Mangling the Issues: Callinicos, “Leninism,” and Austerity

by Pham Binh on January 30, 2013

Before dealing with what passes for substance in Callinicos’ defense of “Leninism,” one thing needs to be made clear: the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) does not “organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.”

The Bolsheviks were a continuously existing faction of a broader multi-tendency Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) for nearly 20 years until factions were banned at the 10th party congress in 1921. The SWP bans factions during 9 out of 12 months of the year on pain of expulsion.

In the Bolsheviks’ party,1 the RSDLP, which changed its name to the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1918, branches enjoyed local autonomy not just over when and where to hold paper sales but over political decisions like election tactics. Not so for the SWP.

All officials of Lenin’s party were elected to their positions by party members. Not so for the SWP.

Lenin’s party, the RSDLP, elected its central committee (CC) by a secret, popular ballot as individuals. The SWP elects its CC using a winner-take-all closed slate system by a show of hands at its conference.

Disagreements among CC members in the RSDLP were aired regularly and publicly so that party members and their non-member coworkers knew what the issues were and what political choices elected leaders would be held accountable for making. The SWP’s CC acts as a united front with one voice in public so members and non-members alike have no clue what debates shaped their decisions, how they were arrived at, or where different leaders stood on a given question, making accountability impossible.

dmAll of the above features taken together ensured that, unlike the SWP, the RSDLP had functioning mechanisms for self-correction. These measures and practices constituted the democratic core of the RSDLP’s “democrdematic centralism.” This was the rule of the rank and file over elected, accountable leaders whose practice was thoroughly transparent and whose authority with party members stemmed from their popularity, not their ability to expel. (At the 10th party congress, Lenin noted, “No democracy or centralism would ever tolerate a Central Committee elected at a Congress having the right to expel its members. … our party has never allowed the Central Committee to have such a right in relation to its members.”) This living democratic essence was gutted by the military imperatives of the civil war and codified after the war’s end as “normal” with the ban on factions in 1921, leaving a lifeless husk for “Leninist” groups like the SWP to imitate crucially, without the democratic processes for relatively painless course corrections.

The SWP opposition is the result of members becoming alive to the fact that they are trapped in a husk as it falls out over a Cliff.

However, even if the SWP copied all of the RSDLP’s rules to the letter or implemented the opposition’s reforms without exception and created a truly democratic organization, this would still not mean that the SWP “organise[s] the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.” The two organizations are fundamentally different animals that set very different tasks for themselves.

Compared to the SWP, the RSDLP’s doctrinal requirements were lax. They did not require members acquire PhDs in the finer points of Marxist theory and history while SWPers are expected to publicly espouse Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, Tony Cliff’s view of the U.S.S.R, and 1980s-era positions on feminism. This is because the SWP uses its trademark ideas to intervene in the class struggle while the RSDLP, to a large extent, was the class struggle. The SWP sees “party and class” while the RSDLP was a party of the class. “Leninism” — with its emphasis on “intervention” and party-class juxtaposition — is a tacit rejection of the merger formula of the worker and socialist movements advocated by Marx, Engels, Kautsky, and Lenin, one that perpetuates the artificial separation between revolutionaries and the workers they hope to influence to the detriment of both.

Because the RSDLP’s daily activities were geared solely towards guiding all forms of class struggle and organizing the working class politically, it was from its beginnings in the 1890s a party of the class and could serve as an instrument for self-liberation when the class struggle intensified to revolutionary dimensions and the party grew to embrace hundreds of thousands of workers in 1917. By contrast, “Leninist” organizations like the SWP spend most of their time, money, and energy converting individuals (non-members, new members, and cadre) to ever-greater and more elaborate doctrines, positions, and perspectives; eventually there is a “limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow” as SWP member Neil Davidson noted (Louis Proyect calls this “the glass ceiling problem”).

The RSDLP’s orientation was decidedly outward, towards the working masses, and was readily receptive to hearing their wants, needs, desires, and moods while the SWP’s is inward, towards its own ranks, hierarchy, and internal decision-making processes; feedback from party members much less the masses outside its ranks is unwelcome (Callinicos calls this “the dark side of the Internet”). The basic unit of the RSDLP was the cell, usually but not always a workplace, made up of a tightly-knit handful of popular worker-leaders while the SWP’s basic unit is the branch, a somewhat arbitrary geographically-based collection of a dozen individuals who neither live nor work together in daily life outside SWP activities.

All of this goes a long way towards explaining why the RSDLP was able to maintain the loyalty of tens of thousands of radical workers through bouts of severe repression and guide a mass revolutionary movement while the SWP has been unable to withstand a bit of public scrutiny by the bourgeois press, fellow leftists, and its own members. A party incapable of properly handling a rape allegation from one of its own is neither politically nor morally fit to lead a revolution and does not quality as a revolutionary party.

Now that Callinicos’ central unspoken assumption — that Lenin and the Bolsheviks organized in a “Leninist” manner — has been disemboweled, what about the rest of his arguments?

What is striking about Callinicos’ defense of “Leninism” is how much dishonesty it contains, both brazen and subtle. He sets up a series of false political choices between movements/united fronts, Owen Jones’ Labourism, and “a revolutionary party,” the SWP. His message is clear: “there is no alternative.” Like Thatcher, he could not be more wrong. Another socialist left is possible, preferably one that can punch with the social weight of the working class.

Callinicos’ bravado about the SWP’s past prowess in the boxing ring conceals bitter truths: the SWP is a smaller, weaker, less influential organization than it was a decade ago. As the SWP punched above its weight, its weight declined. Then it punched George Galloway, then Respect, then John Rees, and is now punching itself to pieces because so many of its members refuse to accept a whitewashed pseudojudicial farce disguised as due process for a possible criminal act by a leading member.

As the SWP has become lighter and lighter, so too have its punches. The SWP’s “Unite the Resistance” has done anything but and has not repeated the success of the Stop the War Coalition. Austerity continues, unabated, and Britain’s National Health Service is being privatized. If the purpose of the SWP’s “Leninism” is to provide a credible alternative or counterweight to a rightward moving Labour Party, treacherous trade union leaders, or come-and-go mass movements, it has failed even within those modest parameters, parameters that fall well short of a Soviet Republic of the United Kingdom.

Another false choice Callinicos presents is between the SWP’s existing internal regime and that of the struggling New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France, as if the SWP were not already in worse shape than the NPA. This is scaremongering. Better to stay on the Titanic — the water below is quite cold, and those life boats can not possibly withstand collision with a glacier.

Callinicos engages in gross oversimplification when he argues, “ the biggest problem facing the progress of resistance to austerity in Britain” is “the role of the trade union leaders in blocking strike action.” For all his talk about Lenin, he seems to have forgotten Lenin’s polemics against Economism of which this is a poor 21st century rendition (even Russia’s Economists did not look to strikes as some kind of magic bullet).

Over 20 general strikes have rocked Greece since 2009 and yet austerity has continued there; what makes Callinicos think the United Kingdom will be any different? Flexing the economic muscle of the working class is necessary but not sufficient to stop austerity because austerity is political and must be fought politically. To fight on the political field, the working class needs a political instrument — a party. And here is where Owen Jones and his arguments come into play.

As with everything else in his essay, Callinicos mangled Jones’ positions to avoid engaging them honestly. Callinicos claims that Jones wants “activists [to] devote their energies to pushing Labour leftwards” and cites the 1980s-era Militant that ultimately failed after some initial success. If this was Jones’ orientation, why would the title of his piece be, “British Politics Urgently Needs a New Force”? The Labour Party is not a new force in British politics.

Here are Jones’ arguments. First, he is dead-set against trying to create yet another left-of-Labour Party, whether “Leninist” or Gallowayist makes no difference to him. Second, he claims the Labour Party is still a workers’ party. Third, and this is the heart of his strategy, he is calling for:

“… a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated.”

