The period, the party and the next left

March 22, 2019

In this essay, socialist author David McNally contributes to the discussion about forms of socialist organization in the 21st century. During these weeks of reflection on the crisis of the ISO, we hope to publish articles that take up questions of organizational models.

In early 2009, I wrote a lengthy letter to the international organizer for the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S. The letter, which I hoped would be circulated to the membership, urged a sharp break with the sectarian practices associated with “micro-party” politics. In light of recent debates in the ISO and on the wider left, I have chosen to publish it now (more than 10 years after it was written). I have edited out a bit of extraneous material that discussed the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France, but all the core points remain intact. (The acronym IST refers to the International Socialist Tendency associated with the SWP.) It is my hope that these reflections might be of service today in helping to orient the building of a new radical left.

Dear comrade,

Predictably, it has taken me longer to get around to setting down some thoughts on our conversations than I would have liked. I will send further thoughts on a variety of other issues later. But, for the moment, let me stay with some larger themes. I have written all this much too hastily, so some of the formulations will need refinement, but it is better, I think, to send it now and to keep this dialogue going. I have also written at more length than is probably necessary, but I have wanted to lay out the coordinates of my own thinking (which expresses a wider project of political rethinking in and around the New Socialist Group), so that we might have as fruitful a dialogue as possible.

Protesters in New York City rally against the murder of Trayvon Martin

For the sake of convenience, I have labeled these comments “The Period, the Party, and the Next Left.”

The period and the revolutionary left

There seems little doubt that the global economic crisis represents the opening of a new period. Economically, it is the first generalized world crisis in a quarter century — since the deep recession of 1980-82. And for a whole number of countries — Germany, Japan, South Korea, among others — it will be much worse. The German economy is now expected to contract 2.5 percent this year, compared with a postwar worst contraction (thus far) of 0.9 percent in 1975; forecasts suggest unemployment will hit 16 percent in Spain; the government of Iceland has just fallen over mass opposition to the crisis and the deal signed with the IMF. Moreover, despite unprecedented bailouts, the financial system continues to wobble, with new bank crises at the like of Citigroup and UBS. And massive job losses — 70,000 job cuts announced today alone, according to the Financial Times — will feed back into the financial crisis, deepening it, and further impacting the manufacturing and service sectors. As a result, the slump is likely to be both deep and prolonged.

Traumatized by the severity of the crisis, ruling classes have been forced to abandon a whole series of neoliberal platitudes about the virtue of free markets. Practically, they have had little option but to adopt massive Keynesian style state intervention and stimulus, and initiate both real and effective bank nationalizations. All of this figures in a severe ideological disorientation on the side of ruling classes forced to acknowledge the demonstrable failings of “self-regulating” markets. Politically, too, it signals, though in very complex ways, shifts in mainstream bourgeois politics — most significantly, perhaps, in Obama’s election, but also in the massively interventionist and protectionist direction taken by governments in countries like France. The moves away from doctrinaire neoliberalism also intersect with much larger breaks from neoliberalism in parts of Latin America, most notably Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, where new space has been created for the growth of radical working class and socialist currents. And all of this figures importantly in heightened prospects for forces from the radical left in Greece, France and Germany, whose electoral fortunes appear to be on the upswing, and where social protest has shown a capacity to flare up quickly.

But even outside parts of Latin America and Europe, even where major electoral coalitions and left regroupments are not on the cards at the moment, the crisis will put new demands on serious forces of the revolutionary left. We are going to have to think and act on a larger scale if we are to rise to the challenge and the possibilities of this moment. On the one hand, real space has been opened up for alternative worldviews. Meetings on the crisis in Toronto, for instance, have been surprisingly large and openings for radical analysis have been surprisingly wide (I personally have never done so many radio and TV interviews as a Marxist political economist discussing the crisis). On the other hand, the earliest signs of resistance, while nowhere equal to what is required, are promising, as indicated in the riots and strikes in Greece, the occupation at Republic in Chicago, and the very large mobilizations around Gaza (including the wave of university occupations and your recent teach-in meeting in Boston), which are part of the larger picture of the political changes over the last year in my view. Clearly, then, there is an urgent need to rally larger forces to resist the effects of the crisis and to campaign for alternatives. Something of this, I think, is captured in the theme for your Socialism 2009, “Building a new left for a new era.” It is indeed a new era, and the left we need to build needs to be something qualitatively different from the left that existed prior to it.

