Wednesday, 24 July 2013

"We're the Leninists now" - renewing the revolutionary left

There has been a lot of online chatter - and even some offline chatter - recently about Leninism. Now a concept like Leninism is clearly rather removed, in itself, from day-to-day political realities, so such a proliferation of chatter can only be explained by concrete developments. The concrete developments here are, above all, concerned with the Socialist Workers Party's on-going crisis. This means that questions around Leninism are - for better or worse - conflated with attempts to understand the crisis, degeneration and decline of the SWP.

Paul Le Blanc, an experienced US-based revolutionary socialist, has written a series of articles about Leninism in the last couple of months, the last of which explicitly addresses the SWP crisis (based on his recent visit to London for the party's Marxism 2013 event). They are all very good, thoughtful and well-informed pieces.
A strength of his writing is his ability to present a broader picture, removed from the murky details and ins-and-outs of the soap opera afflicting the SWP. That particular saga began towards the end of 2012, when there was a powerful backlash from many party members against the leadership’s response to serious allegations against a leading member. The party continues to contain many able socialists, some of whom continue to play a constructive role in the wider movement, but the organisation is paralysed and now apparently in terminal decline.

Le Blanc re-focuses attention on fundamentals. But in his most recent contribution he also considers the specific circumstances of the SWP and looks at why it is in a mess, framed by a broader understanding of revolutionary organisation and the legacy of Lenin. Yet a great deal of the discussion about the SWP and Leninism elsewhere has been much weaker, often missing the point and frequently ignoring larger political questions. Even Le Blanc, in my view, doesn't entirely do justice to the political and strategic issues involved, though he gets closer than most (despite not being based in this country!).
I will return to the questions raised by the SWP crisis below, but it is first worth offering a summary of Le Blanc’s key general points about Leninism and political organisation. This summary is specifically indebted to this article.

Some key points on Leninism
1. Lenin was more than a theorist of organisation. He wrote about a vast array of subjects and should not be reduced solely to the question of organisation. Lenin's uncompromising commitment to revolutionary socialism - the authentic Marxist tradition - was an alternative to the reformist reality of the dominant tendencies in the Second International (reflected in their support for their own ruling classes in World War One).

2. Leninism is not a closed and dogmatic system. Lenin matters today - not because he provides all the answers but because the historical experience he symbolises is rich with lessons for us. He is not a definitive source of authority.

3. At the core of Leninism is 'principled flexibility'. This is a combination of Marxist principle with flexibility in tactics and organisational forms.
4. This is linked to a kind of 'open marxism'. Rather than a closed system of doctrine, we must realise that theory must be constantly evolving in interaction with political reality and the lived experience of class struggle. We need such an approach today, especially when you consider recent or on-going changes in the dynamics of capitalism, the system's crises, the composition of the working class, and the interactions between class and gender, ethnicity etc. Sustaining the tradition is not about passing down a closed doctrine from generation to generation, but is open, dynamic and responsive to changing realities.

5. Democracy is essential for effective action. In the famous episode of the April Theses in 1917 - when Lenin fought against much internal opposition to re-orient the Bolsheviks towards socialist revolution - Lenin conducted the debate openly throughout the party: there was no assumption that 'democratic centralism' meant he couldn't express views opposed to the majority of the leadership. It was also a debate in which Lenin had overcome a position which he himself had previously championed, but he now recognised as conservative.
6. The centrality of democracy applies not only to our social and political struggles, but also to our own organisation. We need to recover authentic democratic centralism and recognise that the genuine Leninist commitment to internal democracy is radically different from the 'sect' form, in which an ossified dogmatic orthodoxy is seen as needing protection against challenge in democratic discussion.

7. A revolutionary organisation needs a climate that supports cadre development. A living, open culture of democratic discussion is linked to having an inclusive political climate in the organisation, with the development of strong, supportive political relationships, captured by Lenin in 1902 when he referred to "a close and compact body of comrades in which complete, mutual confidence prevails". In this context the development of cadres - which is hugely important - is possible. This is a layer of experienced activists with political and theoretical understanding, and organisational ability, able to attract new members and support them politically while also contributing to wider movements for social change.

8. A revolutionary group today should not see itself as the definitive revolutionary organisation, or even as the nucleus of one. The growth of the kind of revolutionary left we need ultimately requires the participation of a larger vanguard (i.e. those working class layers most strongly opposed to capitalism) moving into action against the system. The development of a genuinely large, rooted revolutionary organisation is more complex than any current organisation simply becoming steadily bigger. If organisational unity is not possible, the key thing is 'fighting unity' and common participation in broader united fronts.
9. We need a strategic orientation. Lukacs, in his short book on Lenin in 1924, wrote of the 'actuality of the revolution', ie the goal of socialist revolution frames our tactical decisions and organisational practice. Every small detail is seen in relation to that ultimate goal. It is therefore essential to have a strategic orientation: what are the central priorities if we want to move closer to our ultimate aim? The Bolsheviks had their own "three whales" (the phrase come from Russian folklore) - central strategic aims which guided their practice.

