Back in the U.S.S.R.

by Corey Ansel on February 5, 2013

I was recently listening to The Beatles’ White Album on my very much broken record player.  Putting the erratic sound of the stereo aside, I was filled with contradictory emotions as I listened to the first track on the record, Back in the U.S.S.R.  To a different generation, the song paints a picture of The Cold War era, which the Beatles could not help touching on in their legendary albums with songs such as Revolution.  To much of the left’s dismay, The Fab Four’s celebration of being “back in the U.S.S.R.” compliments their general repudiation of revolutionary politics.  “All you need is love” became the clarion call of the peace and love generation, taking steam out of the engines of a very active Marxist left.  It is even suggested by some that the mere existence of arguably the greatest band in history assisted in ushering in the counterrevolution that proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the world’s first workers’ state.

In a very different way, the revolutionary left remains “back in the U.S.S.R.”  Our generation may not feel the same relation to the political (or lack thereof, I would argue) messages in the music of The Beatles.  As revolutionaries, we in the present actually stand more distant from our goal of social emancipation than the days of the Russian Revolution.  Nevertheless, the recent crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) paints a pristine picture of the continued degeneration of the Marxist camp.

After much delay, Alex Callinicos, whose defense of the bureaucratic methods of the SWP has become synonymous with the internal crisis, published an article in Socialist Review titled Is Leninism Finished? His essay, which I will discuss in a moment, was immediately met with responses from opposition within and outside of the party.  An opposition blog published an article titled Is Zinovievism Finished? that was signed by Richard Seymour and China Miéville who have come to represent the democratic opposition, followed by Louis Proyect posting his piece Leninism is Finished on his blog The Unrepentant Marxist. As the blogs and articles continue to roll in from even the darkest corners of the left, it is currently unclear what the resolution to this conflict will be.

What is at stake is the very cohesion of Leninist theory.  Marxism is not a family tree.  It is most certainly not the ideology of all of those who claim to hold up its banner.  In fact, it is consistent with Marx’s fight for the “ruthless criticism of all that exists”, which in this case is the need to criticize the notion that all ostensible “Marxists,” from the International Socialists to the Spartacists, are bearers of Marxist thought. The left, in fact, has struggled to defend the legacy of Lenin because it has failed to properly investigate what that legacy is! The origins of the crisis within the SWP, thus, rest with their faulty understanding of Leninist democratic centralism and its relevance in the present.

In that vein, a wide array of articles and essays have invoked Lenin, the Bolsheviks and 1917 in either an attempt to defend or lambast the SWP for their bureaucratic practices.  After a long history lesson in Callinicos’ article, he comments on democratic centralist practices saying:

Moreover, what our critics dislike most about us – how we organise ourselves – is crucial to our ability, as Jones puts it, to punch above our weight. Our version of democratic centralism comes down to two things. First, decisions must be debated fully, but once they have been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members. This is necessary if we are to test our ideas in action.

It appears that we both agree on the need to test our theory in practice.  However, there are many questions that already arise.  What does Callinicos mean by “our version of democratic centralism?”  Is Lenin’s conception of the party then left up to the pages of Socialist Worker to be described or is it instead a relevant conception of organizing proletarian leadership that requires study and understanding?

The fact that the SWP punches above its weight is only relevant to its own sectarian delusions.  As Ben Lewis of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) commented in his essay The Left: Rebellion, Regroupment and the Party We Need in the pages of Weekly Worker:

we [the CPGB] have also pointed out that the underlying reasons for the current crisis can and should be located elsewhere – firstly in the Stalinoid organisational norms and rotten practices that the SWP leadership shamefacedly pursues in the name of ‘Leninism’; and secondly in the organisation’s lack of serious and workable perspectives more generally.

In the framework of this crisis, revolutionaries are not interested in how hard the SWP punches.  Despite the political shortcomings of the CPGB, altering Lenin’s legacy in their own regard, the fact remains that their coverage of the crisis of has been consistently supportive and encouraging to members of the SWP who feel disillusioned with what they have come to learn.  This is the opposite of what the party’s leadership has done, attempting to preserve its methods in the face of widespread opposition.  In fact, the organization’s attempts at saving face have led even the capitalist media to chastise the group for its alleged covering up of the rape of a party member by a leading organizer.