It is worth observing that these new challenges for the left come at a time of considerable flux within the largest currents of international Trotskyism. The creation of the NPA in France and the dissolution of the LCR signify the most important attempt by a significant current in the Trotskyist tradition to break out of the small group legacy of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left. Whatever its weaknesses, which are inevitable given the weaknesses of independent working class politics and institutions and the long-term marginalization of revolutionary organizations, the creation of the NPA represents a vitally important effort to launch a new anti-capitalist party that might become a more meaningful political force of the radical left. This raises incredibly important questions about the small group project generally, to which I return below.

At the same time, recent debates in the SWP (and their potential fallout across parts of the IST) could create space for genuinely democratic forces in the SWP to challenge the organization’s anti-democratic culture and flawed perspectives, and might create possibilities for undermining IST sectarianism (at least in many parts of the world) towards other groups and towards real joint work. This could open up opportunities for dialogue and collaboration of a sort that haven’t existed previously.

So, the challenges posed by the crisis, on the one hand, and the possible shifts and realignments within the international revolutionary left, on the other, raise crucially important questions as to how Marxist currents in North America and elsewhere orient themselves.

The problem of the “micro-party”

As I see it, the necessity of “a new left for a new era” forces all of us to confront — and break with — the legacy of the micro-party approach. At its heart the micro-party perspective consists in believing that building a small revolutionary group is in essence the same thing as constructing a revolutionary party. Fundamentally, then, this perspective involves a simple syllogism:

There can be no socialist revolution without an authentically revolutionary party;

Our group is the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition;

Therefore, there can be no socialist revolution without our group (i.e., building our organization is the key to constructing a mass revolutionary party)

Rather than address the really crucial questions — how is the left to rebuild practices, organizations and cultures of working class self-mobilization so that a working class vanguard might actually be re-created, and a meaningful party built in its ranks — real social-historical problems get reduced to questions of building the small group: recruiting more members, selling more papers, creating new branches. Now, let me be clear: effective socialist organizations are indispensable to the task of rebuilding what I have called “practices, organizations and cultures of working class self-mobilization.” For this reason, we need dynamic and growing socialist forces. There is nothing wrong with socialist organizations trying to extend their reach; on the contrary, this is necessary and important. After all, the rebuilding of a real working class vanguard — as opposed to small groups that claim to be such (even if only in embryo) — will require organized socialist activists dedicated to that task. The problem comes when the building of small groups is seen as the building of a revolutionary party per se.

In the original IS tradition — associated with the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialists in Britain and also with much of the theory and practice of Hal Draper — to conflate these two things was seen as a classically substitutionist error. Elitist socialism, what Draper called socialism from above, was rightly said to substitute the rule of other social groups for the self-rule and self-organization of the working class. On a smaller scale, substitutionism was also said to involve small groups imagining that their membership comprised a revolutionary vanguard, thereby substituting themselves for a real working class vanguard of tens or hundreds of thousands of class conscious, socialist working people. In this self-declared vanguardism, argued Duncan Hallas, “the real vanguard, the more advanced and conscious minority of workers” is displaced by “sects or self-proclaimed leaders.”[1] Substitutionism of this sort, the idea that a small group is a revolutionary vanguard party in embryo, was seen as contributing to ludicrous delusions of grandeur on the part of small groups, to utterly distorted self-understandings and internal regimes, and to politics which veered away from trying to build real movements of working class struggle.

For Marx and Engels, substitutionism was part of the tradition of bad utopianism. Rather than trying to perfect a doctrine that would enlighten the workers (or other possible agents of ostensible change), Marx and Engels insisted on the need to build the real working class and democratic movements of the day while promoting a revolutionary orientation within them. The task of from-below revolutionaries was to participate as the left-wing of the real movement, rather than preaching to it from the outside. Describing the approach he and Marx had taken during the 1848 revolution in Germany, Engels wrote:

...if we did not want to take up the movement, adhere to its already existing, most advanced, actually proletarian side and to advance it further, then there was nothing left for us to do but to preach communism in a little provincial sheet and to found a tiny sect instead of a great party of action. But we had already been spoilt for the role of preachers in the wilderness; we had studied the utopians too well for that...[2]

So, as Hal Draper rightly emphasizes across the volumes of Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Marx and Engels broke decisively from the sect model characteristic of the utopians. They set their task as that of working within the “most advanced, actually proletarian side” of the real movement of the day while trying to “advance it further.” This “most advanced, actually proletarian” stratum is, of course, what later gets described as a working class vanguard — the advanced guard of the real workers’ movement.

