh — January 25, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

  6. An overview of Lenin that deals with him on a human level is Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”, written in 1940. Given that Lenin was in his 20s in the 1890s, isn’t it unremarkable if he made mistakes? What of it? Veneration of leaders in the manner of religious icons, with its attendant hagiographical and sectarian disputes worthy of the early Byzantine Church, is neither productive nor very pertinent to the task at hand, particularly as it regards a tendency, like the ISO that has, compared to most groups on the Left, done much to build the radical movement. In a period when building unity withing the progressive movement is paramount, let’s leave this obscurantist demonology for the likes of the Healyites for whom it is their stock in trade. I know there are certain intellectuals who think exploring such issues is the sine quo non of politics. They are wrong.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 25, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  7. The things that can be learned from Lenin are from his main body of revolutionary deeds and works like Imperialism, State and Revolution and so forth. Wasting time exploring the historical minutae of RSDLP faction fights is not at all pertinent to how the legacy of Lenin can be applied to the tasks of Occupy today and can only divert activists into sterile and counter-productive sectarian dogmatism. Surely, the worthy publisher Haymarket Books need not be told what to publish or not to publish from anyone, particularly on this sectarian basis.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 25, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

  8. What is bending the stick ?
    Emphasising the importance of one area of practice. It doesn’t mean giving the opposite emphasis on another day. A bent stick is not a metronome.It doesn’t mean that Lenin’s theoretical writings are only about the specific and not the general.
    Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.After seeing you mangle Cliff twice I hesitate to drive myself crazy with any more. Can you tell me that your approach changes in the rest of the piece or will in subsequent ones?

    Comment by skidmarx — January 25, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

  9. Paul LeBlanc is an ISO member. He announced his decision to join that organization in a public letter that was widely discussed on the Left a few years ago. That letter is still worth reading today. And it is more than just unfair to denounce his book on Lenin and the Rev Party as being little more than an extension of the arguments in Cliff’s book.

    I agree with the first commenter. Set aside the problem of this being rather abstract and unconnected to the concrete practical questions of building socialist organization in the hear and now. This reads more like a series of bullet-points than an overall critique of Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin. To be sure, there are places where Cliff’s stick-bending analysis is a bit facile and problematic. But the stick-bending metaphor is nonetheless helpful in making sense of how Lenin overstated his case in certain interventions to compensate for a problematic trajectory within the movement (e.g. Economism). It certainly doesn’t explain all of the changes of position he makes. Lenin, like any person, made mistakes and errors–what’s important is that he (mostly) learned from them and thereby sharpened his theory and practice. So it’s possible to take the stick-bending thing too far–and I’m willing to grant that Cliff does just that at certain moments. But it’s another thing to say that its worthless as an interpretive angle on some of Lenin’s political interventions.

    What are the big brush-strokes here? That Cliff’s book is 100% useless? That can’t be right. There is much that is useful in the book, even if it has certain drawbacks and factual errors. To Cliff’s credit, he was the first to put forward a Marxist biography of Lenin that shattered Stalinist attempts at apotheosis and punctured the idea that Lenin’s political thought was a wooden set of dogmas to be applied in the same way no matter the context. Like any other book, it deserves to be read critically and evaluated in terms of where it’s useful and where it isn’t.

    What is the political take-home message of this piece? I’m not really sure I see it. Ostensibly, the post is supposed to be an anti-sectarian attempt to “unite” the Left by attacking a sectarian bogey called “Leninism”. But I agree with 7 above, who writes that “Wasting time exploring the historical minutae of RSDLP faction fights is not at all pertinent to how the legacy of Lenin can be applied to the tasks of Occupy today and can only divert activists into sterile and counter-productive sectarian dogmatism.” Rather than warding off sectarianism, isn’t this piece itself a rather striking example of sectarianism?

    Comment by pink scare — January 25, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

  10. What is the political take-home message of this piece? I’m not really sure I see it.

    I would worry less about that then to deal with the important scholarly questions it raises. Binh is making the same kind of contribution as Lars Lih and myself in my own modest way. There is so much distortion of what Lenin said and did that it is crucial to strive for accuracy if only to get a handle on what is to be done today. After all, we face many of the same problems that Lenin faced in 1903. We are in a very large country with Marxists scattered about who lack a common framework for discussion and action. Now of course there are small self-declared vanguard groups who see no need but that is part of our problem.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 25, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

  11. I would just add that we don’t need this kind of factional backbiting about the ISO on marxist blogs, anymore than we did when it reared its ugly head regarding the SWP, which our moderator, to this credit, repeatedly stated belonged elsewhere. Cliff had a long and worthy life as an activist and merits respect even by his sometime political opponents of the left. What if an ISO supporter wrote a sanctimonious tract dissecting Fred Halstead’s “Out Now” with real and contrived differences without any acknowledgement of who Halstead was and then concluded the rant by in essence calling for the book to banned by the left press? C’mon, we can do better than that.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 25, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

  12. Be prepared for quite a storm, Pham. This is like challenging scripture in the Bible and I suspect this is just the tip of the iceburg. The average working class folk do not join socialist movements and groups primarily for reasons like this. I always talked about practical bottom up approach in leadership and how Lenin and others have been misrepresented by these groups, and how virtually all books become “useless” In building these movements. They don’t realize how they intimidate the the average working class person from their armchair rhetoric, not to mention they leave those who make attempts to learn and get involved in these readings (such as building the party) to give up on analysis when they find a conflict and contradiction and their ideas and opinons are shut down, it encourages the members to suspend their intellect because they were in favor of more practical approaches in building movements, and they still want to fight a cause for socialism, so they blindly follow in good faith that someone else is doing a good analysis and is leading these groups well. When many individuals on the left or on the outside approach or challenge an internal issue like this (or any issue for that matter), the responses will be very similar “get over it” and worse off other leftists get scoffed at, ridiculed, receive passive-agressive and dishonest arguments to undermine them. I have yet to have a positive or progressive experience to showing any sign of dissent to individual card carrying members of these groups you mentioned here. I’m looking forward to your future writings.

    Comment by Rossana Moldovan — January 25, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

  13. @Rosanna: whose scripture, Cliff’s? Pham’s? Lenin’s? The point is to move away from dogmatism. A cogent analysis of what is to be done today does not turn on events in Russia over a century ago, certainly not the petty internal events described above. That’s not how Russian social democrats operated in approaching their world. Sure, they looked to previous historical struggles like those of the Jacobins, 1848 and the Commune, but they were not talmudic epigones of that, but rather real players in fighting for social change in the contemporary reality of their world. This whole outlook completly reifies and obscures the historical reality of the past with the real issues of war and revolution being shunted aside and diverts us from more pertinent tasks regarding similar issues today. Thus instead of the 1905 revolution and a narrative of popular revolt and the role of various groups in that, we get focused on sterile *in-group* minutae of the 1903 faction fight that is marginal to the revolutionary history of Russia that might be pertinent to us today-and which is marginal to the legacy of Tony Cliff as an activist and progressive leader as well. No wonder most sectarian marxists today know little of say, the Social Revolutionary Party and the history of the soviets, for example, that merely being a function of the inverse relationship between sectarian academic knowledge and those folks’ social isolation and awareness of the broader world, so it figures that at bottom they wouldn’t know jack shit about the Russian Revolution.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 25, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

  14. Thus instead of the 1905 revolution and a narrative of popular revolt and the role of various groups in that, we get focused on sterile *in-group* minutae of the 1903 faction fight that is marginal to the revolutionary history of Russia that might be pertinent to us today-and which is marginal to the legacy of Tony Cliff as an activist and progressive leader as well.