The fact that the SWP has survived as a bureaucratically twisted organization without any real internal opposition is quite telling.  Recent examples of internal disputes within the party have led to tiny splinters that are responsible for the formation of Counterfire and the International Socialist Group.  Much like this ruthless capitalist system can be patched and reformed to salvage its complacency, it would appear that ostensibly revolutionary groupings can also take whatever form needed to preserve the internalized bureaucracy.  It should be argued that even if the entire central committee of the SWP were replaced, it is highly likely that the same bureaucratic means that exist within the party today would be once again harnessed.  The issue here is program.

So it is necessary to ask Callinicos and all of those who find themselves in the sphere of influence of the SWP: what type of crisis warrants the group to just succumb to majority rule and the control of the central committee, if not the rape of a party member?  Not only do the internal bodies of the party seem to be adequate in regards to keeping full-time party leaders like Callinicos at their posts, but also covering up scandals with ease if they should arise!  So when he states “this model is now under attack from within and without,” we should not be dismayed.  The critique of the Leninist concept of the party from within the SWP has only served as a breeding ground for consistent political zig-zags and bureaucratic shows such as the one currently transpiring.  It is not salvageable without a change in course.

The Leninist model of party building is now being scrutinized by varying tendencies of the left.  Pham Binh posted an article titled “Leninism” Meets the 21st Century in which he suggests that ‘Leninism’ is a rigged game to begin with, and the reality is that the majority of the SWP is behind the leadership, the CC holds all the cards, and the opposition’s power has peaked as demoralization, resignations, and expulsions take their toll.”  In this situation, the means don’t justify the tale.

In fact, Binh, Proyect and their co-thinkers have recently taken to the pages of historian/theorist Lars T. Lih in their defense of turning Leninism on its head.  This puts them amongst the neo-Kautskyites that suggest Lenin never broke with the practices of the Second International and, instead, still put forward arguments in favor of a “party of the whole class.”  Some of this will be dealt with later on in the piece, but it is necessary to state where Lenin stood on the Second International.  Lenin argued in 1919 that while the organization had grown in scope, it was “at cost of a temporary drop in the revolutionary level, a temporary strengthening of opportunism, which in the end led to the disgraceful collapse of this international.”  With the legacy of Kautsky, lies many of the present contradictions!  The International Socialists, while obviously one of the largest left-wing organizations (especially in the US and UK), clings to the tradition of sacrificing program on the altar of popularity.  Instead of swimming against the current to build a party of educated cadres united under a program of unconditionally opposing all bourgeois parties in the interests of smashing the capitalist system, Binh and others instead seek to loosen up the restraints.  If this understanding of Lenin’s legacy is left to the judgment of those seeking to break with the model of building democratic centralist parties, then we might as well attempt to find our way back to 1905 and start again.

Leon Trotsky etched the Bolshevik understanding of opportunism in a political profile of Kautsky where he states:

[…] it was necessary either to draw a conclusion from revolutionary theory or to carry opportunist practice through to the end. Meanwhile Kautsky’s whole authority rested upon the reconciliation of opportunism in politics with Marxism in theory.

The crowd hailing Lih’s characterization of Lenin and Kautsky, in seeking to build coalitions that are not organized on class lines, seeks only to carry the opportunist practices to their logical end under the false guise of “liberating” Leninism from its distorters.  The phony Marxists that smear Leninism by associating it with groups like the SWP fail to understand that though we are politically less able to challenge the ruling class in the present than the days of the Communist International, we will not progress in our struggle by regressing in our understanding of Lenin’s conception of the party.

It is simple to suggest that Leninism as theory and practice is not applicable to the 21st century by pointing to the bureaucratic, sectarian and often times idiotic practices of groups like the SWP.  However, the SWP is not an isolated bureaucracy on the left that can be quarantined.  In fact, many different ostensibly Marxist organizations have chosen to remain silent on the issue, in the likely fear that their internal power grabs will be exposed to the public as well.  We must make the distinction between the program of Lenin and the Bolsheviks with that of those who have gutted Marxist theory.  The road to regroupment is not paved with phony unity, contrary to those who attempt to pluck the heartstrings of reformists.  Furthermore, if Leninism deserves an epitaph at some point in the future, Tony Cliff and his theoretical heirs must certainly not write it.