It is not until the terrible isolation of revolutionaries from such mass movements, itself a product of horrendous working class defeats and prolonged capitalist expansion, that the sect model re-emerges as a dominant form of organization and operation within the revolutionary left. The sect model is utterly foreign, for instance, to the traditions we identify with Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and Gramsci. But, after the capitulation of the KPD in the face of Nazism, Trotsky’s “desperate gamble” — the declaration of a new International in the absence of any mass base in a single working class movement — the micro-party model came again to the fore. Tiny grouplets now proclaimed themselves the representatives of world proletarian revolution. However noble their intentions and courageous their commitments, their terrible isolation from real struggles tended to push these groups toward delusions of grandeur, unreal perspectives, and the otherworldly internal cultures that come with these. Trotsky was himself endlessly frustrated by all of this — indeed the “French Turn” can be seen as an anxious attempt to get out of this cul-de-sac. But, particularly after the end of World War Two and the shift of capitalism into a prolonged boom, the micro-party model became orthodoxy within the movement he had established. The building of tiny organizations detached from real mass movements became identical with the building of revolutionary parties. Within the radical far-left, both the Socialist Review Group in Britain and the currents associated with Draper in the U.S. tried to promote a saner, healthier political orientation, one that challenged the substitutionist illusions of the micro-party model.

One of the political roots of small group substitutionism — which I am calling the micro-party model — grew out of a mechanical transposition of revolutionary perspectives from the 1920s and 1930s to the dramatically changed conditions of the post-World War Two period, a transposition that followed from Trotsky’s predictions. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was indeed in many parts of the world an actually existing working class vanguard, a social layer comprised of millions of workers who identified themselves as socialists and often belonged to mass organizations of the left — trade unions, socialist and communist parties, unemployed workers’ movements, socialist women’s organizations, and so on. Moreover, there was a succession of pre-revolutionary crises, largely in Europe, across the years 1917-23, and then periodically from China to Spain between 1927 and 1937, in which winning the working class vanguard to a revolutionary movement was key to the historical moment. In that context, the principal political problem could be defined not as the creation of a vanguard layer but its transformation and reorganization by way of an ideological and organizational break with reformism. And so, revolutionaries sought, through steadfast participation in the struggle, to win this vanguard layer to new parties based on a different (and authentically revolutionary) political project. To be sure, this orientation involved a qualitative development of this vanguard layer; but that layer itself could be said to have existed as a real social force.

The combined effect of fascism, Stalinism, Cold War and postwar economic expansion was to largely destroy this vanguard layer. To pretend after these events that the key problem was “building the leadership” or “winning the leadership” of the existing movement was utterly misleading. A class conscious, socialist layer of the working class had to be rebuilt; it was not there “for the taking,” if only the tiny group could get to it. That is why Duncan Hallas, writing around 1970, posed the problem of building a revolutionary socialist party in the first instance in this way:

In human terms, an organized layer of thousands of workers, by hand and brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity of socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created. Or rather it has to be recreated.[3]

Hallas said this at a time when the Labour Party had a much more active mass working class membership, when a dynamic shop stewards movement was spearheading strikes and union agitation, when Thatcherism, neoliberalism and deep recessions had not yet done their damage to working class organization, consciousness and combativity. Yet, even then, he posed the problem of the revolutionary party in the first instance as one of creating a vanguard layer of workers. Indeed, it is arguable that one of the things that really distinguished the IS group in Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s was its incredible attentiveness to workplace organization and struggle, to building the shop stewards movement in particular.[4] It saw the building of these class networks and institutions — part of what Alan Sears has called “infrastructures of dissent” — as absolutely central to the work of rebuilding revolutionary socialism in Britain, as part of creating a real mass vanguard.

Much of this legacy has now been lost, or at least deeply submerged, in the IS Tendency. For a whole variety of reasons, to which I cannot do justice here (in part because this is not meant to be a critical examination of the IS tradition) the IST has in practice largely adopted the micro-party model, treating the building of its small groups in various countries as the fundamental task of revolutionaries today.[5] Even in its recent attempts (since 1999) to break from the propagandism of the 1980s and 1990s, and to build wider alliances and movements of the left, even in its theoretical commitment to new party formations of the radical left, the SWP and its satellite groups have been hamstrung by the micro-party approach — a point to which I return in a moment.