    Actually, Trotsky was right when he said that “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” Resolving that crisis requires an analysis of the class struggle and strategy designed to move it forward. It also requires an investigation of how to build a revolutionary party. In other words, you can have a solid analysis of the class struggle-as Leon Trotsky did-but embrace organizational formulas that lead to isolation, splits, cults, and demoralization. We need to think through the question of how to build a revolutionary party. The future of humanity rests as much on this as developing winning strategy and tactics.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 25, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

  15. Yes, and I think we’re all agreed that the monolithic model associated not only with Stalinism, but sadly with much of the Trotksyist movement in the past as well, is not the way to go. Deconstructing Lenin as the prophet of that approach is good. I regret, however, that Cliff of all people, was chosen as the foil for this analysis as my impression has been that ISO and the British SWP has been one of the “better” groups in that regard. Thus, particularly when folks from the trend Cliff embodied are jumping into the fray around Occupy and other struggles, an insolent take down of Cliff as if he were Jack Barnes, or even Irwin Silber, is unfortunate.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 25, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

  16. “calling for the book to banned by the left press?”

    The difference should be clear between calling for a book-banning versus simply saying that there is no reason for a Left press to continue publishing an item. Some books can continue to be published just on the basis of historical significance, even when the text is not thought highly of. The Protocols of Zion and Mein Kampf would easily fall into that category. But unless a text has some specific historical significance which goes beyond the mere quality of analysis within the written text itself (such as could be said for the latter examples) then there is no reason to continue publishing it unless it meets critical evaluations of analytical soundness that bears scrutinization.

    So where do Cliff’s writings fall in this? Historically significant or analytically sound? If the socialist movements of the last century had really grown to a point where Cliff’s text had the same number of readers as Mein Kampf or the Protocols then one could justify a republication based upon that alone. Unfortunately, that has not happened yet.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 26, 2012 @ 12:33 am

  17. I can only concur with Louis’ last comment that resolving the crisis of leadership of the world working class (and all its national divisions) is of utter importance. I found Pham’s critique of T. Cliff’s book “jointed” more than disjointed, quite informative, and, most of all, gels remarkably with my own “understanding” of Lenin’s role in party-building that I gained within the U.S. SWP. That is to say, of all the most excellent experiences I had as a member of that party, the most disjointed and confounding of them was precisely on “our” explanation of the organization question. It took me many years after having left to realize that the pseudo-principles of what passed for democratic centralism in my Party were simply misguided and even a longer time and with Louis’ and others writings on Lenin’s, the Bolshevik’s, and the early Comintern’s history to realize that my instincts for what a revolutionary party should be were much more in line with the historical reality than the one seemingly contrived in what has become the sectarian tragedy of much (though not all) the Trotskyist currents within the revolutionary movement.
    My view is the comrade Binh’s paper is not only illuminating about what was too murky a period for me, but wholly and directly related to the experiences of the Occupy movement; no, not in the sense that I believe the Occupy movement is like the RSDLP or any such fantasy, but in the sense of how revolutionary marxists with an eye toward learning how to act within a mass movement can use a more accurate history of previous revolutionary movements to guide them.
    The masses are indeed stirring throughout the world and they will not do so as Russians might have done in 1905 or 1917. So, it is best we understand as historically accurate as we can how previous revolutionaries who also did not have a “blueprint” conducted themselves within a revolutionary ferment. The most important part of Binh’s contribution is the method for reviewing critically the previous writings so many of us used to guide us, with the seemingly cold but ultimately honest and honorable tradition of revolutionary truth-telling–with a caring heart and a “straight head”. I am heartened and thirsty for this historical accuracy. I can make the connections to the issues of our times myself.

    Comment by Manuel Barrera — January 26, 2012 @ 12:46 am

  18. To use the fact that an academic book on Lenin by Tony Cliff that might might contain, like most books do, contains certain errors or inaccuracies or has an analysis that diverges from a critic’s political perspective as a basis for its not being published or sold is an obvious call for infringing on the free discourse of ideas, which is one thing. Comparing Cliff’s works to those of Hitler is something more outrageous altogether. Tellingly our troll considers ideas of socialist movement generally as something not worthy of circulation.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 12:54 am

  19. I’m sure that Cliff handed down in good faith what was generally considered the received wisdom regarding Lenin and I’m sure there’s much else in his work regarding Lenin and revolution that is worthy (you’re making me want to read it). I’m sure you could pick any leader from that period and they would all have had the same analysis, in theory at least. The difference was ISO’s more easygoing practice. Moreover, if there’s any other lesson we should have learned from our history is not copping a dogmatic and condescending attitude towards people something we definitely need to avoid in approaching Occupy and activists from ISO who we should be viewing as our allies. Thus I regret the tone and spirit of this article which I would concede is well intentioned.

    In this regard, wasn’t Ted Grant of the Militant Tendency a guy from that generation who most deconstructed this whole organizational thing along these lines? I note he also derided the sanctimonious hectoring style of what he called “the sects”.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 1:08 am

  20. “like most books do, contains certain errors or inaccuracies”

    Such books usually will go out of print eventually within the normal academic world, and be followed by other books which do a better job. The characteristic of keeping a particular book in print when it has clearly long since been surpassed is a political trait, not a normal academic one.

    “for its not being published or sold is an obvious call for infringing on the free discourse of ideas”

    No, that is your invention. Used book stores exist and are always selling old books that are currently out of print. That is different from publishing a book anew on the grounds that it is somehow supposed to be of steady current interest.

    “Comparing Cliff’s works to those of Hitler”

    The only context in which your insinuations that the book should be kept in print by professional publishers (as opposed to merely being sold at used book stores the way millions of books are sold all the time) could make any sense would be one where the book has a particular historical significance which goes beyond the quality of analysis contained in the text. Hence historians have a reason for wanting the text made available even when they reject the claims which it contains. The Protocols of Zion and Mein Kampf are indeed perfect examples of such texts. But no one has shown any special significance to Cliff’s books that would motivate keeping them in print on these grounds rather than, say, replacing them in the publishing line with something by Lars Lih.

    “our troll considers ideas of socialist movement generally as something not worthy of circulation”

    That’s your own dishonest obfuscation. Cliff’s books can continue to circulate in used book stores and actual publishers would do better to drop his books in favor or either Lars Lih or something analogous that has a stronger scholarly foundation.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 26, 2012 @ 1:23 am

  21. In other words, now’s not the time to pick a faction fight with ISO

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 1:24 am

  22. Bihn: “I started this piece months before Occupy emerged….”

    Forget what I wrote above then. Not just a waste of time, but an obscene waste of time. I can just see you, Binh, pouring through the endnotes, exultant beyond belief every now and then when you locate an error. Very sad life if you ask me. Thank God (or not) that Occupy came along to give you something else to do. Louis: “a very important contribution” Really? I’ve read bathroom graffiti with more profound implications for the left.

