Part one of this essay considered the forgotten pluralism of Russian social democracy and specifically Bolshevism.
In this second installment, I want to reflect upon how this might apply to smaller groups of revolutionaries who don’t enjoy mass support in the working class. These are groups that cannot claim to be a party that represents the leadership of a broad cross section of the working class and are therefore generally more modest in their reach and goals.
In the 21st century, the Trotskyist-Leninist left has been mostly reduced to such organisations, that invariably concentrate on disseminating communist ideas and playing a role in developing wider social struggle. This description is seemingly uncontroversial, but the problem lies in the actual practice of small communist organisations in the context of the disintegration of the Trotskyist movement before and after the war, and their pronounced tendency to collapse into confessional sects. With Stalinism hegemonic on the left wing of the workers’ movement in the last century, and with its parties that identified with the states of Russia, China, and Eastern Europe, the tendency was to create small, highly homogenous organisations that each claimed a monopoly on truth with their theoretical output seeking to elaborate a doctrine that can then be organisationally embodied in the small organisation. Much of the Trotskyist movement also tended to mimic and adapt to Stalinism, either in their organisational ‘party building’ practices, or in their political accommodation to the Stalinist regimes perceived to be more radical, e.g. Yugoslavia, China, and Cuba.
The result was the creation of a myriad of new orthodoxies defended by the organisational form of the sect. Trotskyism was one, perhaps the most enduring, but in the context of the 1930s and 1960s there was competition from various other trends, from Branderlerites to the Maoists and council communists. 1
This article is largely a critique of the “sect-form” and a plea for greater plurality, organisational unity, and flexibility on the radical left.
Monopolists in the sphere of politics
The need for the sect to define itself against the rest of the left, and in turn school its adherents in the codified ‘fundamentals’ of its tradition, fosters a binary, “right or wrong”, conception of Marxism. The resulting tendency for party adherents to try and “get it right” above all else undermines the encouragement of critical thinking, able to draw upon the plurality of viewpoints and theories, that is necessary for Marxism to develop as a living and scientific mode of thought. This outlook was sadly exemplified by U.S. Trotskyist Morris Stein at the 1944 convention of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP):
“We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.” 2
Even if the party in question could claim 80,000 members in a mass working class of millions it would be a hopelessly authoritarian approach to political discourse within the working class movement. Yet is down right ridiculous coming from a leader of a revolutionary organisation with around 1,000 members or less. You simply do not have the range of experiences, the intellectual resources, the organic relationship to broad cross section of the masses, that could justify a claim to have a monopoly on truth nor even a special claim to be the leadership-in-waiting of the working class.
Quite simply all you have is your “tradition” or “programme” which is the flag by which you define yourself.
Few on the Trotskyist left would look at Stein’s comments and remark, “yes, Stein has captured how small groups of revolutionaries should relate to the wider working class movement”. Yet, his remarks – in their crude and unmediated form – actually have the merit of articulating the underlying methodology that is accepted by numerous organisations on the modern revolutionary left. Its dangers lie the authoritarian desire of the monopolist in the sphere of truth to defeat those who are ‘wrong’, in order to lay the basis for the political hegemony of their sect in the wider movement.
The experiences of sect warfare on the activist left that we are all familiar with are rooted in this basic psychological assumption about the relationship between one’s sect and the wider left and working class movement. It is often expressed in putting organisational advantages for your party ahead of the interests of the wider movement, something that we have seen time and again in Britain in the repeated refusal of the radical left to work towards a united anti-cuts movement. Of course, confidence in one’s own politics is a necessary basis for any critical debate – to argue about anything one has to believe in one’s position – but the truth is that the contemporary left often substitutes rhetoric for a real, living illustration of its ideas, i.e. an illustration subject to practical verification in struggle. For a debate to be worth having, and for an idea to have relevance to real politics, then you have to hold out the possibility that you might be wrong, even going so far as to define the circumstances that would disprove your core claim.
Democratic Centralism or Monolith-ism?
