Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Don't blame Leninism

Phil BC has posted this commentary in the wake of Tommy Sheridan being sentenced to three years in jail. He generalises from this particular case into a broader critique of Leninist organisation:

'But what I find most disturbing is the frenzied attacks by those who reside in England and have absolutely no connection to the trial whatsoever. This hatred - for that is what it is - by members of nominally Trotskyist outfits closely resembles what you'd expect from a cult. When Scientologists are criticised, no one is surprised they intimidate and denounce opponents. That is, after all, what cults are all about. But for socialists to ape this behaviour? It speaks volumes of the fundamentally unhealthy organisational practices of self-described Leninist groups.

Democratic centralism - a principle of organisation Lenin thought appropriate to mass parties, not tiny groups of a couple of thousand - tends not to be exercised around action, but rather is a principle for regulating the boundaries of permissible thought. Freedom of discussion becomes circumscribed discussion. Unity in action is, in practice, unity behind the positions formulated by the opaque and unaccountable executive/central committee. This is no recipe for generating critically minded working class politicians and Marxist cadre. But it does create a small following happy to swallow it all and regurgitate it when occasion demands. Such as when one of their key allies gets in a spot of bother with the law.

If there are political lessons to be drawn from this episode, they have to centre on the far left's culture, on its promotion of and slavishness toward charismatic leaders, its pronounced tendency toward group think, and its inability to handle disputes in anything but a mature fashion. If some good is to come from the tragic and shameful waste of Tommy Sheridan's fate, a thorough rethink of all this would be it.'
Below is my hurried reply, which I've posted as a comment on Phil's blog. I haven't changed a single word or punctuation mark in this version, so it's very rough - and obviously doesn't cover the issues comprehensively (feel free to comment here, though it might be better to do so on Phil's original post):  
'Whatever people may make of Sheridan and his behaviour, it is wrong and regrettable that he's been jailed. Perjury, like many non-violent offences, isn't one that should lead to even a brief imprisonment, never mind 3 years.

While I sympathise with much of what you write - including your balanced criticism of actions by people on both sides of the dispute on the Scottish far left - I don't think this is a symptom of something rotten about Leninist organisations. It can reasonably be argued there are severe problems with much of the actually existing far left in the UK as a whole, but that shouldn't be generalised into blaming democratic centralism or Leninism.

One of the issues here is that the far left remains small and weak. There's a tendency to convince ourselves we're not, but that's the way it is. There's a number of good reasons for it - and its an international phenomenon - but it causes difficulties.

Isolation can breed in-fighting, a lack of perspective on reality, etc. Defeats and weakness breed recriminations, blame, demoralisation etc. In many ways the various current or recent problems - from the SSP and Respect splits to the spat inside NSSN - are symptomatic of a far left that is weak, small, isolated and which has struggled to make breakthroughs.

They are also mostly influenced by political and strategic misjudgements. Just as it is also possible to make good judgements. But they aren't somehow inherent in a particular form of organisation or strand of politics. You will always be able to find counter-examples and exceptions, and remember that the SSP was for a period successful (how is that explained if you adopt a universalising view like that above?).

Also, the different sections of the far left don't all subscribe to a single model of organisation anyway, making generalisations impossible. The SSP was never a classic Leninist organisation - it was an alliance of existing groups combined with some independents, in which one group (the former Militant) was dominant for a long while. Respect was a different kind of formation again.

Even within one Leninist organisation there are sometimes radical changes over time - the SWP of recent years is hugely different from the IS (its forerunner) of the 1960s.

As for 'cult of leadership' theories... I always treat these with great distrust. Even where there's some truth in this being relevant, it is only one factor among many (and you still need to explain what's given rise to that tendency - it is definitely not innate). Yes, it is to some extent relevant in Sheridan's case, but an explanation is needed of WHY that's happened (and also of why there's been such vitriolic denunciation of him by his former allies).

But this really isn't some major recurring theme. Healy - yes, obviously. Galloway - to some extent there was a problem, during the Respect crisis, of many people being too uncritical of him. Beyond that I'm struggling for examples.

Genuinely democratic centralist organisations are profoundly democratic, with high levels of participation and active membership. In this they are distinct from Labour and other social-democratic parties, which are more passive and tend to have a hollowed out democracy, with leaders treating members as a mere 'stage army'. When things go wrong it is because of particular problems of politics or orientation.

As someone formerly expelled by a Leninist party, I might be expected to share some people's indignation at 'democratic centralism'. But I don't. I was always clear about 2 things in my own case: 1. the political problems came first, and the degeneration in internal culture came after, 2. the recourse to vilification, disciplinary procedures etc was a symptom of deviating from authentic democratic centralism, rather than an expression of it.

That's probably enough!'


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