    I am all for a debate on Lenin’s relevance to the movement today, and temperamentally averse to dogma, from the organized left or any other source, but this is an incoherent screed from someone who really needs to get over himself. Louis’s puffing him up as the authentic voice of the Occupy sensibility is exactly the wrong kind of medicine, and has obviously gone to his head. And Rosanna: are you telling us that “the average working class folk do not join socialist groups” because they are wise to Cliff’s mistakes in Lenin volume 1? Well it is nice to finally meet someone with their finger on the pulse. Pity I hadn’t done so thirty-five or so years ago. Where does one encounter these average wc folk? How do they dress? What kind of food do they like to eat?

    Comment by bringiton — January 26, 2012 @ 1:28 am

  23. This may be the sentence which you are getting confused by:

    “Bookmarks in Britain and Haymarket Books in the U.S. should think twice before republishing, selling, and profiting from Building the Party since it contains so many errors, falsehoods, and lies about Lenin.”

    If Haymarket Books were merely a publishing unit run by the ISO or the SWP-UK then there would be no reason to tell them what to publish. Parties have the right to publish their own literature in their own name. But when a supposedly independent publisher carries something to press then it calls for a more critical evaluation.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 26, 2012 @ 1:31 am

  24. I’m not sure what McNallly’s connection with the Left is to where he can lecture us on our character and mores or what we should publish or not publish. Proyect tells us that he is a Holocaust denier who was bounced off other fora but considers him welcome here. Take it somewhere else asshole!

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 1:31 am

  25. For what it’s worth, Volume 2 of Cliff’s biography of Lenin is the more well known “Lenin 1914-17, All Power to the Soviets” that ISO used to carry on its lit tables back in the 70s. I had never heard of Vol 1 before exactly, but had heard good things about this volume.

    http://www.amazon.com/All-Power-Soviets-Lenin-1914-1917/dp/1931859108/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1327542587&sr=1-1

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 1:53 am

  26. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Cliff

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 2:00 am

  27. To return to an unaddressed query in Bringiton’s post #1– (To paraphrase) Given Pham’s much trumpeted move towards “autonomism” (“movementism”) today– the hegemonic orientation driving such dead-end perspectives as Los Indignados and Occupy– what, if anything, does he think Lenin has to say to those who struggle against capitalism today?? In contrast to scholastic quibbles over stick-bending such as this, John Riddle, for example, is publishing very interesting material on the early years of the 3rd International, especially in Germany, which re-raise important questions about the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, and how leaders like Paul Levi understood and tried to implement the united front as both a tactic and a strategy. To its credit, the ISO, has been pursuing this in its theoretical journal for some time now. Louis Proyect has also written on this in Marxmail and the distortions introduced, primarily by Zinoviev, into “orthodox Leninism.” How many dead sticks do we want to beat?????

    Comment by Bob Montgomery — January 26, 2012 @ 2:45 am

  28. What kind of food do they like to eat?

    Very recondite contribution on the chronology of the formation of the Bolshevik Party. You should expand on this and submit it to Historical Materialism.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 26, 2012 @ 2:45 am

  29. “And Rosanna: are you telling us that “the average working class folk do not join socialist groups” because they are wise to Cliff’s mistakes in Lenin volume 1? Well it is nice to finally meet someone with their finger on the pulse. Pity I hadn’t done so thirty-five or so years ago. Where does one encounter these average wc folk? How do they dress? What kind of food do they like to eat?”

    To Bringiton: You have beautifully demonstrated exactly what I was talking about. The average working class person is not a political intellectual. Confronted by responses just like yours, which are sarcastic, belittling to their intelligence and uninviting to any movement and is obviously not seeking to understand the criticism, they think to themselves: “Wow, ok, that guy is having Nerd- rage over some dead guy and party lines” and high-tail it from there.

    Comment by Rossana Moldovan — January 26, 2012 @ 5:46 am

  30. bringiton: What’s sad is when people hide behind the anonymity provided by comment threads to trash other people’s work because they have none of their own to show or stand by after 35 years. Bathroom graffiti has all the profundidity you can handle which goes a long way to explaining why you have no idea what Rossana is talking about.

    skid: Your definition does not square with Cliff’s, for example where he writes “It was fear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian ‘economism’ and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 that motivated Lenin to bend the stick right over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and toward the organisation of a national political party.” Lenin never emphasized “spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle.”

    You are using your disagreement with my view of “bending the stick” to avoid dealing with documented cases where Cliff completely misrepresented and distorted Lenin’s views.

    Pink Scare: the take home is that Cliff’s book is useless as a guide to action because it so flawed. The only chapters without appalling errors are those that consist of block quotes from Lenin on such questions as the peasantry, insurrection, and so on. The organization question is the core of “Building the Party” (hence the title) and Cliff is dead wrong on almost all counts on that score. If the ISO hasn’t suffered the fate of the British SWP it is precisely because it moved away from Cliff’s practices.

    Bob: I’m an autonomist? That’s news to me. I guess calling on the socialist left to get its act together with regards to Occupy is what passes for “movementist” these days.

    In closing, I find it strange and amusing that people are complaining that I am not writing about “what would Lenin say/do” with regards to Occupy. If comrades want a historical guide to action for the moment we are in today, I suggest the following by Engels (kudos to Joaquin Bustelo of Solidarity for sharing this one with me): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/03/13.htm

    Comment by Binh — January 26, 2012 @ 6:12 am

  31. An earlier examination of Cliff’s Leninism at http://links.org.au/node/2711

    Comment by Terry — January 26, 2012 @ 7:16 am

  32. re #8: “Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

    this is a false attribution, commonly made, as are many einstein “quotes” floating around the internet.

    Comment by jp — January 26, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

  33. A lot of these comments come across as treating Cliff like some infallible sacred cow whose writings are off limits to critique by other Marxists. And that somehow pointing out errors and misrepresentations of Lenin in Cliff’s book on a Marxist blog is detrimental to Occupy and building a wider movement! Where is reality here?

    Comment by Rick — January 26, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

  34. jp- Thanks for the correction. I know it’s hard to prove a negative, but how do you know it’s a false attribution.

    Tom Cod – Vol.3,The Revolution Besieged, I’d always thought the most vital, and I assume controversial.

    Binh – I admire the work in Occupy and many of the things you’ve said here and else where, which is the reason I think it’s worth replying.