Of course, there are periods in which zealous commitment to the micro-party model can give a group considerable durability and staying power. The belief that building your group is the key to a future socialist revolution may create a zeal and fervor that can see a group through difficult times. But all of this comes at great cost. The more the group clings to the messianic notion that its small cadre of members is the historical embodiment of proletarian revolution, the less attentive it is to real developments within the wider society, the more it is prone to mistrust any social movement it does not control, the less capable it is of learning from new developments, the more closed off it is to influence and reshaping by emerging radical forces. To once again cite Hallas, “the semi-religious fanaticism that can give a group considerable survival power in adverse conditions” comes “at the cost of stunting its potentiality for real development,” i.e. of dulling its capacity to become a revolutionary expression of a real social and political radicalization.[6]

Of course, there are periods in which small revolutionary currents have little option but to huddle together and keep the red flag flying — circumstances in which the building of significant movements (as opposed to the occasional campaign) is simply not in the cards. But we are now, I think we agree, in a period in which the revolutionary left has to think in larger and more radical ways. The survival of small groups as custodians of a revolutionary tradition is not the first order of priority. Instead, the task is to find ways of building much larger radical movements than any single tendency is capable of. This means that new alliances, coalitions, regroupments are vital. To be sure, these will all look quite different according to concrete circumstances. What is possible in France, Greece or Venezuela will be different from what can be achieved in Canada or the United States. But these differences do not detract from the urgency of breaking with “business as usual” methods and trying to operate in ways that are more appropriate to this moment. But the micro-party perspective is generally an obstacle to this.

Thinking about the road to a revolutionary party

One of the great problems with the dominant model of “Leninism” on the far-left is the idea that the legacy of Bolshevism involves steadfastly building a small group that eventually wins leadership of the working class movement. Given that there is no army, no class vanguard, ready to be lead, the small group project becomes the construction of an ostensible leadership-in-waiting. This then gets transmuted into the notion that the task is to make sure “we’ll be ready” — with a disciplined cadre and a determined leadership — when the masses look to the left. In the process, a completely undialectical notion of leadership develops — one in which ostensible “leaders” can be selected and trained outside the process of building a real mass working class movement. A hot house conception of leadership thus comes to the fore, according to which revolutionary cadres can be artificially bred in the atmosphere of the disciplined small group. All of this produces a fetish of leadership. Since we are incapable of building a mass organization, goes the thinking, we’ll do the next best thing — maybe even the best thing — and build the leadership without which revolution is impossible. And all of this — the building of a leadership and disciplined membership — comes to comprise the core of a doctrine called “Leninism.”

The following passage is interesting in this regard: “The party is governed by leaders. If the Party is the vanguard of the working class then the leaders are the advanced post of this vanguard....The special feature of the Communist Party is its strictest discipline...” Now, we are both familiar with these kinds of arguments. This one comes from a text called Lenin’s Teachings About the Party by the Stalinist V. Sorin.[7] But, as we both know, similar versions of “Leninism” are regularly invoked within the Trotskyist movement, even within currents that claim to know better.[8] So obsessive becomes the cult of leadership that a set of vapid slogans gets created, utterly lacking in political content. I’ll offer here my favorite example of such stupidity: “The job of leaders is to lead.” What an empty tautology. After all, the job of drivers is to drive, and of bakers to bake. But drive where, and how? Bake what and how? Never mind — just drive, just bake, just lead. This is the complete substitution of form for content. Rather than training a layer of independent and critical Marxists, such nonsense creates hack systems governed by commandism. And so the equally empty injunction to “be hard,” as if that were an end in itself, becomes a substitute for having genuinely strong politics, measured by the ability to nurture committed and critically minded Marxist activists. And the results are predictable. Rather that Gramsci’s “army of persuaders,” we get a small battalion of haranguers. And all of this is justified on the basis of an utterly crude, simple-minded caricature of the actual Russian experience.

It is amazing how Trotskyist groups can so readily recycle the fable that a revolutionary party is built essentially by being small, brave and single minded. In a heroic myth, victory comes to the determined. Lenin was determined, single-minded — and he won, the story goes, so we will simply act the same. Meanwhile, the real, complex history of building a revolutionary movement in Russia completely disappears.

