Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 22, 2013

Recent debates in the British SWP over Leninism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Martin Smith, aka “Comrade Delta” and formerly the national chairman of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, just resigned from the organization undoubtedly to relieve pressure on the party leadership that colluded to clear Smith of charges of raping a 19-year-old party member. As an irritant to the party minority (or looming majority), nobody could top Martin Smith even if they tried. When this young party member brought charges against Smith, the investigating committee asked about her drinking habits. Who could put up with such an affront except Smith’s cronies and party members who had surrendered their independence of mind? If this reminds you of how the Catholic Church, corporations, the military, and other bourgeois institutions deal with sexist behavior, you’d be right.

For me the interesting question has always been whether the party would have been roiled by mass resignations and open factional warfare if this incident had not taken place. Clearly the party was fragmenting along one political line or another for some time. The first significant split occurred in 2010 when John Rees and Lindsay German left the party to create a group around the website Counterfire mostly around differences over strategy for the mass movement.

In the more recent defections and drawing of factional lines by members still within the party, there have been debates over policy but also over the fundamental question of how to build a revolutionary organization. The members most publicly committed to the “Leninist” status quo, such as Alex Callinicos and John Molyneux, have had to put up with challenges from a range of party members including long-time Cuba “expert” Mike Gonzalez. If Gonzalez was only half as sharp on Cuba as he was on “Leninism”, I for one would be most grateful. Sam Farber, of course, is a lost cause.

After Callinicos wrote a piece for the January 2013 Socialist Review titled “Is Leninism finished?” that brazened out the sectarian status quo, he was answered by Gonzalez in an internal article titled “Who will teach the teachers” that has been circulated widely on the Internet, that dastardly petite-bourgeois medium. I liked the final paragraph best:

We should stop trading quotes from Lenin. Not that he has not much to teach us, but that the first lesson he will offer is that the forms and methods of organization of revolutionaries will be shaped by the historical circumstance, and will change constantly as those circumstances change. There are no rules to be applied, no constitutions to obey. There is a revolutionary method – one part of which acknowledges that the teachers must themselves be taught by those they set out to instruct.

While Gonzalez’s article was only for the eyes of party members, recent issues of Socialist Review reveal the debate spilling over into the public sphere. In the June issue, Ian Birchall wrote a piece titled “What does it mean to be a Leninist?” that echoed Gonzalez. This sentence pretty much encapsulated Birchall’s view and hopefully that of the faction that is challenging Callinicos:

There is no such thing as the “Leninist party”, outlined in What Is To Be Done? or any other instruction manual.

I was also pleased to see Birchall’s reference to Lenin’s worries over the organizational proposal of Wilhelm Koenen that exhibited a schematic approach to “Bolshevik” norms.

In his final speech to the Communist International in 1922 Lenin insisted: “The resolution [on organisation] is too Russian; it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners… They must assimilate part of the Russian experience. Just how that will be done, I do not know.”

I referred to Lenin’s remarks when I wrote an article titled “The Comintern and German Communism” back in 2000 or so. Now I am not so sure whether Lenin should get off the hook completely. Despite his uneasiness with Koenen’s resolution, he voted for it. More worryingly, he was adamantly for the 21 Conditions that represented a departure from the more 2nd Internationalist conceptions of party-building. Despite Lars Lih’s contention that Lenin remained a Kautskyist to the end, I am afraid that a “new party” did emerge under his stewardship. However, I am not referring to the Prague Conference of 1912 that people like Paul Le Blanc regard as a definitive break with Menshevism and the ratification of a “revolutionary” party-building model that groups like the SWP (and the ISO arguably) identify with. Instead I am talking about the efforts to impose rigid guidelines in the early 1920s under the hothouse conditions of the victorious revolution and the hatred for the Second International bred by its support for World War One.

Probably the worst part of Koenen’s resolution is item #46: “The party as a whole is under the leadership of the Communist International.” [emphasis in the original]. This, of course, is the conception fully embraced by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev alike that led to a disaster in Germany. The best thing for Germany would have been for the Comintern to butt out.