10. As well as a clear strategic orientation, we should not forget or downplay the socialist society we are fighting for. It is easy to lose sight of this, or obscure its importance because we want to avoid offering dogmatic 'blueprints' for a socialist future. But if we are serious about promoting a radical socialist alternative we need to be able to talk about it, describe it, offer a sense of what we are for not only what we are against. We need to "get increasingly specific and practical about the socialist alternative to capitalism, building organisations and movements that can develop mass consciousness and mass struggles capable of bringing about that alternative."
A crisis of political strategy, not internal democracy

In a Marxism 2013 session that turned into a heated debate on Leninism between 'loyalists' and 'oppositionists' in the SWP, oppositionist Willie Black cited the late Julie Waterson - a former Central Committee member - saying "Lenin's fucking dead - we're the Leninists now". The point is that we have to work out for ourselves what we do, rather than looking to Lenin's writings as holy writ.

So, what is to be done? This question - famously posed by Lenin in his much-debated pamphlet of 1902 - remains the important one to ask. It is posed by Le Blanc when he writes about the ‘three whales’ and strategic orientation in the context of (as Lukacs put it) ‘the actuality of the revolution’.
Formal questions of organisation and internal democracy are of secondary importance in comparison: not because organisation and democracy are unimportant, but because they only mean anything in the context of what we are doing. We have to get things the right way around here.

It amazes me just how much of the Leninism-related chatter of recent months has had very little - or indeed nothing - to say about political tasks and strategy. Many articles about the SWP crisis have said nothing about political strategy, about what the organisation has or hasn't done in recent years. And such strategic and practical questions are of course bound up with those of political analysis. Even seemingly mundane practical matters are political.
More generally, there is a tendency to focus on questions of organisation in a narrow way, as if merely an internal matter not a question of what an organisation is doing, contributing and achieving in the wider political world. Debating Leninism becomes an obscure, arid debate about particular organisational forms and their internal characteristics, divorced from external political realities (or even the small matter of what political activity an organisation is engaged in).

There is fetishism towards the details of internal democracy. One expression, for example, is the fact that the International Socialist Network (ISN) - the group which formed from a SWP split in March of this year - is devoting considerable energy to debating whether or not to employ a paid worker, with some members evidently convinced that such an appointment is dangerously bureaucratic. We must try to learn the correct lessons from their old party's predicament, not focusing on minor symptoms at the expense of major causes. 
The dominant idea in much discussion is that what's gone wrong in the SWP has been a corrosion of democratic culture. Of course this is partly true - the party's democratic culture is weak and has decayed. But it doesn't explain why that decay may have happened in relation to the outside world (or more particularly the organisation's actions in the outside world). We are left with accounts of an inadequate democratic culture that either lapse into essentialism, implying that any such attempts at building revolutionary organisation are doomed, or become obsessively focused on trivial points of detail. The outside world vanishes from view.

Roots of a political crisis
But the long-term crisis of the SWP is not merely a crisis of democratic culture or of organisational form. It is a political crisis: not at the level of general theory, but in terms of political strategy and orientation. If this is not understood then it is impossible to account for the decay of democratic norms, the obsessive factionalism, the decline in membership, the intellectual contortions or the leadership's incompetence. All of these things only make any sense with an understanding of the party's broader 'wrong turn' in its political strategy. 

This is important for anyone who is a revolutionary and who wants to build new, more effective, organisation. We have to understand what has - and hasn't - gone wrong, to learn the right lessons rather than the wrong lessons. We mustn't throw the Leninist baby out with the SWP's dirty bathwater. We also need – more than anything else – to be clear about what is to be done, and how we can set about doing it.
The two turning points in the SWP's longer-term decay were the Respect split of November 2007 and the economic crash of September 2008. In the wake of these developments there was a sharp turn in the party's perspectives and orientation, which was strongly opposed by a small minority of us - who at the time were still members of the SWP, and who are mostly now in Counterfire.

The Respect split led to a significant layer of cadre (experienced active members) believing that a turn away from united front building, and towards a model of 'party building' familiar from the 1980s downturn, was necessary. They had got their fingers burnt by the damaging experience of the Respect crisis (which began in August 2007), then the split in the coalition which rapidly followed (in November), and finally the difficulties the SWP experienced in dealing with its aftermath.

