Marxism in Mono  



We inherit from the wreckage of the British left a single approach towards the question of organisation. It says that although the revolutionary party has no interests other than those of the working class, the class is divided, with some parts showing greater degrees of class consciousness. While the recognition that most workers are not yet revolutionaries sounds at first like a dispiriting insight, all is not lost. The distinctive Communist solution to the problem of uneven class consciousness is said to have been to form a revolutionary party, composed only of the most class conscious people. And, such a party will be more effective than any other party, because its members say and do the same things.

In the last year we were told repeatedly that this model of a small party, able to have an effect out of all proportion to its size only because of its members’ constant unanimity of thought and action, explains the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917.

But Lenin did not advocate the virtues of ideologically homogeneous parties between 1889 and 1903, when he worked in diverse groups and then a party (the “RSDLP”) with other socialists (Martov, Plekhanov, Bogdanov) who were at every point of the future social democratic “left”, “right” and “centre”. Nor was he a “Leninist” between 1903 and 1914, when the RSDLP was split at times into three, four and then five distinct blocs, just two of which were the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and Lenin called for a re-unification of the party, under the influence of a Socialist International dominated by the “centrist” leadership of the German SPD. Between 1914 and 1918, when Lenin worked with pacifists and “centrists” in the Zimmerwald International, he did not make a festish of political homogeneity. About the only credible moment when you could plausibly say that Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued for a party with no more than one view in it, came in 1920, when the Communist International announced that it would accept membership applications only from parties that signed up to “twenty-one conditions”. The conditions excluded parties led by those who had supported the recent war. “Left” and “centrist” Marxist parties (eg the Italian Socialist Party) were allowed to join the International while, generally, parties of the “Right” were excluded. But seeing this as the moment when “Leninism” was born, securing the victory of 1917, is far-fetched for two reasons.

If this really was the moment when Leninism began, how could it explain the success of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 – three packed years earlier?

And, if Lenin was busy in 1921 creating an ideologically pure, single-tendency international, in order to benefit from the supposed organisational benefits of ideological homogeneity, then why did the International devote such a large amount of its limited efforts, at the exactly this time, to an attempted deep alliance with syndicalists and anarchists: including Bill Haywood and the leadership of the IWW, Rosmer and the leaders of the CGT?

Because, in all the several million words of Lenin’s Collected Works, you will never find the claim that he had invented the idea of a revolutionary party of a new type, the justification for this party has to be recreated back in time, from the writers who formulated a new theory of organisation during Lenin’s final illness.

So if you want to understand why it was that in autumn last year, right in the middle of a bruising faction fight, Alex Callinicos suddenly began praising Lukacs’ “master-work” History and Class Consciousness, a book about which he had previously been highly sceptical, it is because Lukacs was writing in 1922, after the defeat in Hungary, and after Kronstadt, with the revolution visibly dying but (crucially) before Lenin’s actual death.

It was tremendously important to the leaders of the SWP to reassert their authority, without admitting that the political model on which they were relying was that of early Stalinism. Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness appears at that final moment where it is just about possible to pretend that his theory was untainted by the onrushing forces creating a dictatorship all around him.

One of the most powerful arguments against revolutionary politics remains the notion that Russian history somehow “proves” that any revolution must end up in defeat. The ideological homogeneity required by imaginary Leninism is a part of this story.

If we want any future party to regain the trust of the hundreds if not thousands of people who have been made more distrustful of revolutionary politics by the disaster of the last 12 months, it would be no bad starting point to insist – we are serious about making a revolution, we know it will be difficult, but that commitment to the project of transformation is what unifies us. Beneath this core idea, we will discuss and debate, and hold to many views.

Of course, all this argument would be merely by the by, if it really was the case, that ideologically homogeneous parties characterised by unanimity of thought and action were, in general, more successful than any other kind of party. There are good reasons why this is unlikely to be true.

First, it is a general principle of organisational survival that most successful organisations practice some sharing out of tasks. By definition, this requires inviting individuals to do different things, in the hope and expectation that their contribution will amount to more than the sum of their parts. Asking everyone to do the same things, or insisting, as Cliff used to say in the 1990s “we are a party without experts” means in practice that there is no accountability around key tasks, no focus on the capacity of the individual to contribute their different contacts, their skills, etc.

Second, it is an observable reality that political practice often works best when the organisation is characterised by strong personalities, divergent to the extent of having different experiences and temperaments.

Within Russian Communism Trotsky was a more effective political orator before a mass audience than Lenin, and had a base outside the Communist Party that Lenin lacked. Lenin, on the other hand, could bring to inner-party discussions his authority as the leader of the Bolshevik faction since its inception. The two men had different analyses of the first world war and how best to end it, of whether to seek peace with Germany and on what terms, and of whether or how Russia could ever be socialist. They did different things too: one built a party, the other an army. And they filled the leading circles of their organisation with individuals also characterised by strong and divergent personalities (Kollontai, Bukharin, Zinoviev, etc).