In the post-war left, radical organisations tended to be homogenous to the point of being monolithic in their ideas with a secretive conception of democratic centralism, that withheld their strategic discourse to party members, outside the view of the working class. In this sense, they embodied a practice closer to Stalinism in form if not in content. This model tends to deny personal initiative in theoretical questions by insisting the great majority of analytical or theoretical questions have to be agreed by the leadership of the organisation before being published. Likewise it insists upon absolute unanimity in public expressions of party line and outlaws any fraternal public criticism of the organisation as a breach of discipline.
Is this a good way to organise? Or, to be more specific, is this really the best way to organise? I want to make the point that the position “maximum debate internally, maximum unity in public” or “internal debate, unity in action”, are best seen as ideal aspirations for the political practice of the revolutionary left. Those who argue that smaller revolutionary cadre organisations need to keep all internal debate and party life secret from the public are only fostering a bad practice that exacerbates the tendency towards schisms. By giving minorities in small communist groups no rights of public expression at all a hothouse atmosphere is often created where disputes spin out of control and far out of proportion to the differences that they (usually) substantively involve. This in turn actually increases the likelihood of a split and compounds the tendency to sect isolation (i.e. small size).
So, communist organisations that are highly closed, i.e. do not open their discussions up to a degree of plurality and difference and insist their their group embodied the “true” Marxist programme, are more likely to split, as minorities have no choice but to split, if they want to simply be able to express a divergence of line from a majority position. This is often seen as a classical model, one rooted in the orthodoxy of Leninism, but as I argued in part one, the debates within Russian social democracy and their interchange with the parties of the Second International and Marxists like Luxemburg and Kautsky, were entirely open. Arguments were had out in front of the working class, making possible the testing of positions against the real experiences of living struggle, and developing a collective, socialist political culture of free and open interchange. Even in conditions of illegality in Russia, the exile community of Marxists continued their lively debates and arguments in full view of the entire movement.
The so-called ‘classical’ model of democratic centralism – i.e. the view that the sect has to keep all its debates secret to itself, and only present its conclusions to the working class – actually developed in the period of the collapse of the movement into the conditions of the sect.
It has nothing in common with the best traditions of early 20th century Marxism.
Defenders of this so-called ‘orthodox’ position often cite the experience of the International Marxist Group (IMG) in Britain (one time British section of the Fourth International, led by people such as Tariq Ali, Alan Thornett, and Peter Gowan in the 1970s) that allowed ‘permanent factions’ (no one had to dissolve their factions after conference) and was apparently paralysed by internal debate. This example, so it is argued, is seen as proof that allowing a degree of plurality will always lead to disaster for a revolutionary group, i.e. permanent debates amongst cliques that can’t agree a common strategy.
History, however, tells a slightly different story. The IMG grew quite successfully in the 1970s, despite its permanent factions. Their internal debates did not qualitatively hinder their ability to intervene into the struggle. What tore them apart was politics, simply the fact that different wings of the leadership began to pull in different directions, some towards a Castro-ite orientation, others towards a strategic Labour Party entryism (what became Socialist Action) and others wanted to orientate to the new social movements (what became the International Socialist Group/Socialist Resistance).
Would banning factions have prevented this? It may have delayed it, but it was the objective impact of world politics and shifting international alignments which tore through most of the radical left in any case. This did for the Fourth International section – reducing that complex process to the problem of ‘permanent factions’ is so shallow it does violence to any general analysis. Furthermore, banning factions or tendencies or insisting upon absolute agreement of programme and method in this instance would only have resulted in the necessity of creating a kind of witchhunt in the party, as cadre loyal to the leadership identified “bad elements” and targetted them for exclusion. Not quite the kind of culture we want to create, surely?