Even Callinicos acknowledges that Leninism is nothing without its practice.  However, in a political environment where varying understandings of Lenin’s conception of the party is disputed and upheld by diametrically opposed political tendencies, it is necessary to struggle for the clarification of terms.  If we cast off the practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who left behind the model for the creation of the world’s first workers’ state, then we allow groups like Callinicos and Co. to lay claim to the mantle of Bolshevism.  For anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, it is glaringly apparent that the Cliffite conception of democratic centralism is not only phony, but also anti-Marxist.  Democratic centralism requires open and consistent debate. “March separately, strike together” has become the phrase that defines this idea, in contrast to the watering down of class lines that has become a trademark of the SWP.  This is not an “original sin” of Leninism, but instead a result of the ludicrous political orientation of the SWP and many other competing leftist organizations.

Callinicos capitalizes on his sentimental essay with a brief send off that states:

I am confident that the SWP is politically strong enough to overcome its internal differences. Our theoretical tradition and our democratic structures will allow us to arrive at the necessary political clarity and to learn the lessons of the disciplinary case. But if I am wrong and the SWP did collapse, this would not solve the political problem that it exists to address. The anti-capitalist struggle won’t be advanced by relying on Labourism and the trade union leaders or by uncritical worship of the movements. If the SWP didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

Posturing to the right of groups that line up behind the anti-worker Labour Party, Callinicos exaggerates the necessity of his pet organization.  In truth, the roots of the International Socialist tradition revolve primarily around a few points.

  • The utter repudiation of Trotsky’s theoretical contributions, such as his unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union up until the time of his assassination.
  • The promotion of single-issue activism and popular front campaigns that often lead to the demoralization of party supporters, which lends into the revolving door of membership that has become inescapable among the entire International Socialist Tendency.
  • The internal control of the organization by a handful of individuals who have spent so much time as “full-time leaders” that they have trouble integrating into the capitalist job market, (as Binh describes) which leads them to seek means to maintain their leadership positions.

The opposition in and around the SWP has shown an ability to rise even in the face of potentially violating party discipline and facing expulsion.  Led by figures like Richard Seymour and informed of the facts by publications such as Weekly Worker, oppositionists have rallied for a new conference to address the issues of party democracy, women’s liberation and the rape case that sparked this crisis.  Callinicos’ article is an indirect, but very readable rejection of the opposition calls.  If it would be necessary to invent the SWP all over again, then it would also be imperative to invent a programmatically armed opposition against not only the oppressive internal regime, but also against the political orientation that leads to crises such as the one currently underway.  One cannot combat the symptom without fighting the disease.

Commenting on the situation within the SWP, Louis Proyect states that:

This kind of disgusting “Leninist” politics belongs not only to the twentieth century but a socialist politics debased by the U.S.S.R.’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.

Like Binh, Proyect is not hesitant to cast aside the historical development of Marxism, especially that embodied in the works of Lenin.  Indeed, Proyect shows an inclination towards repudiating the need for a revolutionary party.  His essay continues, “This is simply another way of stating that something like a British SYRIZA is necessary.”

As if summoned by the opportunist horn, the leader of SYRIZA, Alex Tsipras, made an appearance in the United States.  Speaking to closed-doors meetings of State Department officials, Tsipras stated, “I hope I’ve convinced you that I’m not as dangerous as some people think I am,” continuing “Is there really a reason for somebody to be afraid of the left in Greece today?” Finally, he concluded, “I heard the person who spoke before me saying that I represent the radical left… But how are we really radical?”

This is the type of phony radicalism that belongs in the Kautskyist conception of the “party of the whole class!”  That seems to be the name of the game: a faction for reformists, nationalists and every stripe and color of those who would seek to prostate themselves before the ruling apparatus.  History shows us that the struggle against opportunism within the Bolshevik Party became increasingly strained after the death of Lenin, as restriction on party membership were loosened and the steeled cadres of the Bolshevik party found themselves amongst the ranks of those who were diametrically opposed to continuing the revolution!  Such is the character of those that we find ourselves surrounded by in the present.

