Leninism is unfinished
The crisis in the British SWP has stirred a sharp debate among party members about the allegations of sexual harassment and rape at the center of the crisis and about how a revolutionary organization deals with disputes and disagreements among its members and leaders. In response to an article titled "Is Leninism Finished" by SWP leader Alex Callinicos,, author of numerous books, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, commented both on the article and the resulting discussion.
A TRAGIC development has unfolded on the British left--the destructive crisis of that country's Socialist Workers Party (SWP). People have been hurt and humiliated, the organizational measures taken (and not taken) have aroused fierce controversy, there have been expulsions and resignations, after a narrow vote at a party congress there has been an unsuccessful internal ban on further discussion of the matter, and serious damage has been done to one of the most important organizations on the global revolutionary left.
A public intervention in the discussion by the SWP's most prominent theorist, Alex Callinicos, has posed a key question--in part as a defense of the decisions implemented by the leadership of his organization--as the title of his article: "Is Leninism Finished?" Responding to him, a U.S. socialist blogger, Louis Proyect, has affirmed: "Leninism Is Finished." The question and answer would seem to have great significance for revolutionaries of all lands.
The British SWP
The scandal and subsequent organizational developments and measures within the SWP, together generating the crisis, have been discussed at length and in depth by others. Some of the Internet discussion is saturated with voyeuristic speculations, rumor-mongering and sectarian gloating far removed from serious, genuinely progressive or revolutionary politics. Some of it, coming from members of the SWP, has been informative and thoughtful. Anyone with access to the Internet can easily read it all, if they have the time and the inclination. Since both Callinicos and Proyect cite an article by Owen Jones, a left-wing columnist in the pages of The Independent, I will allow him to summarize what seems to have happened:
The largest far-left organization in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, is currently imploding in the aftermath of a shocking internal scandal. After a leading figure was accused of raping a member, the party set up a "court" staffed with senior party members, which exonerated him. "Creeping feminism" has been flung around as a political insult. Prominent members, such as authors China Miéville and Richard Seymour, have publicly assailed their party's leadership. Activists are reported to be in open rebellion at their autocratic leadership, or are simply deserting en masse.
This might all sound parochial, the obscure goings-on out on the fringes of Britain's marginal revolutionary left. But the SWP has long punched above its weight. It formed the basis of the organization behind the Stop The War Coalition, for example, which--almost exactly a decade ago--mobilized up to two million people to take to the streets against the impending Iraqi bloodbath. Even as they repelled other activists with sectarianism and aggressive recruitment drives, they helped drive crucial movements such as Unite Against Fascism, which recently organized a huge demonstration in Walthamstow that humiliated the racist English Defense League. Thousands hungry for an alternative to the disaster of neoliberalism have entered the SWP's ranks over the years--many, sadly, to end up burnt out and demoralized.
The first paragraph tells us that the SWP is "imploding," which is really not clear as of this writing, but to say that it is currently wracked by crisis is to state the obvious. Nor is it necessary to take sides in regard to the charge of "sectarianism and aggressive recruitment drives" (and also to the assertion that many SWPers "end up burnt out and demoralized"). All the more impressive, in the face of these criticisms, is the acknowledgement that "the SWP has long punched above its weight," with a capacity to organize impressive struggles and to mobilize thousands and even millions. This cannot be said about most left-wing groups in Britain or the U.S., and Callinicos makes the obvious point:
What our critics dislike most about us--how we organize 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.
Secondly, to ensure that these decisions are implemented and that the SWP intervenes effectively in the struggle, a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organization to give a clear direction to our party's work. It is this model of democratic centralism that has allowed us to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.
In fact, there is an overly expansive aspect to Callinicos' definition of democratic centralism--a point to which we will need to return. But there does seem to be some correlation between the way the SWP seeks to organize itself (consciously drawing on the Leninist tradition) and its political effectiveness.
Leninism Is Finished?
Louis Proyect has long wrestled with the question of revolutionary organization, driven to do so in large measure because of his own traumas (shared by others, including myself) in the SWP of the United States a quarter-century ago. The political traditions of the U.S. SWP and its crisis of the 1980s (and consequent implosion) are not exactly the same as the traditions and crisis of the British SWP--but there are certainly parallels. Proyect focuses his attention on these, for the purpose of making what he hopes will be useful generalizations for the left as a whole. Yet there seems to be a serious contradiction in the line of argument that he puts forward.