Callinicos gets in the last word in an article in the latest issue of Socialist Review titled “What sort of party do we need?“ As might have been expected, he reduces the differences to one over “reform” versus “revolution”, as if belonging to a revolutionary party is some kind of condom that protects you against counter-revolutionary practice. Without adequate protection, you open the door to the nasty germs of reformism. One foolish act can haunt you for the rest of your life. This Platonic understanding of “revolutionary” has little in common with the way that the Bolsheviks functioned. It has more to do with sacraments taken in the Catholic Church that protect you from Satan.

Unfortunately Callinicos has nothing to say on the more interesting question, namely how the organizational principles of the SWP developed. To make a long story short, Tony Cliff embraced the more conventional understandings of democratic centralism that were handed down from Trotsky to his next generation of followers even if he decided that the “workers state” ideology was to be discarded. I doubt that any of the groups based on these precepts, from Cliff’s to Ted Grant’s, really gave much thought to the question of why you would form a group based on a given analysis of the “Russian question”. Did Lenin ever consider the position one takes on when the French revolution became degenerated a litmus test? Nor has Alex Callinicos ever considered why the norm of “internal documents” has some special hallowed importance in “Leninist” organizations. The truth is that none were published in Lenin’s day prior to the seizure of power in 1917. If it was a practice never carried out in the days of the printing press, how much more irrelevant does it seem today when everything is either digitized or easily converted from print to electronic format?

To conclude, it seems obvious that things are very fluid on the far left in terms of the “Leninism” question. There are three approaches that appear to be crystallizing, largely out of discussions prompted by Lars Lih’s book on “What is to be Done”, initiatives being taken in Australia and France by groups committed in the past to one degree or another to Zinovievist practices, and perhaps most powerfully by the crisis in the SWP. One approach is supported by Callinicos and other Trotskyist groups such as those led by Alan Woods and Peter Taaffe. Basically, nothing has changed for them. There is a clear line that connects them to Wilhelm Koenen’s organizational guidelines presented to the Comintern in 1921, even if not carried out to the letter. These guidelines were absorbed and deepened in the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern presided over by Zinoviev.

The second approach is embodied by groups like the Socialist Alliance in Australia and the NPA in France that have moved radically to drop the Zinovievist baggage. Groups moving in this direction are the ISO in the USA and the Socialist Alternative in Australia that understand that something was wrong in the way that the SWP conducted itself but are reluctant to go so far as to break with some key “Leninist” norms, most particularly being organized around a program that is fairly tightly circumscribed. This leads to a party that is homogeneous and by necessity subject to a glass ceiling on future growth.

The third approach was first developed by Solidarity in the USA, a group launched in 1986 as a multi-current formation dispensing with Leninist norms. Unfortunately inertia and aging cadres have served to limit its usefulness. Today, I look forward to multiple initiatives taking place in Britain to break with “democratic centralism”, at least in the way it is understood by groups like the SWP. I am very encouraged by the example being set by the comrades who resigned en masse from the SWP now known as the International Socialism Network. They are iconoclasts organizationally in exactly the fashion that is needed. By, for example, publishing their steering committee minutes on the Internet, they are clearly thinking outside the box. More power to them.

Finally, there are the young people associated with the North Star website who are becoming a pole of attraction for others in the USA who want to lay the groundwork for a new left committed to socialism and the right of every member of an organization that emerges out of a long and necessary process to be treated with respect. Revolutionary organizations operating in capitalist society are not some kind of coming attraction of the socialist world we all seek, but we can certainly hope that they can at least operate on the basis of genuine equality. In my time in the American SWP, I always felt that there was a hierarchy in some ways worse than the banks and insurance companies that employed me. This was a complaint I heard repeatedly about the British SWP’s central committee that in its own way was as unaccountable as a corporate board.

Those days must come to an end, not just from the standpoint of respect for the individual, but out of a need for collective thinking—the only way to make an organization powerful. If the American SWP had paid more attention to the concerns that the ordinary member had over the “turn to industry”, perhaps the group might have not imploded (this leaves aside the question of course whether it could have ever developed into a mass party.) If the British SWP had not taken the word of a top leader like Martin Smith automatically over the word of a 19-year-old female, the crisis would have not happened.