    You say:
    “stick bending,” by which Cliff means deliberately and one-sidedly overemphasising something one day and then the opposite thing the next day in different circumstances.
    I say.
    No, stick bending does not mean doing X one day and not-X the next
    [Note: not-X means the opposite of X, not just something different from X]
    You say:
    Cliff praises Lenin for bending the stick to do X rather than not-X. When does Lenin advocate not-X.
    I say:
    You’re just repeating your distortion of what Cliff said.
    Further, who ever advocated “fragmented” struggles? You’re asking the impossible.
    Lenin is saying that “The overemphasis of “economic” agitation and catering to the “mass” movement were natural” and was a “step forward”.
    In Chapter 2 we read:
    “While in prison in 1895, he wrote a draft program for the Social Democrats. This document was smuggled out of jail, then lost and rediscovered only after the revolution. It is an interesting work, summing up very clearly Lenin’s views on Ob Agitatsii. He wrote:

    This transition of the workers to the steadfast struggle for their vital needs, the fight for concessions, for improved living conditions, wages, and working hours, now begun all over Russia, means that Russian workers are making tremendous progress, and that is why the attention of the Social Democratic Party and all class-conscious workers should be concentrated mainly [my emphasis – TC] on this struggle, on its promotion.

    Rick – nobody is saying that. There’s a difference in asking for criticism that’s worthy of the name.

    Rosanna – if the socialist movement had always been anti-intellectual, we would never have had Marx,Engels or Lenin. Maybe you think that’s a good thing, but the general purpose of debating Lenin’s ideas and the interpretation of them would seem to be rendered irrelevant.

    Comment by skidmarx — January 26, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

  35. This is an interesting discussion and debate, and one that has been in progress (in it’s current form) since around 1981. I have been following it for three years and have learned a lot. There are many Marxists who agree with the outline presented by Binh and there are many Marxists, who have also read Lenin, who disagree. So far, so good. Ultimately, however, it seems to me that it is impossible to ascertain the validity of this approach until this assessment takes on some kind of organizational form. Then we will see how this current deals with organizational and political questions of a programmatic nature, and how it deals with manifest differences that will be as certain as red on a Robin. Who will be considered a member? How will the organization be financed? How will the leadership be selected and further developed? How will it’s publications be handled? How will majority rule be implemented? What will be the approach to the unions and the union leadership? To elections, and who can and who cannot be supported? To questions of an international scope, like Cuba, Iran and Libya. And yes, will the subjective and objective conditions of today and tomorrow allow for recruitment on a grander scale than currently exists with the small socialist parties already in existence. Do you you see the launching of an organization that brings these ideas to brick and mortar as being on the agenda in the near future or further down the road?

    Comment by dave r — January 26, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  36. Apologies Pham for the “autonomist” attribution– my bad. Asking the left to “get its act together” re Occupy? Yes, I’d love to hear more discussion focused around that. It just seems we’ve dissected “orthodox vanguardism” until there’s nothing left but bones (“dead sticks”). The left has to engage Occupy; it will reappear in some guise down the road and it seems we were pretty much shut out by the anarchists who were running the show this time. As Trotsky used to say, history itself has given us a knock on the skull.

    Comment by bob montogmery — January 26, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

  37. For most of us who have been around the US for a long time, the prime avatar of this outlook that wears it on its sleeve so to speak, is the American Socialist Workers Party that we came out of whose “Leninist-Trotskyist” theory and practice was, and is, much, much, more egregious than that of Cliff and the ISO, who were viewed as petty bourgoisified and soft on these questions by the SWP. Thus I think if you had pilloried the works of Cannon and his acolytes as your foil, your presentation would have been more well taken as we are all pretty much completely estranged from that outfit, whereas ISO is a trend we view as a serious political ally. Cliff is a guy I remember being constantly mocked on the basis of ostensible marxist orthodoxy by the likes of Healy-and to a lesser extent the US SWP-as a Marcusian, Menshevik, petty bourgois, counter-cultural camp follower, a guy who would “tail end” stuff like Occupy instead of righteously abstaining from it, etc., etc,. Thus the knee jerk response to want to defend Cliff, as an example of the better non-sectarian elements among the “trotskyist movement” when he is seen under attack. Cliff and his followers are not some kind of objective Stalinists on this question and should not be demonized as if they were.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

  38. In other words bringing this up now in this context comes across as sectarian, something we need to eschew.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

  39. It doesn’t matter so much what you think of Cannon (who is, in my view, one of the great rebels produced by the U.S. labor movement), or what you think of Cliff, of whom I know little. The question is what kind of response will your ideas have when presented to youth, students, workers and middle-class allies of the working-class in the present period.

    Comment by dave r — January 26, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

  40. skidmarx: I didn’t mean “one day” and “the next day” in the literal sense of 24 hours. If that is what you think I meant regarding stick-bending then I chose my words poorly.

    To me, the analogy of “bending the stick” and then later bending it in another direction does not communicate simply “changing emphasis,” it communicates exaggerating in one direction and then in another direction later on, in different circumstances. This is why I am not the only one who questions the validity of the concept — it is one of the most common objections to Building the Party, including by people within the IST (see http://www.isreview.org/issues/61/letters.shtml as well as Pink Scare’s comment here).

    I have no interest in distorting Cliff’s meaning — it would only detract from my credibility, and if the “stick bending” part of my review was removed, the essentials of my review would still stand.

    To respond to the Cliff quote you pasted, if you look at what Cliff is quoting from (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1895/misc/x01.htm), you’ll find that Lenin is not talking about Ob Agitatsii, Lenin is describing the increasing maturity of the Russian workers’ movement in 1895. Why Cliff asserted that this represented Lenin’s view of Ob Agitatsii is beyond me, but it only adds more evidence to support the point I made in my review: either Cliff read Lenin and distorted his views (intentionally or not), or he did not read what Lenin had to say.

    Also, Rossana did not advocate “anti-intellectualism.” She is pointing out that our hyper-intellectualism (and the kind baseless accusations and weak personal attacks leveled at me in this thread) drives away working-class people from the socialist movement, hence why Occupy has succeeded where we have not. In fact, Occupy has, in many respects, functioned like the “vanguard party” Leninists claim to favor: it functioned as a level to raise the level of self-activity of workers and oppressed people and stood up for all of the oppressed and exploited regardless of their class background (OWS was marching for Troy Davis within its first week, for example).

    Bob: Apology accepted. I’ve never been called an “autonomist” or a “movementist” so I was puzzled by your comment. I have over a dozen items written about Occupy (see: http://planetanarchy.net/articles.htm) and the main one that would probably interest you is here: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/occupy-and-the-tasks-of-socialists/ I look forward to hearing your feedback.

    Comment by Binh — January 26, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  41. Surely so, and in order to get a response, one must intervene in mass struggles, not abstain from them or exude an authoritarian ethos that is alien to the popular masses. DeLeon was a great working class leader and the Socialist Labor Party was a worthy organization in its day, but their relevance to today’s struggle is minimal. In that sense, Binh’s perspective is dead-on.

    Comment by Tom Cod — January 26, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

  42. One must intervene in the class struggle. If there are mass struggles going on, all the better.

    Comment by dave r — January 26, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

  43. re #34: easiest way to determine authenticity of a quote is to try to source it. i once almost used a different einstein ‘quote’ (regarding buddhism) that i had seen used in seemingly credible works, but it failed a search for primary source. there is also a good book on einstein quotes that has a chapter on the ones that are false or not capable of attribution.