Plurality Is a Fact of Life – Deal With It
Plurality must mean relaxing some of the constitutional rules concerning the one party line in public. The argument that a minority must be silenced in public to implement the political arguments of the majority and that through this joint work the veracity of one side of the other can be proven in practice, needs to be critically reconsidered. For the Bolsheviks maximum unity in action meant exactly that unity in action around commonly agreed policies. But within the RSDLP public criticism was allowed so long as it did not disrupt these actions, and did not constitute attacking the party in public. The Bolsheviks demanded a greater degree of homogeneity because they were a faction within a wider party, but as we saw in part one the idea that every member of the faction argued one line and was punished with expulsion if they deviated from this is not backed up by the historical record.
Either way, we can make a positive case for greater public displays of political debate. Allowing for freedom of criticism actually helps an organisation refine its arguments, clarify its points of agreement, differences, and better inform the actions it chooses to take in the future.
It is nonsense to think that ideas can be “tested” in a public argument in the way that concrete action can, because discussions over principles, theory, perspectives and analysis, will involve different interpretations of the practical activity the organisation has undertaken together.
This is because the argument that silencing the minority to “test the majority perspectives” has something of a flaw in it. Simply put, a small communist organisation can rarely prove its slogans or perspectives in practice. A slogan calling for a general strike cannot be “proven” through agitation by a propaganda group. It may be possible to win some hearing for it and therefore increase the influence or size of the organisation, but that does not ‘prove’ a policy correct, as any number of people can support all kinds of ideas. The truth is always contested, requires theoretical justification as well as empirical verification, and, in any case, we will be able to achieve the closest approximation of the truth if we have a common organisational framework for the argument, rather than it taking place in public between rival sects and in private behind the walls of the given sect.
Likewise, debates over perspectives and the ‘mood’ of the class always have to be mediated by fact of a lack of implantation and a tendency to substitute accurate impressions for schema, or mistake anecdotal episodes for general trends across a whole cross-section of the class. Socialists often read into their experiences through the prism of revolutionary optimism, which can lead to quite inaccurate assessments of where people are at more generally.
Furthermore, it can be hard to judge whether your slogans have had much impact on consciousness. In all these senses ‘testing’ your perspectives can be a difficult task. In the Trotskyist tradition arguments over these kinds of issues have often led to sharp internal struggles and splits. But this should not be the case. Rather the crucial thing should be whether there is a common method, for example, an agreement that you should not tail arguments to what reformists will accept but to argue, and take practical steps to seek to achieve, what is necessary to win. All of this points to a relaxing of the standard Leninist mindset of ‘all or nothing, my way or the highway’ and a certain modesty about where we are at now.
The Unbeareable Darkness of Splits
The sect “as monopolists in the field of politics” is a definite factor in the multiple splits in the post-war Trotskyist tradition that is distinctive from the problems of opportunism and sectarianism. It is a general problem, a pervasive set of practices and way of thinking about how politics should be done.
In the 21st century this will have to change for Trotskyism to be able to reach out to wider layers. The choice is simple: remain closed and isolated or open yourselves up to criticism, greater plurality and difference, and allow your ideology to properly crystallize in the minds of the masses.
Small groups will tend to split insofar as they have to be monolithically homogeneous in public, because it closes down any possible space for a release valve for the disagreements or for a healthy engagement with the wider movement.
If the programme or strategy is conceived as all-encompassing and if perspectives are also thought of as fundamental to elaborating the programme, then any disagreements that emerge over any of those issues will be treated as “from a scratch to gangrene”.
