Monday, 6 May 2013

What is left of Leninism?

This is my third blog post engaging with contributions to Socialist Register 2013: A Question of Strategy. The previous two posts are here and here. I am just finishing off an extended review of the Socialist Register volume, which will appear on Counterfire soon.
In a lengthy essay called 'What is left of Leninism? New European left parties in historical perspective' - which can be found in Socialist Register 2013: A Question of Strategy - Charles Post provides a sweeping historical survey of the 20th century revolutionary left. This includes the development of a number of mass Communist Parties in the early 1920s and, during the Stalinist era, their political degeneration. But it's the analysis of the radical left since 1968 that I want to focus on here. The essay's author is a sociology professor at City University New York (CUNY), but also an activist in the US revolutionary group Solidarity, and he has interesting insights into developments on the radical left in Europe.

In the 1968-75 period there was substantial growth in Trotskyist and Maoist organisations, shaped by the upsurge of student and worker militancy of those years and offering an alternative to both social democracy and official Communism. There was a widespread view, among revolutionaries at this time, that conditions were comparable to the post-1917 period and the growth of genuinely mass revolutionary parties was a viable prospect, just as happened in much of Europe (and to an extent beyond) during the years following the Russian Revolution. 
These prospects were dashed, as a period of working class retreat began in the mid-1970s and the neo-liberal offensive commenced. The European revolutionary left was thoroughly disoriented and suffered a series of splits; some groups collapsed, others declined. The authentic non-Stalinist revolutionary left never, in the 1970s, grew to the scale seen in some countries during the Third International period of the early to mid 1920s.
Surviving the downturn

The downturn period saw a largely successful neo-liberal assault on the working class, with a weakening of trade union power, a shift in weight from the rank and file to the union bureaucracy, a decisive move rightwards in the Labour Party and its continental equivalents, and the marginalisation of the radical left and its ideas (intellectually Marxism came under sustained assault). Post observes that only two small but substantial revolutionary organisations survived the downturn period with membership largely intact and a credible base among militant workers: the British International Socialists (IS) and the French Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). Both of these were Trotskyist organisations; the Maoist left, meanwhile, had almost entirely collapsed by the end of the 1970s.
The IS, which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977, adapted well to changing circumstances and took important initiatives like the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s, a united front that was successful in beating back the threat of the far right, while also sustaining a base in the trade unions despite vastly more difficult circumstances that the upturn in struggle in the early 1970s. The SWP came through the 1980s and 1990s with a solid activist base intact, with roots in an admittedly weakened organised working class, so that in the early years of this century it could play an impressive role in anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, and for a time in new left-wing electoral formations.  The LCR, similarly, maintained a credible layer of working class activists throughout the 1970s and 1980s, so that it was able to intervene in fresh workers' struggles from the mid-1990s onwards and, a little later, the anti-capitalist movement.

Post argues that these organisations were about as successful as could reasonably be expected in harsh circumstances. The aspiration to develop new mass revolutionary parties that could challenge reformists (in parliament and the trade unions) for leadership of the working class movement was, however, unfulfilled. The revolutionary left remained a small minority current, marginal to the broad labour movement.

This wasn't simply, argues Post, because there was a period of defeats for the working class or a crude result of economic and social changes. It was largely due to circumstances beyond revolutionaries' control, but these were as much to do with the nature of the working class movement as anything, i.e. the political and organisational domination of the working class by reformism, manifested in the weight of the trade union bureaucracy, the strength of long-established social democratic parties (like the British Labour Party) and the role of Communist Parties which had long since accommodated to the system. The revolutionary left repeatedly found itself confronting these obstacles within the broader movement. And when a new wave of anti-capitalist mobilising developed at the start of this century, radical consciousness tended not to translate into specifically Marxist ideas and allegiance to the revolutionary left.
New parties of the European left

This brings us to the development of new parties of the European left over the last decade or so. The space for such parties was created primarily by the capitulation of social democracy to neo-liberalism and - to a lesser but still important degree - the collapse of the Communist parties after 1989 and the fact that revolutionary organisations were too small to fill the gap. The character of these parties was also influenced by the development of generally street-based protest movements. In the early 2000s, with the rapid growth of anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, Italy's Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) held out great promise. But the PRC made enormous concessions to parties to its right, which effectively finished it as a credible left-wing force.

Since that time a number of new left-wing parties have emerged, some of which have since collapsed or fragmented while a few have been sustained fairly successfully. Germany's Die Linke, formed in 2007, is an interesting example because it resulted principally from a fusion of an old Communist left (based mainly in the East) with the left-wing of social democracy disenchanted with the neo-liberal trajectory of that political tradition (based mainly in the West). Die Linke has had some ups and downs since then and it is currently unclear how it will develop.
Some parties, like the earlier (2004-07) version of Respect in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party, have been quite different in character: the revolutionary left has been the principal driving force, lending them considerable radicalism but without the benefits brought by large-scale cracks in the mainstream parties of social democracy or in the union movement. Reformism has remained a more powerful block than many revolutionary activists anticipated, despite a deepening loss of faith in mainstream politics among millions of people and the poor record of social democracy in office.

Newer parties of the left are sometimes held up as shining lights for us to follow, but Post argues that they have in fact suffered from a whole series of problems and, furthermore, they are incapable of successfully moving beyond the old divide in the socialist movement between reformism and revolutionary politics. Most of them have had an important degree of success, some continue to be successful, and they have generally been worthy of support and participation. But they have had difficulty grappling with such questions as how to connect parliamentary and electoral activity to extra-parliamentary activity, how to overcome the weaknesses of the trade unions, and how to prevent sliding to the right and into compromises with neo-liberal politics.
A third way between Labourism and Leninism?

Crucially, Post argues, it is simply impossible to successfully be both post-social democratic and post-Leninist. Ultimately, it is still necessary for the most advanced, revolutionary elements of the working class to organise independently in their own organisations, separate from reformist parties. This is one of the central lessons of 1917 and the period which followed the Russian Revolution.
The new parties of the left have not 'transcended the pre-1914 social democratic 'twin pillars' organisational norm where the party focused on electoral politics, while the union officialdom directed day-to-day class struggle in the workplace and beyond'. These new parties have reproduced the old challenges of social democracy, dating back to before 1914: 'the contradictions of entering capitalist governments, the relationship of electoral and routine trade union activity and mass, extra-parliamentary struggles, and the issues of war and peace'.

None of this remotely means that the new left parties are unimportant and should be disregarded. It does, however, strongly suggest that independent revolutionary organisation - and the united front method, whereby revolutionaries work with  those who have reformist consciousness in extra-parliamentary struggles over shared demands - is as necessary as ever. Post looks to 'the revival of the rational core of Leninism - the transcendence of the division of labour between party and unions and movements through the organisation of radical and revolutionary activists who attempt to contest the forces of official reformism over the conduct of mass struggle.'
Finally, Post points out that the political development of left-wing parties is shaped by two especially important factors: the outcome of extra-parliamentary struggles against austerity, and the relative strength within these parties of radical anti-capitalists, who can counter the pressures which are liable to pull such parties in a more moderate direction. Revolutionaries, if they can organise effectively, can influence the direction of credible left-wing parties where they exist. In all countries, whether there is such a party or not, revolutionaries have the challenge of shaping anti-austerity struggle beyond the realm of electoral politics and strengthening the radical anti-capitalist pole within those movements.


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