While it is true that there are important elements of continuity across the history of Bolshevism, the elements of discontinuity, of sharp breaks that effectively produce a new organization, particularly in 1917, are equally crucial. Indeed, without these ruptures, there would have been no mass party of revolution in 1917. When Lenin argued in early 1917 that “Old Bolshevism must be discarded,” he was signaling the vital importance of precisely such historical breaks. The party of revolution was in a very real sense a new party. It involved a fusion of the pre-1917 Bolsheviks with multiple currents and social layers: with Trotsky’s group (the Mezhrayonka, or Internationalists), a number of whose key leaders, like Lunacharsky and Joffe, immediately joined the party leadership, as did Trotsky, on condition, accepted by Lenin, that he need not call himself a Bolshevik; with currents associated with anarcho-syndicalism and the Left Social Revolutionaries; and, crucially, with an overwhelmingly young layer of revolutionary workers. What emerged was something radically new, a synthesis of multiple revolutionary currents within the Russian working class movement under a set of political perspectives that broke with many of the historical traditions of Bolshevism, and which were opposed by much, often a majority, of its longstanding leadership.

The myth of continuity, which conforms nicely to the micro-party model, prevents revolutionary socialists from genuinely learning from the Russian experience, offering up instead a set of pithy dictums that ill-equip us for the genuinely complex work of contributing to real mass parties. In studying the actual history, Marcel Liebman challenges what has been the dominant myth of Bolshevism. “For a whole generation (at least) of revolutionary militants,” he writes:

This history was seen as a unified whole, as though a single schema and a single process of conditioning had shaped the Bolshevik Party, as though history had carried out upon it and through it a task that was continuous and linear. The Party that triumphed in 1917 was identified with the Party that from 1903 to 1914, and during the First World War, had prepared the way for this triumph...Yet this view is not entirely correct. For historical analysis shows that in 1917, in the course of the revolution that made of Bolshevism a universal model, the Leninist organization underwent profound transformations, a kind of metamorphosis that makes it dubious, even false, to identify, without qualification, the Party of the revolution, the Party that “made” the October revolution, with the Party that prepared the way for it under the Tsarist regime.

...the Party opened itself in 1917 to the life-giving breeze of democracy. The rules of underground work, though they did not vanish, became less important than the methods of public discussion. The monolithic character that Lenin had tried to give the Party during the last pre-war years disappeared entirely, yielding place to a variety of tendencies...The requirements of discipline and “absolute obedience” faded away, and, at the same time, the rigid centralism that was a corollary of this discipline and hierarchical spirit declined, under the influence of a thousand tumultuous, ungovernable pressures. In other words, 1917 saw the birth of a new or renovated Party...[9]

Now, I do not for a moment want to suggest that it is this experience that is directly applicable to our circumstances; I have no interest in substituting one historical analogy for another. What I want to emphasize is that “the party of revolution” was essentially a product of an immense historical regroupment and reconfiguration of revolutionary currents, and that its history was characterized by leaps and ruptures, not simple accumulation of cadres. True, the Bolshevik Party became the vehicle for this regroupment. But this was by no means inevitable, as that party had to be utterly remade, by the influx of new forces, tendencies, and political perspectives, if it was to become an authentically revolutionary party in 1917.

Understanding this is important because it assists us in grasping the complex social process of building revolutionary parties. It completely disrupts the micro-party model and forces us to think about necessary processes of regroupment and renewal at each new historical stage in the development of the Marxist left. And this becomes especially important when a real working class vanguard must be recreated, rather than assumed to exist. Contra the experience of the 1920s, the task is not to win over an existing class vanguard, but to foster practices, forms of struggle and institutions of the left that assist its germination. Only in the midst of such processes can a meaningful revolutionary organization (never mind party) be built.

Moreover, I would suggest that in our circumstances — where Marxist currents are utterly marginal and working class vanguards must be rebuilt — we need to imagine processes of fusion and regroupment out of genuine radicalizations. New Lefts will produce new leftward-moving social movements and new radical forces — modern equivalents of groups like DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; rank and file movements in unions; insurgent movements for sexual liberation and the rights of migrant workers; new radical workers’ centers; new movements of women workers; new student lefts — whose most militant elements will need to be brought together even to establish meaningful “pre-party formations,” to create much larger, more rooted revolutionary currents that might move us onto a whole new level in the building of revolutionary organizations.

While local initiatives may figure centrally, we also need to explore possibilities for initiatives on a larger scale, such as (national and semi-international) conferences . . . sponsored by a variety of serious left publications, which can bring together hundreds of people from different radical and revolutionary backgrounds to engage in discussions and debates, share experiences, and discuss how to move the work of the genuine left onto a larger field.

I have no recipes for any of this. What I do have is a profound sense of the possibilities of the moment and the need for a “cultural revolution” in our midst, one that shakes up all the remnants of the micro-party perspective and allows us to move forward together in exploring and building new possibilities, unhindered by small group “truisms” that were always misleading.