Early in his article, Proyect tells us that he was especially influenced by former SWPer Peter Camejo:
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.
The contradiction is that for much of his article, Proyect insists that Lenin's own organizational thinking (including on the matter of democratic centralism) is consistent with the thinking of Proyect himself, not with the thinking of Callinicos and others whom he accuses of following in the footsteps of Gregory Zinoviev and Leon Trotsky. Callinicos' conceptions, he insists, are rooted not in Lenin, but in "the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model." But this means a more appropriate title for his essay would be: "Cominternism is Dead, Long Live Genuine Leninism!"
It may be, however, that Proyect's position is similar to that of Charlie Post, who argues that there was nothing in Lenin's thinking to distinguish him from Karl Kautsky (of pre-1914 vintage), and that "Leninism" is an invention of Zinoviev and other leaders of the Comintern of the 1920s.
Among the many problems with this, however, is the fact that the 1920s Communist International of Zinoviev and Trotsky was also the Comintern of Lenin himself. (There is also a reality highlighted by the immense, very rich contributions of John Riddell and others, that there was much more of value in the early Communist International than one would be led to believe by superficial attacks on "Zinovievism.")
There is no question that Lenin was profoundly influenced by other comrades in the pre-1914 Socialist International, particularly George Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky. But his thought cannot be reduced to that. Nor did his thinking stop in 1914. In fact, the 1921 Comintern theses "The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work" were put forward at Lenin's insistence. Not only did Lenin help to shape the theses (which included a substantial emphasis on democratic centralism), he also defended them after they were adopted.
Apparently to present a Lenin more consistent with political points he wishes to stress, Proyect chooses to leave this and much else out of his account of the history of the Bolsheviks. Yet a fairly selective reading of Lars Lih's contributions cannot render more than a fragmentary understanding of Lenin, Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. This is not to deny an important point that Proyect makes:
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.
In elaborating on this, however, Proyect tends to play fast and loose with the historical evidence in order to "prove" that Lenin himself was no "Leninist" (when, as we shall see, Lenin actually was an approximation of what we would call a "Leninist"). Such dilution results in the loss of ideas and historical experiences that we really cannot afford to lose. It is unfortunate that a selective utilization of John Reed's classic Ten Days That Shook the World serves to push aside, for all practical purposes, what is presented in Trotsky's classic History of the Russian Revolution. Consider the complex and dynamic notion which Trotsky advances in his preface:
The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses....Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves can we understand the rôle of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.
We need to wrestle with the meaning of this dialectical passage if, as revolutionary activists, we are to make our way through the no less dynamic complexities of our own time. Proyect presents as the "essence" of Lenin's approach the fact that he and other Bolsheviks could publicly argue against each other and openly vote in opposite ways. But this draws us away from the actual Leninist "essence" that Trotsky points us to. This is especially unfortunate because it can obscure the positive contribution Proyect actually makes in his article.
Revolutionary Vanguard and Mass Struggle
Proyect argues that revolutionary socialist organizations must stop giving in to a fatal sectarian temptation, the false vision that they are the "revolutionary vanguard," or perhaps the nucleus of the revolutionary vanguard party of the future. Even in its less pathological variants, he warns, revolutionary socialist groups can thereby create for themselves a vanguardist "glass ceiling." The problem is that "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." At some point, the perceived necessity of preserving and advancing the group's special role as "nucleus" will nurture fatally sectarian dynamics within the group and between that group and other forces.
In criticizing the relatively healthy pre-crisis British SWP and the relatively healthy pre-1980 U.S. SWP, Proyect makes the point that "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." He tellingly adds that 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." To the extent that he is right (as I know he is about the U.S. SWP and suspect he may be about the British SWP), this suggests an issue that defenders of any kind of "Leninism" (and of political-organizational coherence in general) must wrestle with.
No serious socialist group can afford to abandon the education of its members around theory and history ("indoctrination") in the form of lectures and classes. Nor can any human group abolish "peer pressure." But what healthy countervailing tendencies can be nourished that will help overcome the negative tendencies to which Proyect usefully directs our attention?