Even someone who is politically illiterate should be able to see that Jones is not arguing for a Militant 2.0 strategy of entering the Labour Party to move it leftward.

Instead, Jones supports what could be described as an inside-outside strategy — that is, the creation of a force with roots in Labour that is simultaneously linked with and capable of mobilizing forces outside of Labour. He never says that such a force should tail or cater to its inside component because the key task of this network would be to mobilize various sectors of the 99% to link their disparate skirmishes into united actions against austerity, not get a seat at Labour’s table or play footsie with trade union bureaucrats.

Jones has put forward a serious proposal with serious merits. Given the far left’s utter inability to even dent the austerity steamroller, despite the best efforts of the SWP and its “Leninist” competitors, this idea and its implications deserve to be explored both intellectually and in practice by all forces on the British left.

If Jones’ idea gains traction and materializes as a real force in British politics, it could lead to conflicts between the Labour Party and its class base down the road. Such tensions could, in the long run, lead to splits and ruptures as mass numbers of working people emerge as self-confident militants and simultaneously become fed up with a party that continually frustrates their will. Historically, this is how most of the mass revolutionary parties of the Communist International that Callinicos looks to as models emerged; modern examples of this phenomena include SYRIZA (a split from KKE) in Greece and the Left Front in France (which emerged from the Socialist Party).

In other words, mass workers’ parties capable of leading revolutions usually emerge out of mass workers’ parties that balk at the prospect. This is just one more reason to take the long view of Jones’ proposal and reject Callinicos’ reductionist, still life approach to party politics.

1. Thanks to Lars Lih and Russian-language source documents, we now know that “the Bolshevik Party” never existed. There was no “Bolshevik Party” or “RSDLP(b).” The phrase “Bolshevik party” does not even appear in Lenin’s writings until 1917. Claims to the contrary have zero basis in fact.

{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

RedPleb January 30, 2013 at 11:17 am

“The Bolsheviks were a continuously existing faction of a broader multi-tendency Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) for nearly 20 years until factions were banned at the 10th party congress in 1921.”

This might be a misprint or a false statement. Yes the Bolsheviks were a fraction within the RSDLP, but the split into a different party entirely occurred no later then 1912. I understand that there is some historical debate over that, but I think its safe to say that the Menshiviks and the Bolsheviks were no longer in the same party in 1917


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 11:32 am

I thought the same thing too until I found out that the Prague Conference of 1912 elected a Menshevik to the Central Committee, a guy named Shvartsman.

In an explanatory note to the International Socialist Bureau, Lenin wrote the following:
“In all, twenty organisations established close ties with the Organising Commission convening this conference [the 1912 Prague Conference]; that is to say, practically all the organisations, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, active in Russia at the present time.”

Plekhanov, a pro-party Menshevik, was a regular contributor to the 1912-1914 Pravda.

Trotsky wrote in his biography about the state of the party in 1917:
“When I arrived from America in May of the same year [1917], the majority of the Social Democratic organisations in the provinces consisted of united Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.”

A close reading of the March 1917 party conference documents provided in Trotsky’s Stalin School of Falsification confirm his statement above (links: and by their continual reference of “faction discipline” between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks NOT “party discipline.”

There is no debate. There is fact, and there is fiction.


RedPleb January 30, 2013 at 11:41 am

Not one piece of that evidence I find convincing to believe that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks only really split in 1921. But this particular debate, which seems to devolve so easily into semantics, I have no real interest in.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 11:42 am

I never claimed they split in 1921.

Furthermore, there is zero evidence, convincing or otherwise, to support the claim that there were two parties, one Menshevik, the other Bolshevik, in 1912. But feel free to try to find some.

The fact that the two factions were never separate parties fatally undermines the “Leninist” fantasy of a Menshevik/reformist-free party leading a workers’ revolution in 1917. You dismiss it as “semantics” because it cuts to the heart of the “Leninist” fallacy.


Matt January 30, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Then why bring up this essentially side issue – whether or not the Menshevik-Bolshevik factional split was evolving towards two separate political organizations – only to declare it pure uninteresting “semantics”? As fate (and WWI) would have it, they did evolve into separate organizations for substantive reasons. Much more substantive that the so-called “differences” that divide the revolutionary socialist left into oodles of useless sects, large and small.

The point is that this it was not at all clear in 1912, and only appears “clear” in easy retrospect to the latter day sectarian mind. However, I am *very interested* in this vital discussion.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 4:37 pm

He was interested when he thought he caught me in a lie. When it turned out I caught him, he lost interest. Pretty simple really.


RedPleb February 1, 2013 at 9:48 am

Correction: I never had any interest to lose


Pham Binh February 5, 2013 at 9:38 am

Your first comment says otherwise.


Louis Proyect January 30, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Matt, all of the old Bolsheviks opposed Lenin’s April Theses while Trotsky, a non-Bolshevik, supported them. There were obvious reasons for the two factions to have opposed each other but I reject the idea that forming a “Menshevik-free” group is the way to go. It only leads to sect formation. Action is more important than having a correct position on reform versus revolution. For example, Robert La Follette was a Republican Senator but his decision to run as a Third Party candidate was much more revolutionary than anything the CP was up to. Same with Henry Wallace and Nader. We have to create a broad framework for political action. That is why it was such a fucking betrayal for the Demogreens to ruin the chance we had to build something permanent and substantial.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Trotsky didn’t show up in Russia until May. Prior to that he was in British custody. His support was retroactive.


Brandy Baker January 30, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Thank you for writing this, Pham. We know that Marx especially would be horrified to see what modern day “Leninist” organizations are doing in his name. I am sure Lenin would not be too thrilled, either.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 11:49 pm

You are welcome. I’m glad you liked it.

Lenin revealed his attitude towards erstwhile Bolshevik-wannabes in Left-Wing Communism. (It is one of the best things he ever wrote against “Leninism.”) When Bela Kun put forward his “theory of the offensive” at the Comintern, Lenin called him an imbecile from the podium. The translators were so embarrassed they passed over that word. Callinicos is not even a Bela Kun.


Richard Estes January 30, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were practicing politics in the real world, not seeking to attain some intellectualized ideal that elevated a select few.

Over on Louis’ blog, I posted a comment on this subject that referenced the CCP united front experience in eastern and central China during the period of the anti-Japanese resistance. My purpose in doing so was to suggest that there are a number of experiences that can evaluated in terms of their effectiveness from which we can learn. In the three years prior to this period, this same CCP, while residing in tenuous guerrilla bases in southern China prior to moving north and east to form the New Fourth Army, acknowledged its vulnerability and emphasized the cultivation of political relationships with sectors of society considered outside the revolutionary milieu, with ethnic minorities, secret societies and peasant religious cults, for example. It did so as a matter of survival, and then, upon entry into the united front, put what it learned to good use in expanding its influence throughout society, reaching the local gentry and disaffected Nationalist bureaucrats and soldiers.

How did it do so? By acknowledging that a pragmatic elasticity of social relations, one that recognized that resistance to Japan was paramount, and that political and military organization in furtherance of this objective required what would commonly be recognized as deviations from Party norms. For our purposes, the CCP was successful for a number of important reasons, even though it was but one political force in a pluralistic environment. First, it emphasized an issue that resonated powerfully throughout Chinese society, the need to resist Japan. Second, it reached out to people throughout the society, even those upon which it had engaged in class warfare in the past, to develop coalitions while simultaneously increasing the Party’s influence. Third, in relation to the second objective, it acted pragmatically in specific situations when necessary in order to attain more ambitious goals.