In any case, without ceding any ground to some of the lamer conceptions that go along with the word favored so much in autonomist circles, a whole lot more “horizontalism” is needed—the sooner the better.


  1. One observer comments: “if the alleged perpetrator of two serious assaults is now outside the party, can revolutionary justice be served when the “defendant” has altogether avoided the Disputes Committee? Something tells me that it is highly unlikely the outstanding complaint against ‘Delta’ will ever be heard.”

    That this train of events could occur at all, suggests to me that the SWP leadership must have a pretty warped idea of social reality.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — July 22, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

  2. Louis writes:
    Callinicos gets in the last word in an article in the latest issue of Socialist Review titled “What sort of party do we need?“ As might have been expected, he reduces the differences to one over “reform” versus “revolution”, as if belonging to a revolutionary party is some kind of condom that protects you against counter-revolutionary practice.

    In the linked article, his actual words are:
    The balance in the debate has tilted in favour of broad parties of the radical left that, to a greater or lesser degree, evade the question of reform or revolution. The trouble is that, whether or not you fudge this question, it doesn’t go away. Its source is the nature of the capitalist state. Again and again – in the student protests here in Britain in 2010, in the Arab revolutions since the beginning of 2011, in the mass movement in Turkey today – we see the repressive forces of the state deployed to defend the existing order.

    The point is obviously that revolution will have to defeat capitalist violence, Callinicos charging that his opponents evade and finesse the problem of this inevitable violence. Your remark about ideological purity and condoms is a complete distortion.

    Comment by Not a textualist, simply a reader — July 23, 2013 @ 4:58 am

  3. It could be that the two accusers have pronounced themselves content that Smith leave the organisation as suitable and adequate punishment. If not then with him now outside the party then there can be no reason why they would not take this to the police especially if they think it’s a ruse on his part to avoid justice and that he might eventually be rehabilitated.

    Comment by David Ellis — July 23, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  4. `In any case, without ceding any ground to some of the lamer conceptions that go along with the word favored so much in autonomist circles, a whole lot more “horizontalism” is needed—the sooner the better.’

    Let a thousand flowers bloom eh? Trouble is the bureaucratically imposed consensus in all these sects masks the fact that nobody actually agrees on anything which is why when they collapse it is dramatic and decisive with most of the fragments liquidating into the swamp of opportunism leaving the one-eyed men to become kings.

    If Leninism is anything it is an unflinching fidelity to Marxism.

    Comment by David Ellis — July 23, 2013 @ 10:25 am

  5. I think you misunderstand the development the development of the IS/SWP Louis. As the SR Group and the IS it grew while changing its internal characteristics several times; this is clear in reading Birchall’s book on Cliff, or by noting some of the comments made in the current debate about party democracy both by the SWP opposition, some of the ISN, or by talking to people who have been in the organization a few decades.
    I should therefore mention that Cliff went through a “Luxemburg” (before my time) before developing the SWP’s own version of a Leninist model.
    One of the keys I think for many in the SWP signing up for the SWP model was a) the organization mess that was the orthodox trots and the maoists throughout Europe at the time, b) the Lost Revolution.
    For those who were agreed that the 2nd International model had sent the working classes to the trenches to die, and the storm troops to murder Rosa and Karl; there had to be a model of discipline that would make sure the Spartacist Days never happened to us. Cliff focused on Germany as being a huge fail for all revolutionaries from the Spartacist days through to the March Acition in his biography on Lenin; and I think was clear that Lenin failed over the Paul Levi dispute. Harman’s Lost Revolution was enormously influential in the party when it came out.
    Comrades were clear that the mass strike (and other mass actions) would always throw up spontaneous struggles against both capitalism and the labour bureaucrats (union and party) but the fear was in developed capitalist countries like post WW1 German or 1970s Europe, how could the revolutionary minority in the class relate to the dangers that mass radicalization through up. Although the European crises of the late 60s and early 70s were far less acute than the post WW1 revolutionary wave, their was plenty of evidence that the capitalists and the Labour allies were pretty savvy at disarming spontaneous uprisings with little direction. Hence in our minds the need for a “vanguard” party and for it to be disciplined.
    Now deep in a downturn (at least in my mind) and with no revolutionary crisis in prospect in most peoples understanding, many comrades in and out of the SWP are saying go back to the looser forms the SR Group or IS had prior to the creation of the SWP. Its a debate with some legs on it.
    Harry Monro

