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.
All 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 “democratic 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.
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.