Proyect tells a story from the late 1960s of his discussion with an older veteran of the Trotskyist movement when both were members of the SWP. After a Maoist friend had challenged him, the young recruit asked what the SWP's program was. The old-timer "waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, 'It's all there.'" It is interesting to consider Proyect's interpretation of this--that it "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." This was, in fact, the conception of many (not all) comrades of that time--but there is another, quite different way of understanding the old comrade's comment.
It is not the case that SWP bookstores were simply stocked with pamphlets and books outlining positions on everything from the Second World War to the Kronstadt uprising of 1921. Rather, they contained a rich array of material--accounts of labor struggles, anti-racist struggles, women's liberation struggles, the history of the revolutionary movement, writings by Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, (in some cases, also Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Sheila Rowbotham), as well as some of the most creative thinkers in the SWP--not simply James P. Cannon (worth reading despite the criticisms made of him), but people like George Breitman and Joseph Hansen who developed insights and innovative formulations incompatible with any closed "orthodoxy."
To say "it's all there" could be seen as reference not to a closed system of Truth, but to a rich and multifaceted tradition, an approach that is rigorous but also open, critical-minded and revolutionary, with theory and analysis rooted in the actual mass struggles of one's own time. This may not be what that particular old comrade meant, but I did know some old comrades who happened to think this way.
The proposed political orientation that emerges from Proyect's piece could be stated, I think, with four basic and interrelated points:
1. There is a revolutionary vanguard layer that is part of the working class (broadly defined) and of the workers' movement. This layer consists of those who have more information, analyses, organizing know-how, a sense of how to get from the oppressive "here" to the more desirable "there," and a greater conscious political passion than the majority. It has the capacity to connect with and help radicalize and mobilize growing sectors of that working-class majority. But this vanguard is multifaceted, not concentrated in a single organization, and some who are part of it are not necessarily in any revolutionary organization.
2. Only through the coordinated efforts of different components of this broad vanguard layer will it become possible to mobilize tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people in serious challenges to the capitalist status quo, which should be the primary goal of revolutionaries today.
3. Mass action coordinated by the broad vanguard layer obviously must go parallel with--and is inseparable from--efforts to nurture revolutionary consciousness within more and more of the working class as a whole. Various groups and individuals can and should feel free to develop theoretical perspectives, share their ideas, disagree with each other, engage in debates, etc., while continuing to collaborate closely in building the mass struggles. This is the pathway to revolution.
4. If one or another segment of this broad vanguard layer--under the banner of some spurious "Leninism"--seeks to dominate the broader effort at the expense of other segments, the result would be fragmentation and defeat. Along with this, the program of the Communist Manifesto should be the decisive element in the programmatic orientation of these unified vanguard elements. There is no need for "programmatic agreement" on such historical matters as analyses of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, or the Second World War, or the nature of the former USSR.
This approach, which I think Proyect is advancing, makes sense to me. It projects the seasoning and tempering, through mass struggle, of substantial layers of activists who are part of the broad working-class vanguard, helping prepare the social base and organizational experience that are preconditions for the crystallization of a genuine revolutionary working-class party, or the practical equivalent of that party.
Owen Jones similarly seems to get it right when he argues for "a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the [neoliberal] Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens and 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."
A broad left front, agreeing on certain basic programmatic principles, "could link together workers facing falling wages while their tax credits are cut; unemployed people demonized by a cynical media and political establishment; crusaders against the mass tax avoidance of the wealthy; sick and disabled people having basic support stripped away; campaigners against crippling cuts to our public services; young people facing a future of debt, joblessness and falling living standards; and trade unions standing their ground in the onslaught against workers' rights."
The way Alex Callincos dismisses this seems odd to me. "This sounds very nice but is quite misleading," he tells us, "since Jones is an increasingly high-profile member of the Labour Party." He then goes on to repeat the traditional SWP critique of the British Labour Party, counterposing this to the tradition that the SWP is attempting to continue: "Started by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this tradition reached its high point in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, when the Bolshevik Party led the first and still the only successful working class revolution. Leon Trotsky, who with Vladimir Lenin headed the Bolsheviks in October 1917, then fought the degeneration of the revolution with the rise of Stalin's tyranny between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s."
