Forgotten legacies (part II): the problem of ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’
by Simon Hardy | January 1, 2013
Simon Hardy continues his look at the problematic interpretations of Bolshevism found in the modern day Trotskyist movement by critically reflecting upon the post-war collapse of the left into warring sects.
Part one of this essay considered the forgotten pluralism of Russian social democracy and specifically Bolshevism, in this second installment, I want to reflect upon how this might apply to smaller groups of revolutionaries who don’t enjoy mass support in the working class. These are groups that cannot claim to be a party that represents the leadership of a broad cross section of the working class and are therefore generally more modest in their reach and goals. In the 21st century, the Trotskyist-Leninist left has been mostly reduced to such organisations, that invariably concentrate on disseminating communist ideas and playing a role in developing wider social struggle. This description is seemingly uncontroversial, but the problem lies in the actual practice of small communist organisations in the context of the disintegration of the Trotskyist movement before and after the war, and their pronounced tendency to collapse into confessional sects. With Stalinism hegemonic on the left wing of the workers’ movement in the last century, and with its parties that identified with the states of Russia, China and Eastern Europe, the tendency was to create small, highly homogenous organisations that each claimed a monopoly on truth with their theoretical output seeking to elaborate a doctrine that can then be organisationally embodied in the small organisation. Much of the Trotskyist movement also tended to mimic and adapt to Stalinism, either in their organisational ‘party building’ practices, or in their political accommodation to the Stalinist regimes perceived to be more radical, e.g. Yugoslavia, China, and Cuba. The result was the creation of a myriad of new orthodoxies defended by the organisational form of the sect. Trotskyism was one, perhaps the most enduring, but in the context of the 1930s and 1960s there was competition from various other trends, from Branderlerites to the Maoists and council communists.
This article is largely a critique of the “sect-form” and a plea for greater plurality, organisational unity, and flexibility on the radical left.
Monopolists in the sphere of politics
The need for the sect to define itself against the rest of the left, and in turn school its adherents in the codified ‘fundamentals’ of its tradition, fosters a binary, “right or wrong”, conception of Marxism. The resulting tendency for party adherents to try and ”get it right” above all else undermines the encouragement of critical thinking, able to draw upon the plurality of viewpoints and theories, that is necessary for Marxism to develop as a living and scientific mode of thought. This outlook was sadly exemplified by US Trotskyist Morris Stein at the 1944 convention of the SWP(US) :
We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.
Even if the party in question could claim 80,000 members in a mass working class of millions it would be a hopelessly authoritarian approach to political discourse within the working class movement. Yet is down right ridiculous coming from a leader of a revolutionary organisation with around 1,000 members or less. You simply do not have the range of experiences, the intellectual resources, the organic relationship to broad cross section of the masses, that could justify a claim to have a monopoly on truth nor even a special claim to be the leadership in waiting of the working class.