Within IS, too: Cliff was capable of recruiting such strong-minded and divergent personalities as the trade unionists Jim Higgins, Geoff Carlsson and Duncas Hallas, the propagandists of popular culture David Widgery, Stephen Wells and Peter Sedgwick, the unreconstructed Marxist men of 1970-1972-era IS alongside the Kollontai-Marxists, Norah Carlin, Anna Pacsuzka and Kathy Ennis, and alongside all of them the philosophers Alasadair Macintyre, Nigel Harris and Michael Kidron. It was after 1979 that the party bunkered down and insisted on its members’ political sameness.

Third, political communication in an age of electronic reproduction is based on relationships rather than a single source of expression. The brilliant veneer of capitalism in this stage of its evolution is all bound up with the myth that it is possible for the purchasers of commodities to acquire a product which has been perfectly tailored to their exact needs at this precise moment of time.

In age of electronic communication; the most effective message will be the ones that are carried by different people with different audiences, in which the divergence of approach between different comrades will be creative, because they combine a degree of individuality and a degree of collective purpose.

To grasp the anachronism of “Leninism” as a method communicating to a mass audience, it is worth imagining how, in the epoch of 1917, a musician might have amplified a sound. The obvious way to do it would have been to bring together many other musicians with the shared purpose of recreating that sound (perhaps, a single note: E). You can imagine an entire orchestra in which every single performer holds their instrument and every person plays at the same time the same note. Such a performance would sound just like that instant, near the start of the performance of a musical or a pantomime, where the orchestra tune up by playing (briefly) the same note. That noise is what happens when everyone does actually do the same thing.

Music begins when you allow musicians to play different notes, and you allow the sounds to interact with each other. A song in stereo is richer than one in mono.

The left will become more effective by learning to work together in doing different things.

7 responses »

  1. If we want any future party to regain the trust of the hundreds if not thousands of people who have been made more distrustful of revolutionary politics by the disaster of the last 12 months

    I was doing fine with this post until I got to those last two words. The past twelve months? The previous twelve weren’t exactly all fun and frolics. In fact I’d argue that there’s been a pile of debris growing skyward since October 2007.

  2. Analog Stereo can be argued that 5.1 is more expressive. In order to keep the debate on the track where I think it’s set, i will post this article from FT.

    I think this issue is addressed. However, all forms of a workers government, their internal regime, their moral, uses and traditions are a result of their own historical forms, and the revolutionary party is a resource of some very important of them. Thus, the Revolutionary Party is a form of concentrated infusions of what the future would be, and the construction of that Party is a rehearsal of the construction of the new society.

    Best, Carlos./

  3. There’s no cookie cutter way to build a revolutionary organization. What Lenin and the Bolsheviks did nearly a 100 years ago should inspire us all. But the party they built isn’t a McDonald’s franchise to be replicated the world over in the 21st century. Comrades in every nation need to ask each other what is to be done as it pertains to the sociopolitical environment in which they’re currently functioning in. Even if those debates leads to an agreement that now isn’t the time to build a revolutionary organisation.

  4. Dave – democratic centralism means arguing and debating first, then after taken a decision, abiding by the democratic decision taken. The idea that for the SWP ‘after 1979 the party bunkered down and insisted on its members’ political sameness’ and so became a monolith might be appealing for ex-members justifying their leaving, but are you so sure there were no debates about anything inside the organisation after 1979? The current issue of the ISJ for example has an interesting article by Dave Hayes on the SWP and the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and suggests there were all sorts of arguments going on about how best to intervene and support that dispute – because, surprisingly enough, at times activists in certain local areas often had better ideas about tactics than the central leadership – and other times they needed strategic guidance from the leadership. There is always a dialectical tension at play – and the fact the SWP was not a monolith meant it could correct itself during the course of the struggle even when it initially got things wrong. But that such twists and turns were possible were predicated on the fact that ‘the line’ was tried and tested across the party and so could be then changed or corrected if it didn’t work.