For me, the compelling aspect of this parallel, given that we aren’t talking about an anti-imperialist resistance, is that the CCP understood that it was politically marginalized and acted in ways to escape that marginalization. It took Chinese society as it was, not as it would like it to be, and acted accordingly. Cadres reached out to people by trying to understand them and speak to them in a way that was familiar to them, instead of demanding subservience to their world view. They sought to engage people at all levels when the opportunity arose, with a political platform that expanded the Party instead of driving people away. Needless to say, the purported ‘Leninism’ as practiced by the SWP (and, for matter, some anti-authoritarian groups as well), does none of these things, it does the opposite.

Of course, the CCP could be quite manipulative and some of its practices would be rightly criticized as ‘entryism’ today. There was the perpetual problem of purges, and cadres could be ruthless, and it is not possible to impose the centralized discipline, however diluted by time, space and limitations of communications, for which the CCP was known today. But it would be, in my view, a mistake to dismiss the social achievements of the CCP in the pre-1949 period and thereby refuse to understand how they were accomplished for these reasons. They participated in the rough and tumble of day to day politics with relish instead of separating themselves from it by considering themselves morally superior.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 8:29 pm

If an anti-authoritarian can learn something from the CCP pre-1949, there’s no reason Marxists can’t or shouldn’t learn from Occupy. Unfortunately, listening and learning is not something the comrades who continue to wear 1917 goggles are particularly good at yet.


Nick Fredman January 30, 2013 at 7:49 pm

>>Even someone who is politically illiterate should be able to see that Jones is not arguing for a Militant 2.0 strategy of entering the Labour Party to move it leftward<<

Pham, maybe you could hold off with the arrogant put-downs, as despite all the many errors in Callinicos' article it's not unreasonable for him to say Jones wants “activists [to] devote their energies to pushing Labour leftwards” when Jones uses the words, "there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people".

I'm all for the far left throwing itself into a united, campaigning alliance against austerity that could draw in Labour MPs, councils and unions as well as all the dispossessed and discontented that Jones well describes. But thinking that this could substitute for (as opposed to help lay the basis for) a socialist organisation, or even a broad left organisation, that needs to take principled working class positions and actions on imperialism, environmental vandalism, women's liberation, gay and lesbian liberation and so on, as well as austerity, is quite wrong. It would be a big dis-service to the separate, if strongly related, needs for a united, mass anti-austerity campaign, *and* for for at least initial efforts to build a mass, working class party.

They key reason for the separation that you ignore Pham is that in a key way socialists today simply *can't* operate as the RSDLP did and in any straightforward way assume leadership of the working class, because there now is *entrenched* opportunist social democracy in the way (not debates between different factions of socialists), based on the very strong material factors of, directly, a labour bureaucracy and, indirectly, stratification within the working class.

We can organise in a much more democratic way than the UK SWP, we can drop the historical and theoretical shibboliths, we can be smart about united fronts and utilising contradictions and variegations within social democracy/Laborism (which in Australia includes the Greens), we can we flexible about organisational forms and the basis for organising and seeking further unity (e.g. in Australia the only concrete step forward for the far left on the table in the foreseeable future is unity on a broad but explicitly revolutionary basis between Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative, which would also draw in a lot of "independents" and "exes"). But there's no escaping the, yes, interventionist tasks for socialists today. Of course, Callinicos doesn't get the right to define what interventionism means and how to go about it, any more he does for democratic centralism, Leninism or Bolshevism.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm

What is unreasonable is to compare Jones’ strategy to that of the Militant, which is what Callinicos did.

It is also unreasonable to argue as if Jones’ proposed network would be a substitute for what you vaguely call “socialist organization.” He said nothing of the kind, nor did he imply it.

The way British socialists are (dis)organized has little to do with the trade union bureaucracy and everything to do with competition between people who are on the same side of the barricades for adherents, for power, and influence for their respective little group. This problem even exists in places like Egypt, where there are hardly any unions and their bureaucracies barely exist.

Lastly, I never claimed nor implied that copying the RSDLP in any form was a viable strategy or organizing model, but the merger formula that underpinned the RSDLP (and all the parties of the Second and Third International) retains its relevance. Once you are “intervening,” you are an outsider looking in, an interloper, pushing what in fact is a separate agenda.


Nick Fredman January 30, 2013 at 8:46 pm

But the bureaucrats have their own agenda (or maybe to be exact a range of better or worse agendas). Paul Howes, general secretary of the important Australian Workers Union, apart from being a dirty rat who is betraying his teenage years in the DSP, is rabidly pro-business, pro-nuclear, anti-Cuban revolution and pro-Zionist and promotes these views (more generally promotes himself as a preparation for a parliamentary career) every chance he gets. Sometimes we can agree with him on specific industrial issues and sometimes he says good things about refugees that we can promote. But socialists need to be both part of the AWU and the labour movement generally and be a tendency intervening to fight ring-wing ideas and practices from the leaders and amongst the members. You and Louis Proyect seem to have some kind of shibboleth against the word “intervention”. It’s commonly understood to mean active engagement from the inside. An academic publishing an article in a field she or he is part of is commonly described as making an intervention. One can be stupid about intervening in politics but one can also be stupid about adapting to liberal/labor establishments.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 9:18 pm

You can make a shibboleth out of “intervention” and play word games if you want to. I’m talking about the all-too-common situation where “organized socialists” show up to a picket line or an Occupy encampment with their plan of battle — sell papers, build our next public meeting, make X set of arguments, and recruit someone to our oh-so-revolutionary viewpoint.

I used to get a kick out of comrades coming into Zuccotti Park trying to do this; when people expressed little interest in the paper, the seller moved on, not realizing they just passed up on a conversation and a political relationship with a revolutionary communist, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, or other very near trend to Marxism. These “organized socialists” didn’t have a clue about the politics of the park, and they didn’t care to learn either. They seemed to think they knew better the occupiers what all the strengths and weaknesses of the Occupy movement were despite not having studied it in any great depth or listened to what anyone in Occupy had to say about Occupy; not only that, they had the grand strategy for Occupy’s victory all mapped out, if only someone would listen!

Another shibboleth we need to do away with is this “explicitly revolutionary” business. Social democracy proclaimed its revolutionary aspirations every chance it got; Lenin furiously seized on these proclamations when WWI broke out and all the parties of the international — except the Russian and Serbian — betrayed those words with misdeeds. The “explicitly revolutionary” left in the U.S. mostly sat on the sidelines of Occupy and has done exactly zero to aid actually existing revolutions in places like Syria. The term has become something of a bad joke.

To belabor the point, the SWP is “explicitly revolutionary” but couldn’t find its way out of a paper bag, especially not with a genius like Callinicos at the helm. You criticize me for being hard on him, but he misled the SWP membership repeatedly about the nature of the allegations and, along with Charlie Kimber, bears full responsibility for the ensuing shipwreck. They deserve far more contempt than I’ve shown them for destroying their own group to cover up someone else’s alleged criminal behavior. There’s no place for that in the worker-socialist movement.


Nick Fredman January 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm

>>You criticize me for being hard on him, but he misled the SWP membership repeatedly about the nature of the allegations and, along with Charlie Kimber, bears full responsibility for the ensuing shipwreck<>Another shibboleth we need to do away with is this “explicitly revolutionary” business<<

I generally agree this is the likely stance of anything like a sizeable left party in a non-revolutionary period. It's not news to me as I joined the DSP in 1990 as it seemed it was on the right track joining the emerging Greens as a potential sizeable public left party while advocating the right (not necessarily the necessity) of socialists to be a tendency within that.