All of which is fine--and which could be quite consistent with responding positively to the Left front for working-class mass action that Jones is proposing. It seems obvious to me that the SWP could make powerful contributions to the process being projected here.
If, however, instead of seeing the revolutionary vanguard and its organization(s) as being forged through actual mass struggles, one sees the Socialist Workers Party as the true, already-existing revolutionary vanguard organization, making its way through a morass of flawed competitors, then perhaps one can afford to be dismissive. Is that what Callinicos actually believes? If so, then the parallels Proyect is drawing between the two SWPs and his warning about a "vanguardist glass ceiling" may be appropriate.
Boundaries of Democratic Centralism
If something approximating a revolutionary vanguard party, with good politics and a mass base, can actually be forged by different currents joining together in the class struggle, then the question is posed as to how such a formation can hold together and be an effective force for the advance of the working class and the revolutionary cause. And this brings us back to the question of democratic centralism.
In their different conceptions of what this meant for Lenin and what it should mean for us, it seems to me that Proyect veers off the path of historical accuracy and political logic, while Callinicos traps himself in a problematical formulation that may be related to the present crisis of the British SWP.
Here is how Proyect explains the meaning of Lenin's conception of democratic centralism and relates it to our own time:
[According to John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World, in a 1917 public discussion on freedom of the press for capitalist newspapers] Lenin and Riazanov debated at a mass meeting and then voted against each other. This was normal Bolshevik functioning. All discipline meant was a [parliamentary] 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.
This very narrow interpretation, however, is not the way the Mensheviks (Lenin's factional adversaries in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party) understood democratic centralism --and they were the first ones to introduce the term into the Russian revolutionary movement. The term involved much more for them than simply control over parliamentary delegates.
According to their resolution of November 1905, "decisions of the guiding collectives are binding on the members of those organizations of which the collective is the organ. Actions affecting the organization as a whole...must be decided upon by all members of the organization. Decisions of lower-level organizations must not be implemented if they contradict decisions of higher organizations." The Bolsheviks fully accepted the term. In a 1906 discussion, Lenin explained: "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided by the Party."
At this point, it is time for us to turn our attention back to the formulation of Callinicos that we questioned earlier--that "our version of democratic centralism" involves two key points: 1) "decisions must be debated fully, but once the vote has been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members," and 2) "a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual congress, campaigns within the organization to give a clear direction to our party's work."
This two-point definition is different from the way Lenin and his comrades defined the term. Missing in what they put forward is Callinicos' emphasis on "a strong political leadership...giving clear direction to our party's work." But also missing is the broad insistence that "decisions" as such "are binding on all members."
In fact, Lenin was absolutely resistant to the efforts of some of his Menshevik comrades to establish "limits within which decisions of Party congresses may be criticized." As he stressed:
In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the Party are most ruthlessly criticized by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the Party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social-Democratic proletariat....
We are profoundly convinced that the workers' Social-Democratic organizations must be united, but in these united organizations, there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.
Lenin went on to argue that "criticism within the principles of the Party Program must be quite free,...not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings."
One might expect a change in the way Lenin and his comrades discussed the concept of democratic centralism in the 1921 organizational resolution on organization--but the section of that document dealing explicitly with democratic centralism contains nothing to contradict what Lenin was saying in 1906.
In fact, the document contains warnings regarding efforts by Communist Party leaderships to go too far in the direction of centralization. "Centralization in the Communist Party does not mean formal, mechanical centralization, but the centralization of Communist activity, i.e., the creation of a leadership that is strong and effective and at the same time flexible," the document explained. It elaborated: "Formal or mechanical centralization would mean the centralization of 'power' in the hands of the Party bureaucracy, allowing it to dominate the other members of the Party or the revolutionary proletarian masses outside the Party."
Freedom of discussion, unity of action remains the shorthand definition of Lenin's understanding of democratic centralism. The creation of an inclusive, diverse, yet cohesive democratic collectivity of activists is something precious and necessary that serious revolutionaries must continue to reach for. It is not clear that the world can be changed without that.