That is, a break from the programme or tradition and an ineluctable collapse into “centrism”. The use of terms like centrist or liquidationism, ‘a collapse away from Leninism and Trotskyism’, etc, in a manner out of proportion to the real differences, will exacerbate this tendency, and, as categorical statements of revolutionary de-legitimation, substitute for genuinely rational discussion. A similar phenomenon that accompanies this is ad hominem accusations that people are police spies, agents of other groups, ‘degenerate’ or any other slur under the sun. Ironic really because historically speaking, Trotskyists in particular should to be aware of how Left Opposition activists were shut down in the Soviet Union by being labelled as “fascists”, “pro imperialists”, “saboteurs”, and so on. Consider how the abusive term “Trotskyist” is used by union leaders of managers to isolate and smoke out working place militants. It stems from a similar approach. Sadly the personalist attacks on party members during bitter faction fights are often only a reflection of the way they refer to other socialists most of the time anyway. An example of this is the number of times I have heard other socialists dismissed as “crazy” or “mad” for expressing a different political view. 3
Everything can be blown out of proportion by party cadre (“we are fighting to save the very essence of the revolutionary programme which only we have!”) and this means they cannot test the veracity of falsity of their ideas in the working class. The result is that the minority often simply to leave and set up their own group (“To hell with this, these people are crazy!”). Of course every time this happens there is a lot of self justificatory talk about how the new group will go forward and be better in every way than the last group which has degenerated, become petty bourgeois, and so on (the remaining majority declare that the splitters “will pass into the dustbin of history” and have “entered the swamp” etc). But in such circumstances each group faces loss of members, influence and even potential ruin as a result. Often the most important thing is they lose their credibility.
The problem with being monopolists is that everyone is educated to think they are the bearers of truth, and when two truths collide then the result is usually a break down, or break up. In this logic no plurality of opinion is possible because it is impossible for truth and falsehood to co-exist in the same space – one must drive out the other. Tactical differences can be containable, but the internal logic of the organisation tends to blend tactics in with perspectives and strategy, snowballing disagreements into unsolvable debates.
If the politics of the organisation is seen as one totalising line which is utterly interconnected and interwoven with history, theory, perspective and so on, there is a tendency to raise secondary tactics to matters of principle. Shall we vote Labour or not? Should we support a disaffiliation from the Labour party motion? These are often debated as if they are issues of principle, despite the fact that they plainly are not – they are questions of tactics.
Before people think this is a plea for relativism, I can assure you it is not. It is not to say there is no such thing as right and wrong – some things are just wrong and some things are just right. For instance capitalism is a system that exploits and oppresses billions, it must be replaced by something more democratic, egalitarian and just. Likewise, the capitalist state at its core is an apparatus of class rule, it is impossible to imagine how it could be completely captured and used by the working class to overthrow the bosses. The appeal for more plurality of views and acceptance of debate as part of a necessary recomposition of the left, is rather to appeal to the classical Greek notion of dialectics, “the art of conversation”.
This involved the revolutionary idea that a participant in a debate should seek to understand the other side’s position, try and develop the strongest possible argument in favour of it, either to incorporate them into one’s own argument or to develop a stronger rebuttal.
The monolithism of the Trotskyist movement and its organisational forms tend heavily towards ruling out just such a practice, whilst claiming to be the upholders of democractic practices in the workers movement.
Can We Be More Flexible?
Since all groups want to develop “party lines” or policy – and it is only correct that they do – it is important to sometimes have a wide tolerance for interpretation or even how it is used in any situation. Whilst having members meetings and voting on policies, slogans and campaigning priorities is essential in any democratic organisation and mobilising the organisation to fight for these is a necessary fact of political life, the essential point is that too much of “Leninist” thinking is unduly flexible and overly centralist in its attitude.
After all, often in politics a “line” operates only at a certain level of generality.It might refer to something quite specific (a vote in an election) or it might be a more general point about an analysis or theoretical argument (imperialism, the nature of reformism, etc). Let’s go back to the Russian example, since people are generally inclined to look their for answers.
In Lenin’s understanding of slogans and tactics there was often a necessary degree of mediation between them and the strategic goal. For instance, whilst writing from abroad during World War One he made the case for revolutionary defeatism as a strategic goal in Russia (turn imperialist war into a civil war ending in a revolution). He was not advocating “defeat for Russia” as an agitational slogan on the ground. Jean-Paul Joubert describes his position thus:
“The position of Lenin cannot, therefore, be summed up in the one word ‘defeatism’. He regarded revolutionary defeatism as the result of a strategic line – which he was not alone in recommending – the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war. When we study his writings closely, we find that he refers to ‘defeatism’ less frequently than the subsequent use of the word by commentators might lead us to expect. In the final analysis, Lenin did not make acceptance of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ a precondition, or even a preliminary, to joint activity: the formula is found neither in the unity proposals which he addressed to the Nashe Slovo group in 1915, nor in the draft resolution and manifesto of the ‘Zimmerwald Left’.” 4
Leaders like Bukharin preferred more general anti-war slogans which could reach out to a wider anti war mood amongst the working class. Lenin had his reasons for why revolutionary defeatism was correct – and the revolution of 1917, which was of course a ‘civil war’ in the broad sense of the term validated his core perspective - but it is impossible to imagine that the Bolshevik members in the regiments carried much propaganda advocating the defeat for Russian soldiers (them and their comrades) at the hands of the Germans. That literary output was orientated more towards the terrible conditions of the army, the heartless and callous attitude of the generals and government ministers, the expansionist nature of the war, and so on. As long as the strategic concept of opposing both German and Russian imperialism was there, then there was flexibility about slogans on the ground. But on the surface this (falsely) looks like a “compromise” with Menshevik Internationalism (simply being antiwar and not anti-imperialist). Giving the members and local leaders some leeway to explore the practical implications of a strategy is a necessary part of building an organisation. Lenin wrote about it long before 1914 when he talked about the branches having “autonomy” from the centre to produce their own materials and so on. 5
The reality is that although many left groups refer to themselves as pre-party formations or factions-without-a-party, they generally act as if they were much larger parties. By this I mean they have all the trappings of a mass party, membership structure, branches, national committees, political committees, editorial boards, an auxiliary youth organisation and so forth. They produce a paper and have a definite programme which encompasses pretty much everything. They organise like a party and behave like a party – just a very small one. In fact, the only trapping of a mass party that is lost in the pre-party formation is the right to expression of external differences. Why is this singled out as the one variable that is essential to cut in the pre-party stage?
Indeed, why is there such a fetish about a united line on nearly all political issues in public? Supposedly because the ‘pre-party formation’ is a faction without a party and factions must agree on everything? But what if some of the faction begin to disagree and the disagreements become quite fundamental? Then the faction will split and there will be two smaller factions-without-a-party. This is the logic of post-war monolithism in the left. Despite this, it is still insisted that unity in public is necessary for effective intervention, yet it is difficult to imagine a greater hinderance to public ‘intervention’, than a split.
We must be able to afford a little more flexibility and common sense around this issue if we are to build a more healthy revolutionary left.
What does all this point to?
Simply this: that any revolutionary organisation will inevitably have contending tendencies and platforms within it and we have to become better at building more elastic organisations that can manage and even come to take advantage of these differences.
The fact that organisations have historically dealt with this reality badly is part of the problem that we face today. Any organisation that considers itself to be the revolutionary party or the revolutionary party in embryo will have to deal with the nature of plurality and openness.
Denying any public expressions of these differences, closing down debate, demagogically emphasising “centralism” over democratic participation is simply not going to work any more.
As such our goal in the coming years should be to lay the basis for a united, revolutionary organisation in Britain, one that will inevitably combine different already existing tendencies and individuals, whilst broadening itself out to people who have never been in an organisation before. It may form part of a new radical left coalition (similar to Syriza) or it may not, but a stronger revolutionary challenge to capitalist is an absolute must in the current crisis.
This means we have to incorporate important lessons from what came before without being prisoners of the past.
A new, sizeable revolutionary organisation would forge its own tradition, it could not simply rest content with the traditions of the 1920s and 30s (or the 60s and 70s). The problem is that many socialists take their model from a fixed interpretation of Bolshevism after 1917 – without thinking about how that revolutionary party in Russia was built up over time in constant debate and evolution of its ideas. As we have seen, the reading of the Bolshevik party also mistakenly sees it as excessively homogenous and this underpins the monolithism of the post-war Trotskyist and Leninist organisations (sadly a result of Stalinist influence on the revolutionary left). If we start from the end point (ie 1917-21) and use that as our beginning, without taking into account the actual evolutionary process that rendered Bolshevism successful as a living oppositional force within the workers movement, then we will be unable to replicate the kind of organic development of a working class party which was so essential to what became known as Leninism.