But the party question has to be *concrete*. A generality that it's everywhere and always sectarian and ultra-left to be explicitly revolutionary is just as bad, and just as shibbolithic, as a generality that it's everywhere and always reformist and opportunist to not be explicitly revolutionary. The specific experience of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, while a necessary development in breaking with the narrow shibboliths of the past and in cohering socialists from different backgrounds, is that avoiding the R word does not in itself help anything. Obversely we have the situation of the IS-derived Socialist Alternative, a vibrant group which has in recent years organised a Marxism conference of 1000 people, the biggest left conferences in Australia for more than 20 years previously, calling for unity, dropping the state cap dogma, declaring that there'll be public differences, in discussion and activity, on issues like Cuba and Venezuela after a small split-off from the former DSP decided to join them, allowing public debate on these and other issues, but insisting on an explicitly revolutionary platform. In my opinion rejecting this very positive move, and waiting around for something else, would be highly sectarian and stupid. That's one reason I recently successfully moved to amend the Socialist Alliance platform to be explicitly revolutionary, and why the only concrete step forward for the far left on the table in the foreseeable future is unity on a broad but explicitly revolutionary basis between Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative (even if there's plenty of issues to work through). In the future there may be breaks from Labor, the Greens, the unions or some mass movement that will throw other and different possibilities up, but at this point all that is pure speculation, except that it's undeniable that a stronger socialist force now will be better able to make a contribution in the future.

I'm sure there are different approaches appropriate to the US. I'm also pretty sure than grasping at Owen Jones' schema, dubious for the UK, as some kind of general international strategy isn't one of them.


Nick Fredman January 31, 2013 at 12:05 am

A bit seemed to disappeared from my reply to this: I completely agree with being hard on Callinicos, and unless he changes course very soon he should be driven from the SWP leadership with sticks and stones, to paraphrase James cannon from somewhere. He’s just more right in a general sense than Owen Jones on the necessity of building an all-round party alternative to labour/Labor/Democrat social imperialism. That doesn’t mean he’s right at all to use Owen Jones to beat up the SWP opposition, or that he’s much use in building anything.


dave riley January 31, 2013 at 8:20 am

For good or ill Nick does have a point. Not because he thinks he knows but because here in Australia we do have a regroupment agenda which hopefully is not constrained by schemata.

It may be so formatted , but , let’s say, we hope it isn’t.

For good or ill there have been experiences and opportunities here that have been seized upon and explored…and hopefully learnt from.

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

There is a habit among the new party/new politics advocates as much as among the old style ‘Leninists’ to presume that the answer has to be either/or.

The key, I think, is ‘doing it’ rather than wondering how it should be done — so long as certain line-of-march parameters are adhered to.

That’s because anything that happens has to be a negotiation. Consensus rules. To encourage any specific demographic to come on board is gonna require give and take and it isn’t a political crime to give.

Then there’s the challenge of survival — of sustaining the thing once it’s got going and doing that year in year out.From the Scottish SSP, to the French NPA and, more recently, the Irish ULA — just because you create a package and it ‘succeeds’ and survives, it doesn’t mean you get a free ticket to another political existence that transcends the problems and challenges that bear down on current orgs.


Arthur January 30, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Too many topics for one article!

I’ll pick a minor aspect of the which I think should be a major issue:

“Flexing the economic muscle of the working class is necessary but not sufficient to stop austerity because austerity is political and must be fought politically.”

Certainly the calls for strikes to stop austerity are obviously bankrupt.

But so is the claim that “austerity is political and must be fought politically”. Plainly austerity is economic in the sense that it results from the developing capitalist economic crisis rather than some political choice. Vacuous caims of political opposition to austerity cannot mobilize people because everyone understands they offer no solution. A political program for re-organizing the economy is needed. But this simply isn’t part of the thinking of the sects claiming to be “socialist”. Since their actual aim is recruitment to the sect they only need fantasy delarations about re-organizing society rather than even the outline of a program to do so.

Also closely related is the fantasy world of their “successes” – eg what war did the “Stop the War Coalition” stop? What politics did it encourage other than the same politics that opposes the Syrian revolution? Again, sects only need to take “stands” rather than seek to actually improve the world.


Ben Campbell January 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Andrew Coates: SWP, Callinicos Wrong On Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste


Nathan Rao January 31, 2013 at 4:10 am

I have to agree with Arthur when he says that this post takes up too many topics. Like Nick Fredman, I’d just like to focus on the substantive questions of anti-capitalist strategy. I don’t follow British politics very closely, but I am uneasy even with Binh’s description and defense of what Owen Jones is proposing. A broad anti-austerity coalition is fine and necessary, but Binh and Jones seem to be counterposing this to the need for a political project that has an independent and adversarial stance in relation to the profoundly pro-neoliberal Labour Party. I strongly disagree. The problem is two-fold: first, this sidesteps the question of political/governmental power, which will face those allied to Labour sooner rather than later, and in fact already does in local governments throughout Britain. Second, while Binh says that the Jones strategy will never “tail or cater to its inside component” (ie. Labour and its vast array of allies inside and outside the state), the worrying fact of the present context is that Left forces independent of Labour are weak in number and fragmented as both a political force and a social-movement force. There is very little preventing precisely the kind of tailing and catering that Binh mentions, all the more so given the horribly undemocratic nature of Britain’s system of elections.

The second problem is a broader strategic one, and I agree that this is a very tough nut to crack. I don’t think any kind of broad, let alone effective, resistance to austerity will arise until the political project of a break with neoliberalism and capitalism gets more traction in our societies. And in the present context I don’t think the mass activity that can breath life into such a political project will come primarily from what we usually describe as the traditional organizations and leaderships of the working class — but rather from independent and unexpected movements such as the Indignados in Spain, Occupy, the Arab Spring and so on; which involve large numbers of working people with indirect or sometimes direct links to the “traditional organizations”, but who are largely autonomous from and often defiant towards these very frequently moribund bodies and their utterly compromised leaderships.

The conclusion for me is it means that we have to build independent political organizations of a new type, and this will be a difficult process with many hits and misses, but one that ideally has a relationship of constant cross-fertilization with struggles as they arise from whatever quarter, “traditional” or otherwise.

While I’m in no position to say whether Owen Jones is proposing a “Militant 2.0 strategy”, the very notion that there is much traction to be gained from pushing the Labour leadership to the left and aiming for “splits and ruptures” between “Labour…and its class base” seems to miss entirely the transformation that has taken place in the nature of these “mass social-democratic parties” and their leadership, especially in post-Thatcher and post-Blair Britain of all places. In France, a country I’m familiar with, not only is it wrong to say that the Left Front “emerged from the Socialist Party” (its largest component remains the Communist Party), but it’s also quite misleading to argue that the Left Front (whatever its origins) will on its own be able to stop (or “dent”) the austerity steamroller, which is moving forward with great speed even under the new Hollande-Ayrault SP government.

In this sense, the reference to the birth of the parties of the Communist International, or even to the more contemporary (?!) Left Opposition debates of the 1930s and far-Left debates of the 1970s aren’t particularly helpful. We have entered a new and unprecedented period, and I think it’s fair to say that most people in this debate underestimate (intellectually and practically) the scale of the problems we anti-capitalists and revolutionaries are up against. “Leninist” organizations of the SWP variety are certainly not the solution, but nor are attempts at resurrecting strategic projects geared towards the “traditional organizations of the working class,” be they political, trade-union or social-movement in nature.


Pham Binh January 31, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I agree with you and Arthur that historical Bolshevism and contemporary anti-capitalist strategy in 2013 U.K. do not mix well, but this was the way Callinicos framed his arguments, so I chose to respond in kind. If the result was an utter mish-mash of nonsense, it only highlights the folly of British “Leninism.”

Even though you claim to disagree with me and Jones (whose precise strategy is ambiguous), you arrive at the same end point: “The conclusion for me is it means that we have to build independent political organizations of a new type, and this will be a difficult process with many hits and misses, but one that ideally has a relationship of constant cross-fertilization with struggles as they arise from whatever quarter, ‘traditional’ or otherwise.”

Call them networks, independent political organizations of a new type, collectives, circles, affinity groups, Occupys, really makes no different to me. The point is to overcome the sectarian fragmentation that exists — three “national” and “united” anti-cuts coalitions, lots of little anti-cuts coalitions, and even more fragmented fights over specific cuts and hospital closures that are not taking up bigger questions like taxing the 1% and so on.

