In the latest installment in the ISO’s defense of Tony Cliff against Pham Binh’s critique (the entire exchange can be seen here), Paul D’Amato makes a highly revealing statement in the conclusion of an article titled “The Mangling of Tony Cliff”:
Binh appears to be taking Trotsky’s pre-1917 “conciliationist” line (which Trotsky later repudiated) that the differences were not substantial enough (since both saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois”) for a split. After the Prague congress Trotsky attempted to organise the “August Bloc”, an effort to unite all the different factions of the movement. It began to collapse immediately after its first gathering. “The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy”, Trotsky later wrote of his policy of unity at any cost, “was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purposes of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party”.
Binh apparently rejects these conclusions. Perhaps his model is the August Bloc. This isn’t a guess. He says in his article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists”:
Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.
Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters.
First of all, is absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects without [I believe that the comrade editor of the ISO magazine meant “with” rather than “without” here] practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the “true vanguard”, to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing—organisations that had become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class. Secondly, a “united” socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project. It is one thing for leftists of different politics to “work together”—this has and will continue to happen. It is another thing to think that simply lumping forces together with diametrically different politics and methods of work will create any kind of functional, practical unity. Certainly that is one lesson of the Bolshevik experience worth preserving. That is not to say that broad socialist party independent and in opposition to the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a great advance if such a thing were possible in the United States today—what Binh proposes, however, would not produce such a result.
You’ll note that D’Amato does not include Cuba alongside the other “bureaucratic despotisms” (a curious term given the ISO’s past insistence on describing such societies as “state capitalist”. Maybe that’s because it would irritate Paul LeBlanc, who despite his enthusiasm for the ISO’s approach, might still consider Cuba an exemplary society despite the onerous conditions it operates under. More to the point, is it really useful to apply the term “socialist” to Cuba, if it is one that can only be satisfied by a powerful industrialized country of the sort that Marx and Engels wrote about in the 19th century as being the first expected to break with capitalism?
One can certainly agree with D’Amato that we cannot build a party with supporters of the Democratic Party but that is something of a red herring since the CPUSA or the Committees of Correspondence would have little interest in a broad based socialist party to begin with.
This is not the only example of wariness about such a project heard from an ISO leader. In 2007 Todd Chretien gave a speech titled “Lenin’s theory of the party” that drew a sharp distinction between Eugene V. Debs and V.I. Lenin. It sounds very much like the sort of thing that would be presented to “newbies”, some of it bordering on the comical–especially the business about Lenin scratching his head:
Lenin developed a very different approach. He began with an idea very similar to Debs’ because that was basically how all socialist parties in the world—from Germany to the United States to France—organized at that time. Lenin started with that broad tent idea that the central issue was for all socialists to form a single, united party. At first they tried at the local level in Petersburg in the early 1890s, forming a group called the League for the Emancipation of Labor—perhaps not the best name anyone ever thought up. Lenin and his friends did have some early success, organizing protests and inspiring strikes or influencing spontaneous ones, and they were able to introduce socialist ideas to an important number of workers. However, this type of organization faced two problems. First, just like in the American Socialist Party, tension began to develop between emerging left and right wings. Compounding that problem in Russia was the question of tsarist repression. A couple of years after forming the league, Lenin and most of the other leaders found themselves in prison. So, after sixteen months in solitary confinement, Lenin scratches his head and says, “Well, that really didn’t work. We can’t just go around handing out leaflets, asking everyone to join us, because the police just send spies to get our membership lists. [missing closed quote in the original]
Even if this was intended to enlighten new-comers to the socialist movement, it is not that far removed from what LeBlanc and other ideological heavyweights stated in response to Lars Lih in a Historical Materialism symposium that I discussed a while back. They gave props to Lih for documenting Lenin’s commitment to building a party modeled on Kautsky’s party in Germany, but insist that Lenin came up with something new under the impact of the betrayal of socialist parliamentarians in 1914, when they voted for war credits. This breach was only a culmination of growing differences over principle that was reflected earlier in 1912 when Lenin broke with the Menshevik “liquidators”.
I summarize all the arguments against Lih here but will include just one example below to give you a sense of their consensus around the idea that Lenin built a party of a “new type” unlike the swamp that Eugene V. Debs presided over, or the Russian social democracy before Lenin wised up and booted the Mensheviks. These are Paul LeBlanc’s words:
The reality of German Social Democracy was certainly more problematic than what Lenin was able to glean from the very best writings of Karl Kautsky. This became clear to Lenin himself in 1914. At that point, it became obvious that Lenin was building a very different party than the actual SPD.
D’Amato feels that Pham Binh wants to destroy all the progress that the left has made since 1912-1914, when Lenin moved inexorably toward purging the Mensheviks from the Russian revolutionary movement. He likens him to Leon Trotsky, whose cardinal sin was trying to keep the party together. Let’s repeat what D’Amato wrote:
Binh appears to be taking Trotsky’s pre-1917 “conciliationist” line (which Trotsky later repudiated) that the differences were not substantial enough (since both saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois”) for a split. After the Prague congress Trotsky attempted to organise the “August Bloc”, an effort to unite all the different factions of the movement.
If you want to get the full flavor of what Lenin thought of Trotsky’s efforts, I recommend “The Liquidators Against the Party”:
There is one little lesson to be drawn from this affair by those abroad who are sighing for unity, and who recently hatched the sheet Za Partiyu in Paris. To build up a party, it is not enough to be able to shout “unity”; it is also necessary to have a political programme, a programme of political action. The bloc comprising the liquidators, Trotsky, the Vperyod group, the Poles, the pro-Party Bolsheviks, the Paris Mensheviks, and so on and so forth, was foredoomed to ignominious failure, because it was based on an unprincipled approach, on hypocrisy and hollow phrases. As for those who sigh, it would not be amiss if they finally made up their minds on that extremely complicated and difficult question: With whom do they want to have unity? If it is with the liquidators, why not say so without mincing? But if they are against unity with the liquidators, then what sort of unity are they sighing for?
Gosh, who would want to be a latter-day Leon Trotsky given this searing indictment? As should be obvious from this, there were two parties in Czarist Russia, one was reformist and the other was revolutionary. Trotsky’s sin was trying to mix the two together, coming up with a Debs-type formation that would have certainly been inadequate to overthrowing the capitalist system in 1917. Forming the Bolshevik Party was necessary to keep the workers movement free from class-collaborationist germs—a red condom so to speak.
There’s only one problem with this. When Lenin issued the April Theses in 1917, he was opposed by a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Was there a hole in the condom?
Meanwhile, the promiscuous Trotsky who liked to sleep around with reformists was the only prominent socialist leader who embraced the April Theses, understanding them as consistent with his own theory of permanent revolution. Within the year, Trotsky decided that Lenin was right all along on the “broad” party question and became committed to safe sex, the end-product of which is the various abortions of the Fourth International and parties that grew out of it like Tony Cliff’s international organization. All were committed to the idea that you formulate a “true” program of revolutionary socialism and indoctrinate new members into holding high its banner. Sadly, history has pointed out the similarity between this methodology and that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientology.