Leninism is Finished

by Louis Proyect on January 28, 2013

Originally posted at The Unrepentant Marxist.


After a month’s worth of attack on the SWP leadership, including from its own members, Alex Callinicos has taken to the pages of Socialist Review (“Is Leninism Finished?”) to frame the fight in terms of a defense of Leninist orthodoxy. I think this is useful since it helps to crystallize the broader issues facing this fairly important group in Britain and the socialist movement internationally: is the “democratic centralist” model that is the hallmark of aspiring “vanguard” parties appropriate to our tasks today?

Just over 30 years ago the American SWP was going through a profound crisis involving the democratic rights of its membership. The Barnes leadership had decided to dump Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution overboard in a bid to make itself more acceptable to what it saw as an emerging new revolutionary international with Havana functioning as a pole of attraction. When many long-time members, including those who had worked closely with Trotsky, fought to have a debate over this change, Barnes decided to forgo a constitutionally mandated party convention and began expelling members on trumped-up charges.

I had left the SWP by this point but was so disturbed by these developments that I began calling comrades I respected. Les Evans was a member of a group of expelled members who hoped to resurrect the “good, old SWP”, a task tantamount to reassembling Humpty-Dumpty.

My next phone call was to Peter Camejo, who had been expelled mostly because he was an independent thinker popular with the membership–a terrible threat to the SWP’s leader. After he began figuring out that the party he had belonged to for decades was on a suicidal sectarian path, he took a leave of absence to go to Venezuela and read Lenin with fresh eyes. This was one of the first things he told me over the phone: “Louis, we have to drop the democratic centralism stuff”. That is what he got out of reading Lenin. I was convinced that he was right and spent the better part of the thirty years following our phone conversation spreading that message to the left.

In the early 80s it was a tougher sale to make. Back then orthodox Trotskyist parties, and ideologically heterodox parties like the British SWP, did little investigation into the actual history of the Russian social democracy and were content to follow organizational guidelines based on what someone like James P. Cannon filtered down to them through books such as “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” or Tony Cliff’s Lenin biography.

Largely through the efforts of Lars Lih, it has become more and more difficult to ignore the historical record. The publication of his 808 page Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context was like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in 1517, except in this case it was the door of the Marxist-Leninist church. Unlike Peter Camejo or me, Lih was not interested in building a new left. He was mainly interested in correcting the record. As a serious scholar with a deep command of the Russian language, he was quite capable of defending his thesis, namely that Lenin sought nothing more than to create a party based on the German social democracy in Russia. There was never any intention to build a new kind of party, even during the most furious battles with the Mensheviks who after all (as Lih convincingly makes the case) were simply a faction of the same broad party that Lenin belonged to.

The British SWP has been deferential to Lih, whose scholarship was beyond reproach, but at pains to dismiss its implications. The September 2010 issue of Historical Materialism organized a symposium on Lih’s research in which they made the case for “Leninism” as they understood it. While HM is largely inaccessible to the unwashed masses (where was Aaron Swartz when we needed him?), you can read SWP’er Paul Blackledge’s contribution at http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=218. We can assume that he was speaking for Callinicos and the SWP leadership when he wrote:

The novelty of this form of organisation was less than obvious in the early part of the last century, and Lih is right to point out that Lenin was attempting to build something like the German SPD in Russia. Nonetheless, it is also true that Lenin did succeed in building something different, and better, than the SPD. It is in this respect, I think that Lih is wrong to reject Georg Lukács’s interpretation of Lenin, upon which many of the activists have based their analyses.

When I first ran across the British SWP on the Internet back in the early 90s, I never would have dreamed that they would have ended up with such a horrible scandal on their hands. I was impressed with both their theoretical prowess and with their work in the British antiwar movement. My only caveat was that their organizational model would prevent them from breaking through a glass ceiling imposed by their sectarian habits. I put it this way:

I believe that the methodology of the [American] SWP was flawed from the outset. In its less lethal permutations, such as the Tony Cliff or Ted Grant variety or the SWP of the early 1970s, you end up with a “healthy” group but one that is destined to hit a glass ceiling because of its self-imposed “vanguardist” assumptions. In a nutshell, the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc. In its more lethal versions, you end up with Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes where megalomania rules supreme.

Apparently some SWP members were grappling with the same problem as I discovered from a document written by Neil Davidson for their 2008 convention (it can be read on a blog devoted to a discussion of the SWP crisis. Davidson writes:

The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”.

I imagine that if Martin Smith had not been such a sexist pig, the SWP would have meandered along in this fashion for a number of years. Like a match thrown into a room filled with gasoline fumes, the rape incident and the Central Committee’s role in covering it up has provoked a crisis threatening the very existence of the party.

Returning to Callinicos’s article, I was struck by his exasperation over how “internal” party matters have spilled over into the Internet:

One thing the entire business has reminded us of is the dark side of the Internet. Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated – unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don’t have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.

In a nutshell, this is the same mindset that is on display at MIT, the elite institution that insisted on prosecuting Aaron Swartz for purloining JSTOR documents. Like the Gutenberg printing press, that was heir to generations of insurrection-minded print publications like Iskra, the Internet is the communications medium for 21st century socialism. If anything has become clear, the “internal” documents of the SWP cannot be bottled up behind a firewall. In the same way that a Madonna video will make its way into Pirate’s Bay, some controversial SWP document will get leaked to the wretched Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity website. I am not even taking a position on whether this is reflecting the “dark side” of the Internet–only that this is the reality we operate under.

But more to the point, there really is no basis for revolutionary socialist organizations to keep their business internal. This was not the case in Lenin’s day, nor should it be the case today whether we are communicating through the printed page or on the Internet. This idea that we discuss our differences behind closed doors every couple of years during preconvention discussion was alien to the way that the Russian social democracy operated. They debated in public. We are obviously more familiar with Lenin’s open polemics with the Mensheviks that some might interpret as permissible given that a cold split had taken place (a false interpretation as Pham Binh and Lars Lih have pointed out.) But even within the Bolsheviks, there was public debate as demonstrated over their differences on whether the bourgeois press should be shut down.

In John Reed’s “10 Days that Shook the World”, there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” He continues: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.”

Get it? Lenin and Riazanov debated at a mass meeting and then voted against each other. This was normal Bolshevik functioning. All discipline meant was a deputy voting according to instructions from the party’s central committee, etc. For example, if Alex Callinicos was elected to Parliament and instructed to vote against funding the war in Iraq, and then voted for funding, the party would be entitled to expel him.

Instead, democratic centralism in the Fourth International parties, and in parties following such a model like Callinicos’s International Socialist Tendency, has meant something entirely different. Discipline has meant enforcing  ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.

Keeping watch on the ideological purity of the group leads to the formation of a priesthood that is in the best position to interpret the holy writings, whether of Trotsky, Tony Cliff, Ted Grant, or whoever. When they are also full-time functionaries, their power is magnified. For a rank-and-file member of such parties to raise a stink over some questionable strategy or tactic is almost unheard of. It takes something like a rape to get people mobilized apparently.

Virtually none of the latest thinking on the problematic of “democratic centralism” is reflected in Callinicos’s article. Instead he uses the term “Leninism” as a kind of shorthand for revolutionary politics that the SWP is defending against what he views as Owen Jones’s Labourite opportunism. Callinicos describes Jones as a “an increasingly high profile member of the Labour Party.” This is the same party that rests on a trade union leadership that “is a conservative force within the workers’ movement.” To cap it off, Callinicos draws from the same poisoned well that goes back to the Soviet Union of the 1920s:

Despite his radical rhetoric and the excellent stance he takes in the media on specific issues, Jones is defending an essentially conservative position, lining up with Labour and the trade union leaders.

In other words, Callinicos is resorting to the “scratch to gangrene” method of attack that is the hallmark of the Trotskyist movement going back to the late 1930s and to the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model. It is basically a way of stigmatizing your adversary as reflecting “alien class forces”. To protect the integrity of the party, you must ward off the disease-carrying agents of the ruling class.

Jones has it right. This kind of disgusting “Leninist” politics belongs not only to the twentieth century but a socialist politics debased by the USSR’s “dark side”. We need a new way of functioning, one that is free from the sectarian “us versus them”, small proprietor mentality of groups like the SWP as currently constituted.

In Jones’s Independent article—as opposed to the straw man that Callinicos erected–he called for the following:

What is missing in British politics is 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. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger. Until now, I have struggled with an answer.

This is simply another way of stating that something like a British SYRIZA is necessary. Perhaps anticipating the struggle that has broken out now, Richard Seymour defended the Greek multi-tendency electoral formation in an open challenge to the SWP leadership.

I have no idea how the fight in the SWP will be resolved but I have a strong feeling that if the current gang is removed from the leadership, the party can be a powerful catalyst in moving Britain in the direction that Owen Jones outlined and that the revolutionary left contingent of SYRIZA in Greece is working toward. And if they are defeated, I would only hope that the comrades consider becoming part of a broad initiative that aims to unite the left on a nonsectarian basis.

In a post I wrote on the debate over SYRIZA on the left, I offered this conclusion. I think it is worth repeating:

Finally, I want to suggest that SYRIZA has much more in common with traditional Marxist concepts of a “revolutionary program” than many on the left realize. (I will be elaborating on this at some length in a pending article.) Our tendency is to mistake doctrine with program. For example, not long after I joined the SWP of the United States in 1967, I asked an old-timer up in party headquarters what our program was. (A Maoist friend had challenged me about our bona fides.) He waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, “It’s all there.” This meant having positions on everything from WWII to Kronstadt. Becoming a “cadre” meant learning the positions embodied in over a hundred pamphlets and books and defending them in public. Of course, this had much more in common with church doctrine than what Karl Marx had in mind when his Communist program sought, for example:

  • Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  • Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

When you stop and think about it, this is sort of the thing you can find in SYRIZA’s program. Maybe it is time for the left to rethink the question of how we demarcate parties? Instead of demanding that new members learn the catechism on controversial questions going back to the 1920s, they instead would be required to defend a class orientation in their respective arenas, like the trade union movement or the student movement, etc. That would make us a lot stronger than we are today. We need millions united in struggle, especially since the death rattle coming out of capitalism’s throat grows louder day-by-day.

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