What I find most disturbing on the far left is the tendency to write off Labour, the French SP, and other similar organizations as dead, hopelessly neoliberal, incapable of ever moving in any other direction other than rightwards. It is this type of thinking that paved the way for the NPA’s difficulties because they wrote off the elements breaking from the SP as “reformist,” failing to distinguish between Hollande’s reformism and Melenchon’s, as if all reformists and all reformism is the same at all times and places. It is not.

Another thing worth exploring is to what degree people are going to rally around their moribund “traditional” parties in an era of defensive struggle, which is what I think the austerity era is. We are fighting to hold onto the few crumbs we have, by and large. In this situation, I agree with Jones that trying to re-create Respect or a left-of-Labour party in the immediate 2-5 year time period is probably not a wise choice strategically. I have yet to hear a grounded, convincing argument from Marxists against Jones’ proposal which sounds like a lot of people outside “Leninist” groups think is a good idea. Worrying about how such a network will deal with the problem of tailing Labour instead of Labour tailing it is fine, but should not serve an excuse for not trying it first. Marxists raised the same concern over and over again with Occupy and the Democratic Party and the co-option never materialized.


Nathan Rao January 31, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Thanks for your reply, Binh.

If you’re only interested in the next “2-5 years,” then I think we should all agree that any kind of serious setbacks for the capitalist austerity agenda are not in the cards during this somewhat arbitrary time period — at least not in any country of the capitalist core that this debate has largely been about (USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, etc). Once that rather discouraging fact is out of the way, the question then becomes what strategic orientation offers the most promise for building a political alternative that breaks with austerity and neoliberalism and can mobilize thousands and then millions of people behind such a project. While we should always be the greatest proponents of unity in struggle (defensive and offensive), I think it’s self-defeating to see Social Democracy as a strategic ally of any sort for such a project. We’ll just have to disagree about that, I guess.

I disagree with your explanation of the NPA’s difficulties, and I think you’re misreading the relationship of much of the Trotskyist far Left to Labour, the French SP, etc. While during the initial successful formation and launch phase of the NPA, not much criticism was heard (after all, it’s difficult to argue with success), the “orthodox” far-Left knives came out pretty quickly once the NPA started running into trouble — using precisely the arguments that you are now using here.

After all, most of the Trotskyist far Left has a bit of a fetish about the “traditional organizations of the working class”, which in part goes back to the Transitional Programme’s insistence on the “crisis of humanity being the crisis of the proletarian leadership” — the idea being that everything would work out fine if only we could get the treacherous leaders out of the way and take leadership of the mass working-class parties (Social Democrat and Stalinist).

The NPA sought to break out of this straightjacket — pointing out that it was futile to aspire to the leadership of, or exercise external influence upon, organizations that are a shell of what they once were; and which no longer acted even as imperfect relays of mass struggles.

Why this project then ran into difficulties is a major separate topic. But please don’t think that it’s a simple matter of some hotheads unable to “distinguish between reformists”!


Pham Binh January 31, 2013 at 9:41 pm

We agree then re: austerity in the next 2-5 years.

We do not agree on social democracy, a term that always demands contextualization. Where i live, we have no social democracy. We could use some. Where you live, it’s a very different question. I don’t believe the SP (or even Labour, which isn’t strictly speaking social democratic) is an ally; allies and enemies are based strictly on what the goal is. The network strategy is about building political relationships with people in the SP/Labour and mobilizing with them jointly, nothing more.

The reason I raised the traditional issue is because as much as we say these parties have been hollowed out, they persist despite our best efforts to displace them. I was not one of those gloating over NPA’s difficulties and opportunistically extracting a “pound of flesh” as self-vindication of my shibboleth — I think it’s a terrible loss, more so that the self destruction of the moribund, Jeckyll-and-Hyde SWP of 2013. The NPA documents I looked at were brimming with talk of Melenchon’s awful reformist positions on everything from nuclear power to imperialism and all manner of things, as if anyone waving red flags at his huge rallies was excited by the tame, pseudo-left crap in his program. NPA was a bold experiment, but sometimes experiments blow up, fail, collapse, or produce unintended results. They deserve a lot of credit for taking risks; we in the States don’t have a single organize current with 1/10th of NPA’s courage to try.

I do not subscribe to the Trotskyist “crisis of leadership” in any form. Here in NYC, radicalish union leaders won an election for the transit workers union. They used to meet in the Socialist Party’s office. After they got in, they got hammered by management just the same. Why? Because of the passivity of the rank-and-file. Another example. When ConEd workers were locked out, the union could only get 1/3 or less of its members to show up at picket lines to try to stop scabs from stealing their jobs. The union even threatened to fire people if they didn’t show. Rebuilding worker militancy from the bottom up is not going to be easy and there’s no shortcuts; putting clones of Eugene Debs in charge of every labor council and body in the U.S. wouldn’t solve this problem either.

My point here is that trying to build (or declare) new workers’ parties in the above context in the immediate future is probably not going to work. Trying to displace an existing party (or two) only makes that task more difficult and complicated. The only successful attempt in the West in this regard is SYRIZA — they had a decade head start, and the crisis there is way, way more severe, forcing the contradictions of the process to explode much more quickly and violently than in France, U.K., Germany, or even the U.S. In other words, they face exceptional circumstances. But if we get our act together, maybe we’ll be where SYRIZA is a decade from now.


Nathan Rao February 1, 2013 at 4:23 am

I wasn’t attributing the “crisis of leadership” position to you. I was just responding to your lament about “disturbing tendencies” in the far-Left regarding Social Democratic and similar parties. The “Trotskyist” view on these parties is more complicated than this, and has tended to be more about pressure from the outside and outright “entryism” than about hostile rejection from the sidelines.

With respect to the NPA, the point in internal debates was and is not to draw an equal sign between Mélenchon’s Left Front and the SP, but rather to question its relationship, and especially that of its main member party, the PCF, to the SP in government nationally and locally; its focus on electioneering and institutional solutions rather than mass mobilization and self-organization; and its programmatic vision for a genuinely Left government.

This debate has both short-term and longer-term implications. In the short term, are we in opposition or not to the current SP government, whether in relation to its implementation of the austerity agenda or its military intervention in Mali? In the longer term, is the cause of building a viable genuinely left-wing mass force better served by equivocating on organizational, strategic and programmatic issues in relation to the SP and its national and local governments?

In my view, it’s not sectarian and divisive to take a clear position against a political orientation towards Social Democratic and similar parties. In fact, an orientation towards such parties actually divides and weakens “our side.” We shouldn’t think that working people aren’t aware of the record of these parties, or that the “organic link” between masses of young and working people, especially those most likely to moblize in present period, and these parties bears any resemblance to what it may have been in the post-War period.

While I obviously think it’s important to have clear answers to the above questions (yes, we’re in opposition: no, it’s not better to equivocate), I also understand that this is only the beginning of a strategic vision, especially since (especially in a period of weak and fragmented social-movement mobiilzation) there is a very narrow path to tread between joining the orbit of Social Demoocracy, on the one hand, and falling into the trap of sectarian self-proclamation and organizational/doctrinal rigidity, on the other (or falling into both traps at the same time, which is a far more common occurrence than anyone seems to want to recognize). So that’s why while I am a member of the NPA here in France, I also feel very close to the latest group of NPAers to join the Left Front (the Gauche Anticapitaliste comrades) and the efforts they are making to build a strong left pole within the Left Front — even though I think their energies would be better spent building the NPA…

If I can take an uncharacteristic (for me) stab at a theoretical explanation of what I think this is about, I’d say that class consciousness is a political matter as much as it is an economic one. I was surprised, for example, to see you say that the Labour Party is a “workers party” without qualifying this in any way. You can only say this on the basis of a purely sociological analysis of important sections of its electorate, or by looking at the electoral stance of the trade-union leaderships. But that doesn’t strike me as sufficient basis for anti-capitalists to characterize such parties as “working class”. We used to say that these parties were “bourgeois workers” parties (ie. working-class sociologically but with pro-capitalist programmes), but I don’t think even this captures their current reality.