Making this happen will require a lot of discussion and education in our own groups, and a growing dialogue between members of different groups. It will require an ability to experiment and innovate, to create new vocabularies that bridge different traditions on the revolutionary left, to try out different forums for dialogue and joint action.

If I have gone on at more length than is necessary here, it is simply in order to help push forward on the discussions we all need. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and those of other comrades and to continuing this dialogue between now and when I see you at Socialism 2009.

Yours for a new left for a new era,


1. Duncan Hallas, “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party” in Party and Class (London: Pluto Press, n.d.), p.19.
2. Frederick Engels, “Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-9),” MECW, v. 26, p. 120.
3. Hallas, p. 9.
4. Cliff and Barker, Incomes Policy, Shop Stewards and Legislation (1966) was a pioneering expression of that orientation. I would also argue that the emergence of Women’s Voice and Flame broadened out that orientation to wider sections of the working class, particularly sections that were not part of the established industrial unions. I leave aside here the question of how the groups around these publications functioned as the working class struggle turned down, — but I consider Cliff’s campaign against them to have been extremely crude and seriously damaging to the development of the IS/SWP in Britain.
5. I would enumerate some of the key (inter-related) reasons as follows: 1) a series of vulgar and undemocratic elements in Cliff’s idiosyncratic version of Leninism, all of which emphasized “leadership” against democratic participation of members; 2) the British IS’s redesign of itself as a “party” just as the class struggle was turning down, leading to a new “party” that actually declined in numbers and experienced sharp debates and loss of longstanding members in its early years; 3) the development in the SWP of a practice of monolithic leadership that systematically mistrusts its membership (see Neil Davidson’s perceptive comments on this); 4) the parallel development in the SWP of a culture of bullying and heresy-hunting in which dissenters are to be “smashed” and discredited, rather than persuaded — all of which produces a de-politicized membership and a hack system that rewards loyalty, not the creative development and application of Marxism in theory and practice; 5) the launch in the 1980s of an IS Tendency that basically apes the practices of self-styled “Internationals,” whose leaderships are expected to show unflinching loyalty to the key leaders of the SWP (as if the latter were the Executive Committee of the Comintern), and who are expected to model themselves on the micro-party practices of the SWP, even though their groups have no meaningful base in the working class movement; 6) the dogmatic insistence since 1992 that we are in “the 1930s in slow motion” and that this requires all these small groups to operate like mini- vanguard parties, and their leaderships to adopt the commandism of the SWP CC, because time is of the essence and the party must be built. Taken together, all of these factors have produced significant elements of the very practices of “toy bolshevism” — substitutionism, delusions of grandeur, sectarianism towards other currents, nasty internal regimes, theoretical dogmatism (after all, empirical evidence has not been allowed to dislodge the claim that the period 1992-onwards has been like the 1930s) — that the IS tradition once rightly derided in much of “orthodox Trotskyism.” To be clear, I don’t say this is the whole story. I recognize that in recent years there has been a rhetorical commitment to building new parties of the radical left, although, as I suggest below, practice in this regard has left much to be desired. More important, however, the recent democratic upsurge in the SWP indicates that there is a cadre who still subscribe to good chunks of the politics of socialism from below and the democratic aspects of “democratic centralism.” But it must be said that such forces have been utterly on the margins for a very long time, however much I applaud their recent resurgence. And in other parts of the IST, where such traditions among members are considerably weaker, it is not clear that such democratic resurgences are possible.
6. Ibid., p. 25.
7. As quoted by Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1990), p. 5.
8. So, in his reply to Neil Davidson, Chris Harman tells us that “the essence of Leninism” is “the idea that when the leadership decides on a certain course of action it has to struggle vigorously for it in the party,” while being “responsible to the membership” for the results of the policy (Chris Harman, “Some Comments on Neil Davidson’s Document,” SWP Special pre-conference Bulletin, December 2008, p. 23). Now, Harman knows better than this at some level. If pressed, he would probably agree that the “essence of Leninism” is not just leaders fighting for their views. But the fact that he can argue this in a debate over leadership and democracy in the SWP speaks volumes about methods of leadership and their theoretical justification inside the SWP over a very long time. And Davidson is absolutely right to connect this to Cliff’s appalling recommendation that the leadership ought to observe an “organized distrust” of the membership, an orientation that quickly undercuts the meaningfully democratic elements of “democratic centralism.”
9. Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975), p. 148.

First published at David McNally’s website.

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