I will finish with two quotes, the first an argument made by Alan Wald, a U.S. socialist writing for Against the Current in 1995 who examined the failure of U.S. Trotskyism and concluded the following:
“The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of a broad and democratically functioning team leadership, based on an organisation institutionalising multiple tendencies and pluralism, that balances out strengths and weaknesses in order to sustain a movement diachronically as well as synchronically.” 6
This, in my opinion, is the way forward.
In this sense I think that Murray Smith of the Fourth International was right when he argued (against John Rees and Alex Callinicos of the SWP) in 2002:
“The idea that at any given moment living revolutionary parties contain all sorts of currents, tendencies and trends, not all of them revolutionary, some ultra-left, is hardly new. It was true for the Bolshevik Party and for the parties of the early Communist International. We have to approach the building of new parties with a willingness to work with diverse forces and the patience to let clarification come about through debate on common experience. It is quite sterile to approach the tasks of the present period armed with a norm of what a revolutionary party should be, which is in fact just a bigger version of the existing far left organisations. The mass revolutionary parties of the future will not be the SWP or the LCR or Lutte Ouvrière or the Socialist Party writ large. They will be open, pluralist and non-hierarchical.” 7
One might debate the exact meaning of the term ‘non-hierarchical’ but Leninists should remain open minded. I would like the left to be as non-hierarchical as possible, reflecting the principle of human self emancipation and foreshadowing communist liberation, a kind of start as you mean to carry on ethos – whilst not ignoring the importance of effective action against capitalism in the here and now.
But, we must also debate such things out with the avowedly non-hierarchal left, who are a key constituency for any radical new project. Any new organisation will need some kind of democratic hierarchy to function, but what that looks like in practice is open to debate and common elaboration.
In this sense, we have to renew revolutionary traditions and politics afresh, taking the best of the revolutionaries that have gone before us, but striking out again, forging a new path in which the factional struggles of the old communist movement can act as a guide, but not a road map.
The final point in Smith’s quote is worth tattooing onto the backs of our hands as a constant reminder or the reality of the radical left today; the fact is that none of the ideological sectlets and ‘Bolshevik’ groups will form the basis for the future revolutionary party.
However, they might very well form the backbone of a new party, but only if they can put the new party/organisation ahead of their own narrowly conceived organisational interests. If they can’t – as they couldn’t do in the Socialist Alliance - then the organisations will be quickly torn apart, merely repeating the same old cycle and confirming the accusations of the Labour left that the revolutionary left can’t build anything credible or sustainable.
The bottom line is simple – either the revolutionary in Britain regroups to grow stronger or we won’t win. We have to prove to the wider working class and radical forces that we can build a credible organisation and so far we have utterly failed to do that – none of us has succeeded. As long as we continue to build these small groups in isolation and not as part of a wider, more united, and credible revolutionary organisation – we are only indulging in the wretched state into which we have fallen whilst delaying the necessary work to free ourselves from our own self-inflicted purgatory.
Simon Hardy explores in greater depth many of the points developed here in his new book, Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics (Zero 2013), co-authored with Luke Cooper.
- This statament is not referring to those situations where an ideological trend like Maoism was embodied in a million strong party – we are referring to the left of CP organisations mainly in the western world. ↩
- Trotskyism in the USA – Alan Wald ↩
- This might seem like a joke or silly jibe, but don’t forget that most Soviet era oppositionists after the war were declared insane by the Stalinist government and sent to asylums which were little better than torture facilities. The logic was simple, we have this beautiful workers paradise, you must be mentally deranged to oppose it or criticise it – so we will not treat you like a criminal but instead as someone with mental health problems. Consider that logic today on the left “we have this wonderful revolutionary organisation, it has generally been proven right at every turn in the class struggle, we have led this dispute and this campaign… you must be MAD to criticise us…” ↩
- http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol1/no3/revdeft.html ↩
- http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/may/20c.htm ↩
- http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/2853#R8 ↩
- href=”http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj97/smith.htm ↩