    Comment by jp — January 26, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

  44. Cliff wrote his Lenin biography for a purpose, not for the hell of it. He was seeking to transform the looser, more open IS group into a more disciplined party in some form; so he leant on Lenin to do it. He’s also been pilloried ever since by other Leninists for getting it wrong and fudging the history to suit his own purposes. The pamphlet by Bruce Landau (Levine) that was mentioned above is an early example from the 1970s by a former member of the US IS who joined the US SWP: http://links.org.au/node/2711

    I haven’t read Cliff’s work, only his detractors. Now I’ve been reading Lih and find him somewhat better than the other biographies I previously enjoyed (Liebman and LeBlanc). I think Binh’s work is valuable because Cliff’s writings have been used as a party-building guide by IST groups around the world. I doubt the books would still be in print if they were aimed at, say, an academic audience. But they have the membership of the organisation to keep buying them and therefore give them a kind of respectability that they may not deserve under independent scrutiny.

    If Binh is trying to untie the knots that bind the US left (and more power to him) then looking at the party-building models of the different groups is probably a good idea. Re-evaluating sacred cows is necessary, whether or not it’s crucial to the politics of today.

    I always hated the “bending the stick” term. What stick? I’ve also seen it translated as “bending the bow” which seems to make a little more sense. In that case it would mean “taking aim” which is not about exaggeration but focus. I wonder if Lih can tell us how accurately this term, too, has been translated. It’s potentially also an excuse for cherry-picking what “lessons” we take from Lenin if we can say that on other occasions he was “bending the stick” and therefore a bit too exaggerated to be relevant.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — January 26, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

  45. I always hated the “bending the stick” term.

    I should mention that this was a term frequently heard in the SWP during the early period of the “turn”. After I quit the SWP after a Chaplinesque bid to “go into industry”, my friend Nelson Blackstock who was fairly slavish in his attitude toward Barnes told me that I should have not even tried to go into industry since it was not meant for me. The party, he said, was “bending the stick” in order to make the turn successful. Once the turn was complete, the stick would return to normal. As it turned out, the stick kept being bent until the party reached the state it is today: a bizarre cult of perhaps 125 mostly aging members.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 27, 2012 @ 12:55 am

  46. Looking at some specific points made by Binh, I’m not super impressed. To take one example : why should Cliff base his description of issues debated at the Third Congress on Lenin’s brief agitational report rather than on the minutes of the congress – as he does ? (Whether he does it after Schwarz is rather irrelevant, the question is : did this debate happen or not ?).
    Of course you need a smattering of Russian to check it did, but not being able to check does not mean it’s not there. The minutes happen to be downloadable, I checked, and the debate mentioned is there alright, taking up a substantial place in the proceedings : http://publ.lib.ru/ARCHIVES/K/KPSS/03_s%27ezd_RSDRP.(1959).%5bdjv%5d.zip )

    Comment by Ilestre — January 27, 2012 @ 9:10 am

  47. I think I have a fairly good understanding of your theoretical approach, but I still haven’t a clue what you propose to do about it. And please don’t think I’m being snarkly, because I’m not. In 1975, activists around the U.S. Guardian newspaper, a progressive/socialist newsweekly that was mildly Maoist with an eclectic approach without a distinct programmatic line, and which reported competently on a wide range of struggles, set out to form a new party based on a looser set of guiding principles they hoped could unite activists from different traditions under one roof. And this was during a period in time when real, as opposed to imaginary, mass movements existed, although by then they were in a gradual state of decline. The effort didn’t last long as everyone so inclined to radical ideas continued to join the DSA, the CP, the SWP or the RCP. A similar outlook surfaced around 1981 with the North Star, which also proved to be unsuccessful. On numerous occasions you have described the OWS to be highly significant, which you have characterized as an uprising, with a similar historical significance as the rise of the CIO in the 1930’s and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. In light of this, do you see the implementation of an organization or perhaps a publication that embodies these overall principles, including your framework for a party, or do you think this remains a task of the future? Frankly, without mass explosions in the working-class, I don’t see how it would be anything other than another organization with another periodical. I know I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me, but I think the most likely variant in all of this will be the formation of a revolutionary labor party that opens it’s membership to the broad masses. When that happens, hopefully in the lifetime of some of us old timers, we’ll see who joins in and who is left behind.

    Comment by dave r — January 27, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

  48. Dave, the goal is a party fairly similar to Lenin’s party. But the problem is in how to get there. Groups like the SWP, either British or American, start out with the premise that a tiny version of the Bolshevik Party can “assemble cadre” until it reaches the size of a mass party. I have heard ISO’ers state that the Bolsheviks were quite tiny in 1908 so these sorts of expectations were not unwarranted. What they don’t understand is that the Bolsheviks (and the Russian social democracy in all its components) were part of a mass movement that had millions of adherents. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks were organized nothing like the SWP. They never expelled anybody, including the central committee members who broke discipline in 1917 to oppose the insurrection. By contrast, SWP’ers were expelled for disagreeing with Jack Barnes that Lenin’s democratic dictatorship theory was superior to Lenin’s permanent revolution theory. This would be the equivalent of Lenin expelling somebody for their position on Robespierre.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 27, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

  49. I understand you want to see a party in-line with what you believe to be the real character of Lenin’s party, but what I’m asking is what you plan to do to move this perspective forward? Do you think the project is, at this point, still essentially a literary discussion? Of course I disagree with the content of your last sentence but this is not the time or place to discuss that.

    Comment by dave r — January 27, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

  50. What do I plan to do? Well, I turned 67 yesterday and have no plans to “do anything” except continuing to write.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 27, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

  51. Also, I was in the SWP for many, many years and I for one never thought — especially after the first year or two — that there would be a linear line of growth until the party became a mass party. I did not rule it out a priori, but I always thought, and I think most likely the SWP thinks today, that the qualitative break-through will be the emergence of a labor party born of mass unrest inside the working-class. I believe the ISO has a similar perspective, but I could be wrong about that. And the SWP and the ISO acts upon this by, among other things, maintaining two impressive publishing houses, which is quite the contribution. I’m just trying to figure out what someone with your outlook thinks should be done.

    Comment by dave r — January 27, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

  52. Okay, well good. I asked a question and you provided an answer. I like that. And happy birthday to you. Please tell me your not working anymore.

    Comment by dave r — January 27, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

  53. And when I ask “what do ‘you’ plan to do”, I’m not just asking you as an individual, obviously, but those of ‘you’ — a fairly sizable number from what I can tell — who agree with the framework you and others have proposed.

    Comment by dave r — January 27, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

  54. @Louis, Happy Birthday!

    Comment by Rossana Moldovan — January 28, 2012 @ 5:57 am

  55. Dave R: as always you ask the important questions in a pointed way. I suspect Lou’s reaction to your question is conditioned by the way he gets asked the same thing by people who are singularly incapable of thinking (much less acting) outside whatever little box of “Marxism” they subscribe to.

