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.