What happened in France, I think, is that after 15 years of major mass struggles (November 1995 to the defeated huge movement against the pension reform of 2010), large sections of Left opinion lost hope in the possibility of mass struggle defeating the steamroller of capitalist and hard-Right attacks, especially when the consequences of the post-2008 crisis started to bite. They shifted their hopes to the electoral field; and this clearly caught the NPA (in many respects a product of the post-1995 period) off guard, all the more so since it had just been founded when this shift took place and given that the shift from far-Left organization to broad anti-capitalist was in any case a complicated and perilous undertaking.

The NPA couldn’t compete in the electoral field with the SP or with the resurrected CP allied with Mélenchon’s new split from the SP, but also didn’t want to get sucked into an organizational and strategic dynamic not of its own making. I don’t think any serious anti-capitalist can make light of the complex situation the NPA faced (and I know you, Binh, do not).

And let’s not forget one very important thing, which pro-Left Front critics of the NPA always omit: the main beneficiary of the shift from reliance on mass mobilization (1995-2010) to electoralism hasn’t been the Left Front either! It has been the SP, which is now pursuing the austerity agenda with disconcerting gusto and vigour! Mélenchon’s strong presidential result (and, let’s not forget this either, the Left Front’s terrible legislative result) has been utterly powerless to slow let alone halt the SP austerity steamroller. And there’s no reason to think it will be able to do so in 2 or 5 years either, all the more so given that in as little more than 1 year (never mind 2 or 5) the Left Front will probably be very divided and fragmented for the municipal elections, where the CP in particular will be scrambling for alliances with the SP to salvage its elected officials in SP-run local governments…

If we are so interested in “getting results” and “saving crumbs”, shouldn’t we keep this practical and concrete outcome in mind as well?

Sorry for going on for so long…


Pham Binh February 1, 2013 at 11:48 am

“I was surprised, for example, to see you say that the Labour Party is a ‘workers party’ without qualifying this in any way. You can only say this on the basis of a purely sociological analysis of important sections of its electorate, or by looking at the electoral stance of the trade-union leaderships. But that doesn’t strike me as sufficient basis for anti-capitalists to characterize such parties as ‘working class’. We used to say that these parties were ‘bourgeois workers’ parties (ie. working-class sociologically but with pro-capitalist programmes), but I don’t think even this captures their current reality.”

To be clear, I was simply representing Owen Jones’ case which is an interconnected series of propositions. I need to learn more about the Labour Party before weighing in on any of that, but I will say going back to read Lenin’s comments on the Cadets, Trudoviks, Mensheviks, SRs, and Popular Socialists sheds a lot of light on how he characterized political parties/factions which did not rest on their sociological composition.


Arthur January 31, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Both short and medium term economic forecasting are impracticable. Extrapolating that things will be much the same as now in 2 or 3 years will be true more often than not. But we should be preparing for the possibility of a sudden change towards fully developed crisis. Whether that will happen within any particular number of years is impossible to predict, but once you understand that austerity is not a “capitalist offensive” or “policy” or “neoliberal ideology” etc etc as claimed by both the sects and jmilitant reformists, but a consequence of real underlying economic problems then the possibility of a full scale “Great Depression” needs to be taken seriously. That would NOT be a continuation of “austerity” but a sudden shift to something much worse.

To me all the signs indicate that a full blown capitalist crisis is developing and that the various measures taken to postpone it (including both “austerity” and far more significant levels of “Keynesian” “stimulation”) will eventually result in it breaking out with greater intensity than ever. This would be a good time for “Marxists” to actually study Capital.


Brian S. February 1, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Like I usually say in response to your posts, Arthur. Perhaps. The current global economic situation is contradictory. One the one hand, you have the crisis of the main western capitalist economies. On the other you have the significant impetus that was (and could again be) providing stimulus to growth arising from the new phase of globalisation – the rise of China and India, some signs of broader economic growth (but of an uncertain quality and stability) elsewhere in the 3rd world, and the as yet unrealised potential of the reintegration of the former Soviet Union and appendages into the world capitalist system.
I’m not sure that we’re intellectually equipped to deal with this situation. The current crisis has been borne out of the deep financialisation of both the western economies and the global system And I think that’s not just a quantitiative shift in capitalism but a qualitative one. It sort of traces out a new international division of labour – the BRICs provide raw materials and handle physical production while the capitalist centre manages the financial flows. Might have worked, but as always with money, it got out of hand and the financial tail has ended up wagging the productive dog. I have no objection to reading Capital from cover to cover (although the further I pursue that project the more doubts I have about its coherence) – but the key thing is to develop its framework (perhaps modifying it in the process) to understand what is a quite different economic world.
In reality, economic crises are often associated with transitions in economic orders. And my feeling is that this is just such a crisis of transition: although to what is not entirely clear. My feeling is that what we can expect for the western economies is a very protracted period of stagnation – a la Japan – while growth goes on elsewhere. The question is, how will different social forces respond to this – both capitalist and proletarian (and those in between). The capitalists are pursuing classical (or more accurately neo-classical) austerity policies; Keynesian measures would probably be better – but wouldn’t resolve the long term problems. The capitalists are also seeking to resolve the crisis in the classical way – by rationalisation of competing capitals and an attack on all the components of proletarian benefit ( money and social wages., working conditions). But even that may not succeed – and then what?


Arthur January 31, 2013 at 9:48 pm

The sectarian fragmentation is a natural result of a sectarian “movement”. If they were united and had coherent strategies towards mainstream parties they would be a worse problem. The fundamental problem is their explicitly reactionary politics.

People starting to break from that reactionary politics, eg by drawing the line at supporting mass murder by fascist dictators need to go a lot further towards developing a genuinely progressive politics before much more needs to be done in the way of organization than simply opening up debate so people can learn to think again.

eg phrases like “We are fighting to hold onto the few crumbs we have” are mere repetitions of what passed for analysis, propaganda and slogans in the sects and simply cannot be defended as a meaningful statement about what is actually going on or should be going on in the real world.


Brian S. February 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm

@Pham Binh: There are twod different things involved here. I think its highly likely that as organisations “Labour, the French SP, and other similar organizations” are “dead, hopelessly neoliberal, incapable of ever moving in any other direction other than rightwards.” I don’t see much evidence to the contrary. However that does not mean that there may not be some significant political forces in these organisations. or, more importantly, drawn around them as the fight against austerity develops an electoral focus, or as their future capitulation generates internal tensions. And the socialist left clearly needs to develop means of relating to them.
Regarding the third term of this formula: “incapable of ever moving in any other direction other than rightwards.” I think the French (and to some extent German) experience shows that the only force that can push modern social democratic party machines to theleft is the emergence of a significant force on their left flank. And that is far more likely to be built on the extra-parliamentary terrain than in internal party struggles (although they may also have their place).
There is an ambiguity in Owen Jones proposal: When he says “Faced with a more courageous, coherent challenge to the Tory project, the Labour leadership would face pressure that would not – for a change – come from the right.” He is on target. But when he says “there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people” he is in danger of repeating the error of left social democrats (and others) down the decades- deflecting the left towards unwinnable internal struggles within the Labour machine. Maybe this is just a bit of throwaway rhetoric; maybe its an idea just emerging – but I would tread carefullly.