    I outlined very clearly what the first steps I think should be taken in my Tasks piece. So far there has been zero response from any socialist organization in the U.S. About 20 individuals (some in groups, some not) responded, so that is the beginning. I have heard that the piece was circulated widely and that many people “liked” it, but the fact that for all that liking only 1-2 dozen people actually went beyond the realm of abstract agreement to taking the smallest, easiest practical step possible (sending an email to begin collaboration) is discouraging. It leads me to conclude that the Marxist left in the U.S. is in a bigger crisis than I first thought when Occupy erupted and they/we were M.I.A., although since it’s an open invitation and I’m open to working with anyone I hope to hear from more comrades soon.

    The problem with the existing socialist groups is that they are not set up to facilitate the working-class rebellion you speak of. I recently learned that almost all the cadres, some of them militants in the teachers union, quit their local socialist organization after it continually vacillated between giving their members no lead in the unions to unclear instructions on whether or not to run for union office. This organization has suffered resignations and expulsions in the last two years precisely as the class struggle has begun to heat up and the left began to really cohere (prior to Occupy). This is no coincidence. The higher the level of struggle, the more difficulties these groups will face because they are not built to handle it, they are incapable of growing dramatically when the level of struggle surges upward, and they are not providing a political lead to shape the struggle overall.

    In light of all this, I think we should put aside models that don’t work and start experimenting with something else. As Malcolm X said, “it’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg.” A lot that is going to be improvisation, false starts, and outright failures a la the Guardian. I for one am not afraid of making mistakes and learning from them. After all, there would be no Occupy Wall Street if there hadn’t been Bloombergville, and no Bloombergville without Wisconsin.

    Comment by Binh — January 28, 2012 @ 7:56 am

  56. Just out of interest, any one here read Maurice Brinton’s the Bolsheviks and Workers Control? It may be relevant to peruse, given the revolutionary party strategy people here seem to be adopting, in terms of the potential problems of this approach. Any one able to address his criticisms sufficiently? Perhaps louis should do a blog post about it.

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — January 29, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

  57. I’ve looked at it but not with any great depth. It has a major methodological flaw: he treats relations of production as being totally separate from forces of production. He completely ignores the industrial collapse and the famine created by the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the civil war. You can’t have workers control of factories when all the factories are closed and the workers are digging up grass in the countryside because they’re hungry.

    Comment by Binh — January 29, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

  58. You may find the exchange between Brinton and Chris Harman of interest :
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1971/xx/kronstadt.htm and http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1972/no052/brinton.htm

    Comment by ilestre — January 30, 2012 @ 8:23 am

  59. Thanks for your answer Binh and the links ilestre. I do have an abiding affection for Chris Harman’s People’s History of the World, as its the kind of book one can keep going back to and finding relevant, underepresented and interesting historical episodes and perspectives. I have to say I keep shifting on how I view Lenin and Trotsky, and especially the relationship of party to class, and whether it presents a viable strategy. Sometimes, after much study, I think, yes- there is a lot one can take from both of them, in terms of practical political perspectives and advice, i.e. united fronts, etc. But then again, I notice consideriable and undeniable problems in how they viewed getting to socialism, the tendency towards an ultra-centrism and substitutionism, which Trotsky himself noticed all the way back in the early 1900’s in Lenin’s party (especially under pressure) and of which he himself engaged in an egregious fashion when he attempted to militarise the trade unions and proclaimed that “In the subsitution of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental… the Communists express the fundamental interest of the working class” this after repressing activists, such as LeftSRs,anarchists, and even dissident Bolsheviks who were often much more consistent in defending working class interests and the right to their autonomy and freedom in the face of the ‘workers’ state’. These kind of attitudes and activities make me want to throw in the towel on Bolshevism altogether, and become some kind of anarchosyndicalist or anarchist communist (libertarian socialist) as it seems a much more democratic, revolutionary, libertarian and socialist current (libertarian is a word the radical Left should reclaim by the way, since it originated with us, specifically a French socialist anarchist in the 19th C who first used the term libertarian as a political idea and expression- the fact that its been appropriated by the reactionary right, who don’t even know where the term came from, fills me with disgust.) Also, the constant parroting of Trotsky’s “crisis of revolutionary leadership” and (some) Trotskyist groups who have the singular delusion that if only they led the working class, they wouldn’t sell them out like the social democrats and trade union bureaucrats because of their revolutionary purity, “scientific” ideas, and dedication- thus forgetting Marx’s injuction “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. Then again, I do like Alexandra Kollontai’s works quite a bit. But is that really enough to redeem the lived historical experience of Bolshevism, even though I realise the exagerrated and inflated monstrosity made out of the Bolshies by right wing historians is over the top, as if they were tyrants on the level of Genghis Khan and did not have to deal with a country at war with itself, invaded by over 10 armies, in a state of total disrepair and collapse, all at a level of underdevelopment equivalent to Pakistan today, poverty, extreme and almost universal illiteracy, and the legacy of a thousand years of Tsarism- and those who imagine this could all be swept under the rug and comfortably resolved in a few brief years are spouting claptrap. After all, for however brutal the Russian civil war was, it is often not looked at (deliberately, I think in the case of right wing historians) comparatively with over revolutions. More Americans were killed per proportion of population in the American Civil War. But how often is Abraham Lincolin called a despot or an authoritarian? presumably, historians think it was justified because, in some limited way in the very least, it would do something to resolve the horrors of slavery. Or the English Civil War, which played a major role in ensuring parliamentary democracy could have a foothold in Britain, and, from what I understand, killed a third of the population at that time. Of course, any harm that comes to human beings should trouble a decent socialist. We are democrats and humanists after all, and we want to see the free development of each as the condition for the free development of all. But that does not mean we should not make this kind of historical analysis and factual assertions.

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — January 30, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  60. Sounds like you ask yourself lots of good questions !… I grappled with the same questions myself for a long time, as I think anybody coming to anarchism/socialism should – and my own trajectory has very much taken me from anarchism to bolshevism. I think the main thing to ask oneself is not whether the bolsheviks were always right or not, there was often disagreement amongst different bolsheviks in any case, and at any rate the party obviously lost its way at some point. It is interesting to determine exactly when and how (1918 ? 1921 ? 1924 ? 1928 ?…) but the main thing which is really important for organising today are, it seems to me :
    – whether it is a fact that political consciousness being uneven, the most revolutionary workers must organise separately while always aiming at helping the movement of the rest of the class
    – whether a socialist revolution necessitates a forcible seizure of power by the main parts of the working class replacing the capitalist state with other structures capable of defeating any attempt at counter-revolution
    Those two things, I would say, determine whether one is fundamentally a revolutionary marxist rather than a reformist or an anarchist. The debate on the exact analysis of how one views the history of the Bolshevik party takes an entirely different shape whether one agrees on these points or not.