As a serious Marxist theorist and educator, Alex Callinicos, in explaining the SWP commitment to the Leninist tradition, asks: "What does continuing a tradition mean?" He answers quite aptly that "genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal." This dovetails with points made by the organizational resolution which Lenin helped to prepare for the 1921 congress of the Communist International:
There is no absolute form of organization which is correct for all Communists Parties at all times. The conditions of the proletarian class struggle are constantly changing, and so the proletarian vanguard has always to be looking for effective forms of organization. Equally, each Party must develop its own special forms of organization to meet the particular historically-determined conditions within the country.
Both the 1921 resolution and Callinicos' article, each in their own way, make the point that there has not arisen some qualitatively new form of organization--whether reformist or "movementist" or anarchist or syndicalist--that makes unnecessary the kind of revolutionary organization that Lenin sought to build. We will need something like that kind of organization in order to challenge capitalism effectively and to replace it with socialism.
Some of the formulations Callinicos advances seem to indicate such an organization already exists in the form of the British SWP. To question whether that organization is actually the party of the revolutionary vanguard (as opposed as an element of the future organization that has yet to be forged) does not eliminate the underlying point: the centrality of revolutionary organization.
If there is truly the need for such a revolutionary organization--inclusive, diverse, democratic, cohesive--then it seems clear that Leninism is far from "finished" in any sense of the word. It is something that is needed, it still has relevance.
More than this, the organizational forms and norms associated with Leninism must be applied creatively and flexibly, continually adapting to the shifting political, social, cultural realities faced by revolutionaries. These forms and norms must never become a final, finished, closed system--they are necessarily open, fluid, unfinished. In seeking to accomplish what the Bolsheviks accomplished, but to do it better, we need to engage with the praxis (thought and practical experience) of Lenin and his comrades, making use of it in facing our own realities. Much work remains to be done--the struggle continues.
1. Alex Callinicos, "Is Leninism Finished?" Socialist Review, January, 2013, and Louis Proyect, "Leninism is Finished: A reply to Alex Callinicos," The Unrepentant Marxist, January 28, 2013.
2. Owen Jones, "British politics urgently needs a new force--a movement on the Left to counter capitalism's crisis," The Independent, Sunday, January 2013.
3. For a massively documented account of the U.S. SWP experience in the 1980s, see Sarah Lovell, ed., The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party, 1979-1983, and Paul Le Blanc, ed., Revolutionary Principles and Working-Class Democracy, especially my introductory essay to the latter, "Leninism in the United States and the Decline of the Socialist Workers Party."
4. In fact, a day later, Proyect posted a communication from some dissident SWPers that approximates such formulations, in a response to Callinicos entitled "Is Zinovievism Finished?" The Unrepentant Marxist, January 29, 2013, and which concludes: "The time for Leninism to be tried is now long overdue."
5. Charles Post, "Lenin Reconsidered" (review of Lars Lih's Lenin), International Viewpoint, November 3, 2011. It seems to me that this is challenged by a serious examination of Lenin's thought--– for example, in V. I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings, edited by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008). For a response to Post, see "The Enduring Value of Lenin's Political Thought," Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, 8 February 2012.
6. I touch on this in footnote 12 of my essay "The Great Lenin Debate – History and Politics," Links, September 1, 2012, criticizing an interpretation by Paul Kellogg, which led to a clarifying interchange between myself and Kellogg that provided substantial documentation.
7. Leon Trotsky, "Preface," The History of the Russian Revolution, Marxist Internet Archive.
8. Proyect sees this as being related to the experience of SYRIZA in Greece. The meaning of SYRIZA is a focus of debate on the revolutionary left±see the presentation of Strathis Kouvalakis, "On tasks facing SYRIZA," Links, December 10, 2012, and Nikos Tamvlakis, "Could SYRIZA Become a 'new PASOK'?" International Viewpoint, November 26, 2012.
9. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993, 128, 130. The Menshevik quote is taken from Ralph Carter Elwood, ed., Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vol. 1: The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, 1898-October 1917 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974), 93-94. The Lenin quote is from Lenin's Collected Works, Vol. 10, 442-443.
10. Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 130; Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, 310-311.
11. Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 131; Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, 442-443.
12. "The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work: Theses," in Adler, ed., Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London: Ink Links, 1980), 235.
13. Ibid., 234.