    More generally, if the Bolsheviks had been a monolithic party then of course it couldn’t have made the revolution – this was one of the themes of Cliff’s study of Lenin and Leninism and a necessary challenge to the Stalinist ideas of a monolithic party. But that Lenin had built an independent organisation of significant size independent of reformist and centrist currents – this was distinctive – and while objective factors obviously need to be taken into account this subjective difference is critical to explaining why for example the Bolsheviks did lead the only successful socialist revolution in history in Russia – and why for example, ultimately, Rosa Luxemburg failed to do so in Germany. Ultimately the collective matters more than the individual – the lack of a revolutionary collective of significant size and experience led to the defeat of the German Revolution – not because the German revolutionary left was short of ‘strong-minded and divergent personalities’ – they had those people in droves. I think this is what Cliff was probably stressing when he said ‘we are a party without experts’ – he was trying to challenge individualistic egotism within the party – and people going off and saying ‘I will go off and be a ‘theorist’ and an expert on eg anti-fascism or an expert on anti-imperialism’ and detach themselves from the collective discipline of the organisation. Actually I think Cliff is quite right here for what it is worth – in the 2000s with Stop the War and Respect a number of members of the leadership saw themselves as just doing those things and thought they were therefore more important than the rest of the party – ordinary members who did the everyday routine unsung activism of branch meetings and selling the paper, building up contacts etc. This way of thinking had disastrous consequences for their revolutionary politics – they ultimately essentially got pulled by movementism and left the party. Cliff’s comments were not saying lets all do the same thing and say the same thing and have no debate or discussion or room for individuality or individual initiative and was not about not recognising some comrades are more suited for certain kind of activism than others – and it is slanderous frankly to imply it. It was about saying lets have a party based on equals – where no one sees themselves above anyone else or above the collective discipline of the organisation or sees what they are doing (especially those who think of themselves as somehow ‘intellectuals’) as so much more important than what others are doing. This point by Cliff is actually something I think well worth holding onto when we think about Leninism in the 21st century.

  5. Snowball’s comments are thoughtful and fraternal, and I hope we can continue to have exchanges in this tone. I think Dave romanticises the pre-1979 IS/SWP somewhat – and I was there. But I do have a problem with Snowball’s argument. He begins: “democratic centralism means arguing and debating first, then after taken a decision, abiding by the democratic decision taken.” Now I heard this argument a lot over the last year, and it has one big weakness. What happens when a mistake has been made? How can it be corrected? If it becomes clear that we have manifestly taken the wrong road, are we still obliged to carry on marching along it because we voted for it? Cliff didn’t believe that, and nor did Lenin.
    It is quite true that there were many disagreements during the miners’ strike – including furious rows on the CC, though it is hard to disentangle what they were about because when I interviewed participants, they all remembered things differently. But it is certainly true that there was quite a sharp change of line in the weeks after Orgreave. The initiative came from above – from the CC – but as Snowball suggests it was certainly as a result of the CC listening to the membership.
    Last year things were very different. As members departed in their hundreds, I expected that the CC would recognise that there was a problem, that things had been handled badly, and that a change of direction was required. Obviously I did not expect the CC to adopt all the demands of the opposition faction, but if there had been some indication of a willingness for compromise and dialogue I think quite a lot of us would have been willing to stay for a while and see how things worked out. But when the CC made it clear that they were not prepared to shift an inch, I and many others realised that there had been a qualitative change from the days of the Cliff-Hallas-Harman leadership. But I think there was much that was positive in the SWP’s theory and practice right up to the STW/Respect period, and I hope comrades inside and outside the SWP can learn from and build on those traditions.

  6. Snowball, I don’t particularly believe that the reason that there was a second revolution in Russia in 1917 which took state power, and there wasn’t one in Germany in 1918-1919 is because there weren’t centrists in Lenin’s party. If the definition of centrist is people who are excited by revolution when one is on the table, but not when it isn’t, then 95% of the Bolsheviks in 1917 must have been centrists, given the extraordinary speed with which the party grew from just a few thousand members at the start of 1917. Moreover if Lenin had known that his party wasn’t to include centrists, ie people who supported Kautsky-ish positions, then he would have had to cull the Mezhrayonsty, most of his own politburo and Lenin himself. You don’t need to believe everything Larh’s Lih writes to grasp Lenin’s deep debt to Kautsky. It is why Lenin’s pamphlet on Kautsky calls him the “renegade”, because in Lenin’s thinking Kautsky was disowning positions which had been Kautsky’s and which Lenin continued to defend.

    If I had to explain the failure in Germany I would put it down much more strongly to the way in which the spine of the German army had held together through military defeat, in contrast to the Russian army which was absolutely cracked, the shallow roots of parliamentary democracy in Germany, and even among the subjective factors, the way Marxism had an intellectual hegemony in Russia (there were self-declared Marxists in the leadership of the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, the SRs and even the Kadets) greater than anything ever managed in Germany.

    You will note that neither Trotsky nor Lenin ever said that the reason they won and Rosa lost was because of the Bolshevik party structure – Lenin would have been scandalised by the suggestion, as indeed was Trotsky when the idea was first formulated – which was by Stalin himself.

    As for the lack of experts, I think it is one of those distinctive Cliffite nuggets which in the right context encouraged insights but became a problem when it was reapplied for different reasons at different times. The only people I ever heard use it (save for Cliff himself) where those very same StW leaders, for whom it meant “outside the ranks of the CC, we recognise no experts, but in the CC, where all decisions are made, we want the maximum of private fiefdoms”.

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