    Comment by ilestre — January 30, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

  61. I would generally agree with that. And I would be the last to not notice considerable problems within anarchism, that is, anybody can attach themselves to it and make their own meaning out of it- but then again, socialists have done that too! I would regard the mainstream of anarchism as part of the socialist movement, often its most radical wing, as the book Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism asserts. Unfortunately, there are some profoundly misguided tendencies within anarchism, which can’t simply be hidden away in the closet when other guests arrive and claim this tendency doesn’t exist, like some class struggle anarchists do. But the Platformist tendency in anarchism is pro-organisational, radically democratic, internationalist, libertarian, and essentially defends a vision of socialism that is based on a radical council democracy and democratic planning, as decentralised as possible while not making a complete fetish out of never accepting any level of centralisation- if a situation demands a little bit of centralisation, Platformists won’t yell and scream about the betrayal of the revolution. And if a situation demands more dentralisation, they are all for it. The question is not simply one of principle, but of what is required and what can be done in a particular situation. Which is much better than some Leninists who equate political and economic co-ordination with excessive centralisation. They also accept the nuanced position of Rosa Luxemburg on reform and revolution, which a lot of anarchists don’t. So it does look like they have almost all the angels on their side- although I would say there is always a tendency of political groups to always try and do this, which can cover over real problems in their particular history.

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — January 31, 2012 @ 1:35 am

  62. There’s a three part review of Black Flame by Workers’ Liberty which I have included as a link, with responses from the prominent anarchist Iain Mckay (i.e. “Anarcho”) http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/05/10/all-feathered-new-defence-anarchism

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — January 31, 2012 @ 3:25 am

  63. Paul LeBlanc responds to me without addressing the evidence I presented:
    http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?page=article&id_article=24112

    Comment by Binh — January 31, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  64. red star: my perspective is close to what Schmidt and van der Walt describe in “Black Flame”, although I think that they exaggerate the openness of late 19th and 20th Century anarchism to racial and gender equality

    as you know, the importance of their perspective is the insistence upon grounding anarchism within the context of class struggle, while being more open to people outside of the proletariat, like the peasantry

    similarly, their profiles of anarchist struggles outside of Europe in the lesser developed world is an important, excavated history

    they are supposedly working on another volume through to the present day (“Black Flame” is, after all, Volume 1), and it will be interesting to see how they address cultural trends within anarchism in the last 30 or 40 years

    appreciate the link, and look forward to reading the review

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 31, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

  65. Good to know people like you are out there Richard. We need more of you! So much anarchist history has either been ignored, denigrated, and papered over, and I think Black Flame goes a long way to rescuing it as a political and intellectual tradition. I really do wish Platformist-like anarchists had much larger and stronger organisations around the globe, as their perspective has a lot to contribute. Because, after all, it has been poor organisation which has historically defeated anarchists, even when there were quite strong (i.e. China in the 1910’s and early 20s)which had disasterous consequences when Stalinism infected the Left, labour, and movements for freedom and liberation, see link http://anarchism.pageabode.com/andrewnflood/anarchist-history-chinese-revolution I think an alliance between these kind of anarchists and revolutionary socialists (of whatever strain- especially dissident or post-Trots, Luxemburgists,etc) especially would be useful, because although they may have considerable disagreements over the Rus Rev, they are both committed to building mass movements and mass organisations, as opposed to completely focusing on lifestylist and an alternate-institutionist approach (as if mass organisations have never been able to become alternative institutions! think of the early German Social Democratic Party, which was like a society of its own inside Germany). Not that I condemn people who do it- after all, I enjoy frequenting alternative and left bookstores, etc, but to delude yourself that by doing that you’re undermining capitalism, well, that’s going a little too far. Unfortunately, many ‘Libertarian Marxists’ and autonomists appear to have imbibed an anti-organisationalist perspective, leaving them thinking spontaniety will solve everything, unwilling to accept strategic and tactical flexibility- as Wayne Price puts it: ” the libertarian Marxists have been so traumatized by Leninism that they reject almost all revolutionary organization–making it almost impossible to understand why they themselves organize, if they do… Autonomous Marxism, then, is weak in the same areas that much of anarchism is weak. It does not see the need for self-organization of revolutionaries. It is strategically inflexible, in particular opposed to working inside unions, the main mass organizations of the working class. And it has not been able to transcend key weaknesses of Marxism, particularly the automaticity of the Marxist view of history.”

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — February 1, 2012 @ 3:27 am

  66. I agree with Price re: Leninism and trauma. This is exactly what I found among the OWS campers who called themselves the “class war camp.” (See http://selectingstones.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/class-war-camp.jpg and look them up via Google.)

    Red Star you and I should talk via email because I am looking for allies/collaborators on the black end of the red-black flag.

    Comment by Binh — February 1, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

  67. I’d like to help Binh, but I probably can’t offer you too much beyond generalisations and pointing you in certain directions for the kind of anarchists I’m talking about, since I’m on the other side of the world in Australia. There are some resources I can recommended to you though. Anarkismo is probably the best one, representing the tendency I’m talking about, and you can find links to all their organisations across the world there, including the US one which is called Common Struggle- Libertarian Communist Federation http://www.anarkismo.net/about_us http://nefac.net/ The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front, located in South Africa, is an excellent resource, they have their own journal, a large number of free, high quality pamphlets you can download from Zabalaza books, which you can find down the bottom of the page http://zabalaza.net/ Keep up the good work with your stuff on OWS by the way. I’m finding it very informative. If you’re interested, check out my blog http://theredstartwinklesmischievously.wordpress.com/ I started not too long ago (and haven’t yet had the time to regularly update it to keep up with events) but I think I’ve got a decent layout and when I start getting more active be able to contribute high quality work to it at somewhat regular intervals.

    Comment by the red star twinkles mischievously — February 2, 2012 @ 1:44 am

  68. Pham Binh’s piece has been re-printed in today’s “Weekly Worker”, Thursday 2 Feb. It’s the cover story (a photo of Tony Cliff in full flow) & 3 full pages. It’s @ cpgb.org.uk

    For those who may not know, “Weekly Worker” is the newspaper of a group of Marxists in the UK, very small in number but quite well known on the left. They originated as anti-Eurocommunists within the Communist Party of Great Britain, were expelled, and when the CPGB dissolved they adopted as their name the CPGB (Provisional Central Committee). Marxists who write for their paper include Moshe Machover, Hillel Ticktin, and Paul Cockshott & Allin Cottrell.

    Comment by Calum — February 2, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

  69. I should also have said that cpgb.org.uk also has many hours of high-definition videos of Lars Lih discussing both Lenin and Kautsky. There is much to be learnt from them.

    Comment by Calum — February 2, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

  70. They used a terrible photo of Cliff.

    Comment by Binh — February 2, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

  71. I do not understand how a review of a work on Lenin can be dedicated seemingly sarcastically “to anyone and everyone has sacrificed in the name of “building the revolutionary party.”” I have plenty of political problems with Tony Cliff and the political tendency around him (and I think the previously linked http://links.org.au/node/2711 take down of Cliff on Lenin does a great job of going into that), but how can arguing Cliff made a hash of Lenin lead to being sarcastic about the idea of building the revolutionary party?

    I do think that “(another falsehood that runs throughout Building the Party is the notion that Bolsheviks and/or the central committee were “his”)” is a good point–the same idea of Lenin as a “unique genius” is a problem with Lukacs’s pamphlet on Lenin (that is much better for understanding Lenin that Cliff’s book).