    Comment by Harry Monro — July 23, 2013 @ 11:54 am

  6. This “administrative” debate about the features of democratic centralism masks the underlying reasons for it: the fragmentation of the working class and its left allies over the last 40 years. With declining unionization and the contracting out of industrial production, it is difficult to give expression to a coherent vision that mobilizes people in support of Leninism. Hence, the urgency of more horizontal forms of left dialogoue and action so as to facilitate the emergence of a more politically engaged left in the future. In the absence of it, there will be more of the same, street level protest of people who periodically come together from time to time along with academic Marxists like Callinicos, and a large gulf in between. The specific inability to engage feminism as something other than a threat to Marxism is a huge problem.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 23, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

  7. Organisations in Britain like the SWP and Socialist Party have been on a downward spiral for probably the last 15-20 years. Much of the leadership has remained the same, topped up usually by those who have proven their loyalty by saying the right things to the right people (or knowing the right people) and rarely on merit or organisational ability. Likewise the bloated full time bureacracy around the country, who’s main priority is getting as much money as possible to fund the full time apparatus (heavily centralised in London). Most of these full timers are sadly not dynamic, forward thinking socialists with a grounding in the realities of the Twenty First Century. There are no longer people in the leadership who have had recent working class life experience (particularly in modern workplaces).

    Until recently, I was a member of the SP and the organisation exists in a cocoon of unreality, largely cut off from normal. ordinary people. The 20 years of downturn have led the party to largely contain a mixture of hacks, members who have no critical faculties and go along with the same old tired conservative ways of doing things or basically people with – how can I put this diplomatically – few social skills. The control freakery of channelling and snuffing out in various ways anyone who dissents from ‘the line’ is exemplified in their paranoia about the internet. The behaviour of the Party this year in response to the sexual assault on one of its long time members indicates how far it has degenerated.

    Comment by Doug — July 24, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

  8. Richard I read in the Guardian about Françoise Laborde, a senator for the Parti Radical de Gauche, who wants to ban women from wearing headscarves from working with children (even childminders), she believes Muslim women have no choice in wearing religious style clothing. Is she the sort of feminist I should aim to work with. Or perhaps Femen with their anti Muslim pronouncements. Now Callinicos did have our French comrades in working in the NPA, which had a large chunk of people who used secularist but also feminist arguments to adapt to anti Muslim feelings. I have no doubt he would also just as likely push the French comrades into the PRG with their even worse history on the subject.
    So when we hear of regroupment of the left the question must be with what left. And when we hear about working with feminists or adopting elements of feminist theory; what feminism. You of course and come up with a list acceptable to you, but ultimately that’s you choosing to define whats left and whats feminist; not really any different from Callinicos though his list would be different from yours. And my list may be closer to yours than his; but all this doesn’t guarantee any greater success even if you have better politics. In fact having the best politics might not see great growth for the far left; I think Rosa and Karl were much the best leaders of the SPD, but Kautsky, Bernstein, Scheidemann and Ebert had more supporters.

    Comment by Harry Monro — July 24, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

  9. “Richard I read in the Guardian about Françoise Laborde, a senator for the Parti Radical de Gauche, who wants to ban women from wearing headscarves from working with children (even childminders), she believes Muslim women have no choice in wearing religious style clothing. Is she the sort of feminist I should aim to work with. . . . ”

    I know you are well intentioned, so I won’t be snarky, but there are plenty of radical left, Marxist inclined, anarchist inclined feminists that can rightly demand their participation in the left. Indeed, I’m sure that you have read my comments about them in the past over at Lenin’s Tomb. So, why this nonsense about Leborde and Femen? About what is or is not feminist? The Marxist antipathy towards feminism is obvious, and look more like turf preservation than any principled ideological perspective. The irony, of course, is that the turf these Marxists seek to protect continues to shrink by the year. Maybe, the proponents of this crabbed view rightly fear their political marginalization. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us should.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 25, 2013 @ 6:14 am

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