Rick January 31, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Callinicos (and the SWP) needs to revisit Trotsky on democratic centralism in a “Leninist” organization:

“Whoever is acquainted with the history of the Bolshevik Party knows what a broad autonomy the local organizations always enjoyed; they issued their own papers, in which they openly and sharply, whenever they found it necessary, criticized the actions of the Central Committee. Had the Central Committee, in case of principled differences, attempted to disperse the local organizations or to deprive them of literature (their bread and water) before the party had an opportunity to express itself—such a central committee would have made itself impossible. Naturally, as soon as it became necessary, the Bolshevik Central Committee could give orders. But subordination to the committee was possible only because the absolute loyalty of the Central Committee toward every member of the party was well known, as well as the constant readiness of the leadership to hand over every serious dispute for consideration by the party. And, finally, what is most important, the Central Committee possessed extraordinary theoretical and political authority, gained gradually in the course of years, not by commands, not by beating down, but by correct leadership, proved by deeds in great events and struggles.” Trotsky, The Crisis in the German Left Opposition


Pham Binh February 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

Some interesting comments taken from Socialist Unity about what these nascent developing networks look like:

George Hallam: “Rather than speculate why not examine an actual case? Like Lewisham.
We have built up a campaign in support of our local hospital and the NHS. As you may have heard our demonstration last Saturday mobilised around 20,000 people (this is a factually based estimate, not your usual lefty exaggeration).

The latest news, is that the Government is pressing ahead with the closure of the maternity unit. The A&E is to be shrunk, though, as a sop to local feelings, not quite as much as the original proposal. This response was anticipated and the campaign will continue.

The campaign is very broadly based. A number of small ‘Left’ groups have participated in the campaign and other I know some very hard things have been said on this site about the SWP, and the AWL, so I would like to mention the way they have helped with leaflet distribution, flyposting, making placards and stewarding the demonstration. AWL members, in particular, made an outstanding contribution to the organisation of Saturday’s rally.

Members of the Labour Party too have done an enormous amount of work. These include some councilors. LP members have also liaised with the Mayor to ensure cooperation from the council on various matters.

Having said this it should be understood that a great many of the campaign’s activists, probably the majority are not part of any ‘Left’ group (including the Labour Party). Some do not regard themselves as part of the ‘Left’ at all.

Despite all these differences, we have managed to keep on working together.

I hope nobody will think that this has happened easily or spontaneously.”

Barry Kade:
“I think the most important question that concerns me now is how we organise in the future.

The crisis of the SWP has caused a lot of debate in my circles – way beyond the SWP – and the debate isnt so much about the SWP, they are already seen as history. Rather this crisis is becoming, in a small way, some sort of lightening rod to conduct discussion towards future forms of organisation or movement. What is the new left?

I don’t know what its like for other readers / posters around the SU blog, but there is definitely a new situation here, a generational shift, that has emerged over about three years, since autumn 2010. On our local campus, the hardcore group of 20 first year students who met each other around the first anti-cuts demos and the Millbank Occupation are now third years, but still a group. They have grown, with new additions each year, now there is a core of around 30 young left activists. Only 3 or 4 are in the SWP, a few are anarchists, there are other diffuse anti-capitalist ideas. They meet as a general group each week, hold regular demonstrations on different issues, hold film showings, etc. They have sophisticated discussions about tactics, ideas, history. Its a joy. This looks like a generational shift amongst activists. For nearly twenty years left student activism withered and died on British campuses. The SWP could sustain a few dozen SWSS groups that stood out in the barren time. But they had to be sustained by a party life support system, nurtured by full timers, they took an effort to keep alive, they, like the party, felt like an anachronism we dragged through the history of the neoliberal period. Now, I see a self-organising anti-capitalist student movement on our local campus. There is no SWSS group here, just a relatively large, active, anti-capitalist milieu that can sustain itself in a way that hasn’t seemed to happen for decades.
In town, the situation is similar – fluid coalitions of activists, organised around anti-cuts groups, Occupy, the trades council, a peoples assembly bringing lots together, and connecting with thousands of local people around the question of hospital closures, the bedroom tax and more.

We have had three years of anti-austerity activism. We have not had many breakthroughs or victories. But people are not drifting away. Instead there are growing pools of activists building dense interconnections between them, and engaging in ever more sophisticated political debates.

The SWP hoped to be the inheritors of this radicalisation. They waited 40 years for this crisis. Now they will definitely not be the destination of this radicalism. I thought I’d check out ‘Marxism 2012′ and other events this year – and found myself quite saddened (but not shocked) to see how few of the new generation of radicals were there, how many old friends I met instead in the thinning ranks. But if anyone had any last hopes that the SWP would somehow overcome its structural flaws and somehow experience a second wave of development and growth with the re-emergence of structural, global and historic crises must now finally accept that this will not be the case.

I was also opened minded about the Labour Party, about whether it would be a new home for this emerging generation of anti-austerity activists, this new left. With attempts to reconnected with the core vote, the choice of Ed not Dave, etc., again it was possible to entertain hope. But the labour party is not where it is at, at least in my locality. Its part of the mix once again, in local campaigns to defend the NHS, etc – but also unable to articulate the needs or express the identity of the anti-austerity generation. So there is a growing ‘outside left’, a homeless left, and the crisis of the SWP just intensifies this problem, bringing the need to address it higher up the agenda of many activists.

The crisis of the SWP therefore happens at a time when in every locality, new lefts are emerging. I have no naive hope that the implosion of the SWP would automatically clear the way for something better. But am I not sure we need a ‘new SWP’ with a new monolithic ‘line’ at the moment. Andy N’s dismissal of the SWP Oppositionists as eclectic and heterogenous misses the point, and even mirrors the conceits to the self-imagined Leninists from the other side, that without this, any future groups or networks will be ephemeral.
In the coming period, it may be quite possible for a more general, plural, federated socialist movement to grow and exist – for a while. It may not ossify and institutionalize itself for decades, and thats a good thing. Maybe it will be unstable and collapse after a few years. But it could, in its lifetime, help develop the re-emergence or recomposition of a class movement here.

If the SWSS groups were to break as a whole, that could be the basis of something fairly interesting, the possibility of new thinking and new experiments in organizing, a generation of politicised marxists without the baggage of decades.

Of course, this is all just as likely to lead to atomisation and fragmentation. But why be fatalistic? For lots of us, now is the time to intervene, to save the left, to help shape a new left.”

So to a certain extent, the networks are already in motion and the “Leninists” are tailing, not leading, as usual.


Nathan Rao February 2, 2013 at 4:29 am

Thanks for posting these interesting comments, Binh. What Barry Kade says, in particular, speaks to what I was trying to say about avoiding two traps: trying to channel this new wave of radicalization into the old organizationally and doctrinally rigid far-Left mould; but also avoiding the orbit of Social Democracy et al. While, in the absence of a strong and credible candidate of their own, calling for a Labour vote in Britain’s crappy electoral system might often make sense, I would be very surprised (and disappointed!) to learn, for example, that the people Barry is talking about would hurl themselves into Labour electioneering and internal politicking, or stop mobilizing just because there is a Labour national or local government.