    To go back to the problem of the dedication, its not just the dedication but the thrust of the essay and its conclusion which leaves one wondering whether Lenin is the target of the take down as much as Cliff as it seems to amount to suggesting one should not build an organization around intransigent political principles and clarity rather than one should do it but that Cliff’s politics are an obstacle to that.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 3, 2012 @ 4:11 am

  72. Jason, I don’t understand why you think I was being sarcastic. A lot of people in Britain, the U.S., and elsewhere have spent a good chunk of their lives trying to party-build thanks to Cliff’s book. They deserve to know the truth about its content.

    Don’t you agree?

    Comment by Binh — February 3, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

  73. It comes across as if you’re throwing out the idea of sacrificing to build the party rather than critiquing Cliff’s conception of it.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 4, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

  74. How so?

    Comment by Binh — February 5, 2012 @ 5:02 am

  75. For summary purposes, compare your essay to Landau’s essay–I can see people reading that one and coming away with a good idea of what is necessary whereas with yours they could come away with some idea of errors in Cliff’s writings but little of what it could mean to build the party. But since you’re the author, you could just clarify what you were attempting to accomplish.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 5, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

  76. Jason, I compared what Cliff said about Lenin and what Lenin said and did. The aim of this book review was narrow: to document the flagrant misrepresentations, errors, and falsehoods in Cliff’s book for future historians, activists, and the reading public.

    To enter into a discussion about what is valuable and applicable in the experience of the Bolsheviks to 2012 would have been way beyond the scope of a book review.

    My review sparked replies from Paul LeBlanc and Paul D’amato:

    http://links.org.au/node/2716 (PLB’s reply)
    http://links.org.au/node/2718 (my reply to PLB) http://links.org.au/node/2719 (PLB’s second reply to me with my point-by-point response in the comment section)
    http://links.org.au/node/2726 (D’amato’s reply)

    Lars Lih is also working on something that will take up the 1912 issue. Lih’s “Lenin Disputed” debate with Chris Harman and PLB is what sparked me interest in doing this book review in the first place, so it will be good to come full circle when he makes his thoughts and research on all of this public.

    Comment by Binh — February 6, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

  77. Another good reply to Pham Binh, by Paul d’Amato : http://links.org.au/node/2726

    Comment by ilestre — February 6, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

  78. ilestre, I already posted it. Good try though.

    Comment by Binh — February 7, 2012 @ 4:15 am

  79. Take the issue of party membership. You dispute Cliff’s characterization of its significance without making it understandable what you think of the issue at all (analyzing what from that debate applies to 2012 might be outside the scope of the review but is your position on its importance at that time that it was not significant?) I think it’s important to look at Cecilia Bobrovskaya’s Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik, esp. Chapter 6. She writes on the dispute on who could be a member that “It seemed to me that the side which wanted only those who would work actively in the Party to be members of the Party were right. Having worked in Russia I knew well enough how alien to us were those who occasionally, whenever it struck their fancy, offered us their help. That is why I could not understand why the Leninists were being blamed so much.”
    “How alien” those the Mensheviks wanted to be members were boiled down to class, something clear from reading her memiors. They were mostly professionals who were sympathetic but did not want to risk everything–fine accept their help, but why let them determine policy in the same way as the workers or those like Bobrovskaya who completely go over to the workers’ cause?

    I think that Lenin was basing himself consciously and organizationally on the struggles of the Russian working class and its most conscious elements and that the debate over the rules of party membership, while not in itself a “principle stage” to relate in Left Wing Communism, reflects in a clear way the growing divergence of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

    You note how the Mensheviks in 1906 adopted the rule, but the issue that the rule represented (basing the organization on the struggles of workers and their conscious control versus a kind of debating society “sympathy” of ideas) the academic Rabinowtich in keen enough to note in his work on the Russian revolution, that the Menshevik organization–even if the majority of the ranks of the workers may’ve sympathized with the Bolsheviks–was essentially controlled by “personalities” who could set party policy through their individual actions. Do you not think that’s important or that there’s no connection there to the debate in 1903?

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 10, 2012 @ 7:00 am

  80. Jason: I generally agree with Lenin’s take as set out in One Step Forward. Lars Lih noted that Lenin was basing his position on that question on the German SPD model and on common sense (every striker = a party member? Laughable.). Kautsky sided with the Mensheviks on that initially because neither of them thought this aspect of the SPD model would work in autocratic Russia.

    To say “there is a connection” between where the Mensheviks started (as a revolt against majority rule/control of the party and its organ in 1903) and where they ended up almost two decades later (in the Provisional Government in 1917, in White governments in 1918) is not specific or concrete enough to be of practical value. For example, Trotsky. Is it true that he “did not want to risk everything” for the revolution prior to joining the Bolsheviks in 1917? No.

    Cecilia Bobrovskaya’s memoir is great. Thank you for pointing it out to me.

    Comment by Binh — February 11, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

  81. I don’t think that the claim would be that the Mensheviks didn’t want to risk everything in general, but that in their wanting to allow people who were “alien” elements have an equal say reflected what Trotsky later said about himself at that time, that Lenin saw what was necessary to build the kind of party that could make a revolution clearer than he did.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 11, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

  82. I don’t buy Trotsky’s assessment. He went into the 1903 congress as an even more vociferous advocate of centralism than Lenin was. His vision for what the party should do after the congress was wage centrally-directed campaigns among the workers (Our Political Tasks, 1904). Centralism was never the issue, either in practice nor in theory.

    Comment by Binh — February 12, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

  83. Who said the issue was centralism? In the case of membership rules the issue is who gets to vote–and it’s a “tighter” or “looser” conception, but I do agree with you that that particular issue isn’t decisive for understanding the differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Which brings us back to the question of why did the Bolsheviks have to lead the October revolution against the Mensheviks?

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 14, 2012 @ 12:23 am

  84. Trotsky said the issue was centralism: “I thought of myself as a centralist. But there is no doubt that at that time I did not fully realize what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order.”

    Comment by Binh — February 14, 2012 @ 12:34 am

  85. […] page. It began, or reached prominance (as is also often the case) on Louis Proyect’s Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by The Lenin Wars (new outbreak) « Tomás Ó Flatharta — February 21, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

  86. I was commenting on the differences between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks not being able to be reduced to centralism. As for the differences between Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, Trotsky’s comment was not a well-rounded, theoretically complete statement but I think an fair summation if one takes it for what it is.

    Comment by Jason Rising — February 24, 2012 @ 7:30 am

  87. Lars Lih weighs in on the debate: http://links.org.au/node/2751

    Comment by Binh — February 28, 2012 @ 4:37 am

  88. […] Scare’s (PS) response  to the debate ignited by my review  of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party affords me the opportunity to clarify issues of […]

    Pingback by Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 27, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

  89. […] tent where Paul le Blanc & Gilbert Achcar took part in a seemingly endless discussion about Leninism. The TEAM people could be overheard telling the police that Paul and Gilbert had been kidnapped by […]

    Pingback by OCCUPY MARXISM 2013 | Facing Reality — July 14, 2013 @ 10:49 am


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