Proyect continues:

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.

Any person who has spent even a week around some kind of socialist organization knows how this process transpires.  Within the ISO, it is not uncommon to read, instead of Marx or Lenin, the interpretation of Marxist thinkers as presented by Wolf, D’Amato and co.  This is a means of claiming a monopoly on Marxist theory, utterly disregarding the program of internal democracy and debate put forward by Lenin and later, Trotsky and the Left Opposition.  Proyect has dissected a symptom of the floundering left in the United States and elsewhere.  It becomes necessary to read into the experiences of leftists, such as Proyect and Le Blanc who have an experience within the left that is not new in any sense of the word.

However, the call for a British and even an American SYRIZA is merely a call to perpetuate the phony “unity” of all shapes and sizes of “socialists”, “communists,” and “Marxists” which seeks to water down the lines of political program.  From the socialists who defend the capitalist state, to the ones who capitulate to the union bureaucracy and the bourgeois populism of the Occupy movement, to the ones who line up behind the Democratic and Labour parties, a blanket leftist organization is opposed to Lenin’s conception of the party.  This is not to say that all practice that is not labeled Leninist is therefore non-revolutionary, but do not carry the label of workers’ revolution if it is not your end!  It is not difficult to imagine the bureaucrats on the left today using this kind of opportunity to cozy up to the capitalist state.  There is a rhyme to the reason of those who oppose not only authentic internal democracy, but also the need for a revolutionary party as a whole.

Boiled down to its most basic form, the “Leninism” put forward by Callinicos, Binh and Proyect (while differing in many regards) leaves behind a shell with no substances.  In fact, it has been the political run-around led by tiny sects on the Marxist left that are responsible for disorienting generations of potential revolutionaries.  To seek to build parties of “the whole class” or to water down political program like the SWP does in attempting to recruit single-issue hyper-activists is to take nothing from history.  It was likely much simpler for Lenin to see a faction with a name, leaders and organization called the Mensheviks who would eventually have to be politically annihilated in the interests of furthering the existence of the world’s first workers’ state.  However, with more sects in existence today than can be counted on two hands, it becomes our duty as leftists to be ruthless in our critique of reformism and also any political practice that continues to widen the divide between the working class and its emancipation.

The point of the party is not to broaden a wide umbrella to cover everyone who considers themselves leftists.  The revolutionary party, in the legacy of the Bolsheviks, must be the epitome of revolutionary struggle.  How can we take an organization that claims to be revolutionary seriously when it cannot solve its own internal contradictions, let alone those of the most powerful empire in history?

Much like the aging 60’s generation of more radical days and Hunter S. Thompson-esque drug binges, we as a political left are left “back in the U.S.S.R.”  It is impossible to discuss the burning questions of our time without discussing past revolutionary struggles, especially the Russian Revolution that serves as a bastion of light (that would eventually dull and burn out) during a period of darkness.  Without a socialist project as a point of reference, despite how bureaucratically degenerated, present generations are brought up amongst the chorus of the “death of communism.”  Instead of paving the way to a socialist society, much of the left is immersed in petty sect politics that belong in the pages of a tabloid, not in the annals of history.  If we allow the fake Marxist traditions to lay claim to the legacy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, then it is likely that the zombified left sects that stagger amongst us will likely raise a new generation into the Marxism of demoralization and historical pessimism.

As Leon Trotsky said in discussing the Transitional Program in 1938:

The reformists have a good smell for what the audience wants […] But that is not serious revolutionary activity. We must have the courage to be unpopular, to say “you are fools,” “you are stupid,” “they betray you,” and every once in a while with a scandal launch our ideas with passion. It is necessary to shake the worker from time to time, to explain, and then shake him again – that all belongs to the art of propaganda. But it must be scientific, not bent to the moods of the masses. We are the most realistic people because we reckon with facts which cannot be changed […] If we win immediate success we swim with the current of the masses and that current is the revolution.

If it would be necessary to reinvent the SWP, then it is imperative that we reinvent a politics of authentic Marxist rebellion for a new generation.


Corey Ansel can be contacted at [email protected]

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