But how do you consolidate such a crowd, and such an orientation, whose existence and unity are and will continue to be fragile for a longish period? We would agree, I think, that you need a new form of completely “sovereign” anti-capitalist organization; IN ADDITION TO AND SEPARATE FROM (sorry, I don’t know how to get italics here) whatever alliances may be formed locally and nationally in the course of anti-austerity and social-movement struggle. And keeping such an organization autonomous from the expansive and myriad tentacles of Social Democracy, inside and outside government, is vital — but this is where it tends to get complicated…


Brian S. February 2, 2013 at 1:23 pm

@Nathan Rao: The formula that you suggest is right “you need a new form of completely “sovereign” anti-capitalist organization; IN ADDITION TO AND SEPARATE FROM( caps are fine – its what we all do in the absence of italics) whatever alliances may be formed locally and nationally in the course of anti-austerity and social-movement struggle.”
While the critique of left vanguardism being developed here is quite right, you can’t get around the need to organise at two distinct levels – the unity of those prepared to fight in key class issues; and the parallel need to organise those who have a wider and deeper appreciation of the struggle – who see it connected with other issues across time and space, based on some insight into the structures which have generated the crisis, and therefore some capacity to evolve potential solutions (or at least movement towards solutions.)
” I would be very surprised (and disappointed!) to learn, for example, that the people Barry is talking about would hurl themselves into Labour electioneering and internal politicking, or stop mobilizing just because there is a Labour national or local government.”
Well, the situation is likely to be a complex one. I too would be disappointed if the “stop mobilising” bit occured. But the “fluid coalitions of activists, organised around anti-cuts groups, Occupy, the trades council, a peoples assembly bringing lots together, and connecting with thousands of local people” will certainly be drawn towards hoping for a Labour victory – and if hoping why not working? The key political task will be to turn the call for a Labour government into a MOBILISING (see) and not de-mobilising strategy. Some serious left-led “electioneering” would be a fresh wind for Labour (no one has knocked on my door canvassing for Labour at election time for the past 10 years).
I’m not sure how far to carry this reasoning: its extremely likely that we’re moving towards a situation in which large numbers of people are going to rally around Labour with expectations that are likely to be sharply dashed once Labour has won the election. That is something we need to start preparing for – and I suspect there is no “one right strategy”.


Nathan Rao February 4, 2013 at 5:01 am

Thanks for the reply, Brian S. I go along with your comments, except for the part on left-led canvassing for Labour. The last thing we need is to become foot soldiers for a revival of Labour’s electoral fortunes. True, finding the right arguments and organizational forms isn’t easy, but I think it’s absolutely essential to build a strategic-organizational project that has an explicitly independent and adversarial political relationship toward Labour; and which focuses on the need for mass mobilization and self-organization (around what you call the “key class issues”). In the present circumstances, and for better or worse, the thousands of people in and around what remains of the far Left — including the SWP and its various recent and less recent offshoots — have an important part to play in the implementation of such a project…


Arthur February 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

Re social democracy. Seems to me that countries like USA, Britain and Australia both parties are conservative AND both parties are reformist/social democratic. The “centre left” and “centre right” are in basic agreement on most issues. This includes BOTH a consensus in favour of capitalism AND a consensus in favour of the sort of amelioration of capitalism (“welfare state”, big government, etc) that were once suppoted only by social democrats and opposed by their opponents.

This is particularly striking in the USA where the Republicans have had to go to enormous efforts of denouncing “socialism”, taxes etcto avoid people noticing that of the two reformist/conservative parties theirs has been the one that has most rapidly expanded big government etc.

But surely its also noticeable in Britain too,

What obscrues it is the partisan supporters of the two major parties who denounce each other with a fervour that would only make sense if there were important issues at stake, The pseudo-left enthusiastically participates in this. Instead of admitting they they support the center left, which would expose the rest of their “left” rhetoric, they paint the centre right as fascist war mongers etc. The fervour with which they join the centre left in denouncing the center right helps obscure the fact that they are in fact tied to the center left.


Joaquín Bustelo February 18, 2013 at 3:30 am

Pham Binh wrote:

“The Bolsheviks were a continuously existing faction of a broader multi-tendency Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) for nearly 20 years until factions were banned at the 10th party congress in 1921. The SWP bans factions during 9 out of 12 months of the year on pain of expulsion.”

Pardon this digression into historical questions ….

I agree with Pham Binh that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were not separate parties in 1912. Paul LeBlanc says something like “in practice” or “in essence” they were two separate parties beginning in 1912, but that’s not how the participants looked at it at the time.

It may be that, in retrospect, looking at the historical record as it accumulated, by 1912 it became clear to later observers that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were in reality becoming two separate parties and not two wings of the same party. But that substitutes our understanding for theirs. It’s sort of like the difference between being pregnant and having a baby. One leads to the other, but there is a point of qualitative change with the birth of the baby.

Even if the indicia of pregnancy were undeniable by 1912, that did not become clear to Lenin until a couple of years later. And even then, understanding that a birth is coming and the event itself are two different things.

In August 1914, Lenin initially believed the reports of German social-democratic deputies voting for war credits were a police fabrication. What this shows is that when WWI broke out, Lenin still had a high degree of political confidence in social democracy taken as a whole, given the weight of Kautsky and those who looked to him in those parties.

Yes, Lenin knew that he’d been wrong within a few days, but that was not true of the RSDLP, the real party, the people who identified with it and looked to it for leadership in the Tsarist empire, until AFTER the February revolution in Russia in 1917.

It was only with the post-February Revolution political climate that allowed for open political debate and organizing that the split became real on the ground. Lenin’s April Theses, with its call to renounce social democracy by calling the party “Communist,” and to create a new, communist international against the social democratic one, is the founding document of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) as distinct from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party that both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks until then had viewed themselves as part of.

I don’t think that Pham Binh is right (if I understood correctly) in viewing the pre-1917 RSDLP and the post-1917 RCP(B) as essentially the same party. I think with the debate on and adoption of the April theses, and the Bolshevik’s fusion with a different trend, the pre-1917 Trotskyists, the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP had transformed into a distinct party, even if they grew out of the old party and even still used the name of the RSDLP and viewed themselves as its continuation. Alternatively one could say that a change or clarification of who fit in the RSDLP took place then. A half pound of one, eight ounces of the other.

They no longer viewed most of the Menshevik trends as being in the same party with them even as they welcomed one of them, Trotsky’s Menshevik trend, into what was, in essence, the RCP(B) even if the formal name change hadn’t yet been adopted.

But even if you think this is a distinction without a difference, the context in which the pre-October and post-October parties functioned were so radically different as to make trying to find some commonality between them a project to be regarded with the utmost caution.

That because the genuine Marxist tradition is that organization is a function of concrete political tasks, not abstractions like program, “party building” and so on.

I don’t think the 1921 ban on factions, just like the largely unhindered existence of factions prior to the 10th Congress, tells us anything about today EXCEPT that defense of certain rules or practices “because” the Bolsheviks did it that way are bogus.

That, of course, was Pham Binh’s main point, which I wholeheartedly agree with despite my preference for a more nuanced recounting of the experience of Lenin and his friends.


Pham Binh February 18, 2013 at 9:42 am

I didn’t mean to imply that the RSDLP and RCP(B) were qualitatively the same party or that there was no difference. If someone had proposed the 1921 ban on factions I’m sure people would view this as lunacy (especially since it would mean banning the Bolsheviks, the dominant faction in the party).

Lars Lih wrote an excellent piece discussion how 1917 changed the party:

LeBlanc has not refuted Lih’s points here, nor has he tried (because it’s not possible).

The notion that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were separate parties before 1914 or even during 1917 is a “Leninist” myth. It is useful to them because it justifies expelling or excluding “reformists” (the Mensheviks were not reformists, nor did Lenin ever describe them as such) from the ranks to preserve to alleged political purity of the so-called revolutionary party. The implication of this fact is that right up until the revolution revolutionaries and reformists (or “reformists”) might be in one and the same organization, with the latter fighting for predominance over the former to prevent their hegemony in the party and the class.

1917 split the Mensheviks; some Menshevik internationalists and followers of Trotsky joined hands with the Bolsheviks at the August 1917 RSDLP Congress, others (like Martov) clung stubbornly to Kerensky’s coattails until October and even after.

The Mensheviks were centrists, not reformists, at least according to Lenin.

What is interesting about all of the above is that no attempt was made by the Bolshevik majority to discipline the wayward Mensheviks, expel them, put them on trial, and so on for treachery, vacillation, and defying the decisions of party institutions like the August congress. Perhaps they were too busy leading the revolution to play “Leninist” party discipline games like the British SWP.


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