By September 2008, when the financial crash presented the SWP with fresh challenges and opportunities, there was a mood for retrenchment, for battening down the hatches and strengthening a steady routine of branch meetings and paper sales at the expense of wider engagement with others in the movement.  “We went too far” and “we need to consolidate” were expressions that I, and others, recall hearing at that time. The idea that some members had become ‘liquidationist’ in Respect and we now needed to re-focus on ‘the revolutionary party’ and ‘our politics’ gained traction.
This mood of retrenchment was strengthened after the 2008 Crash, when the majority of the party leadership - with backing from much of the cadre - rejected arguments for coalition-building responses to the crisis and instead advocated a narrower 'party building' response. There were arguments, for example, that selling Socialist Worker at workplaces was the main way we should respond to the crisis, or that the SWP - having argued for years that a return to economic crisis was imminent - could reap the rewards of being vindicated by recruiting directly to the party in large numbers, with no need for such mediating mechanisms as united fronts. 

The continuing relevance of the united front
Some of us rejected the new line. We argued for the deployment of united front methods in response to the crisis, seeing the project of building a stronger and bigger party as being shaped by such movement-building efforts. We were told that coalitions over economic issues relating to the crisis were impossible or undesirable, for a variety of reasons: the trade union leaders wouldn't work with us, the Respect split had left us devoid of allies, what was really needed was strike action and that meant trade union activity not movement building, etc.

All of these arguments turned out to be hollow, as has been made obvious in the years since then. Opportunities were therefore sadly missed. The minority’s arguments about strategy were underpinned by our recognition of broader changes. Here is how a Counterfire article from January of this year – on the SWP crisis – expressed it:
‘Underlying this conception, although not adequately formulated in Party debates at the end of the last decade, was a recognition that both the British working class had changed, and that our own forms of organisation needed to adapt with and to it. Trade unions were essential as the bedrock working class institution, but could not be the only game in town for socialists. Their recent strength has been in their contribution to movements of political protest, which include one day strikes, rather than in prolonged industrial action.

None of this implies for an instant a retreat from the principle that the working class is the key agent of change in capitalist society. But as Engels noted the workers struggle exists in three registers: ideological, political and economic. In some periods the main form of struggle may be political and ideological rather than purely economic. To judge the state of the struggle simply by the level of strike action is to ignore the level of generalised, politicised anger and opposition that suffuses society today.’
The leadership’s line, however, won broad support in the party and we found ourselves isolated. The leadership resorted to vilification, slander and personal attacks - and increasingly to disciplinary measures - in order to defeat us. There were abuses of democracy galore and a concerted effort to avoid actually debating the political issues we raised. I was expelled in November 2009, as was a fellow ‘oppositionist’, for ‘factionalism’.

The numerous serious problems of internal culture witnessed in recent months are nothing new. They were also characteristic of the leadership’s approach to the internal debate in 2009 and early 2010. To give just a few examples:
‘Suspensions and expulsions preceded conference in January 2010, again with private online discussions used as a pretext. For the first time the CC used secret caucuses of its own supporters against the minority. This was the first time too someone was instructed to stop running a website. Email accounts were hacked to gain ‘evidence’ for expulsions. Students who disagreed were invited to leave the party before they were expelled.’

I was always clear that the vitriol directed towards me (and towards others), and the disciplinary actions, stemmed from the differences over political strategy. Democracy was not the core issue. Internal culture was not the heart of the matter. The fundamental issue was that we disagreed over strategy: a politically weak leadership, having adopted the wrong approach, could only prosper if it vilified and caricatured its internal opponents, and ultimately drive us out of the organisation.
The Left Platform faction which had formed in October 2009 - to promote the case for united front responses to the crisis, against the party's increasingly isolationist turn - was dissolved at the end of the January 2010 conference. A month later there was a raft of resignations and the majority of those who had been in the faction formed a new organisation, Counterfire, in March 2010.

It had become clear that the party was not going to change direction, that its rejection of united front strategy was an obstacle to some of us doing what we regarded as important practically, and that disciplinary measures were becoming a permanent substitute for open, reasoned debate. We were - and remain - committed to building coalitions against austerity and war as our strategic priority, developing a revolutionary organisation in that context.
Responding to austerity: two different roads 

The next turning point was May 2010: the formation of a Tory-led government and the commencement of austerity. This posed a challenge to all socialists, the most important one of our times. It had continuity, though, from the debate which had emerged after September 2008: how should we, as revolutionary socialists, respond to the economic crisis? Should our practical response be first and foremost the building of broad movements of resistance in which we unite with those who (to simplify a little here) have reformist ideas or belong to reformist organisations, or should we downplay such opportunities and instead focus on our own propaganda or on creating 'party fronts' which are narrow and under our control?

The situation after May 2010's general election sharpened that existing debate. The SWP continued to hold to the latter standpoint: it vacillated between narrow party routines and propaganda and, on the other hand, half-baked ‘party fronts’ that failed to win much support beyond its own membership.
It also drifted more and more towards a kind of soft syndicalism that overstated the possibilities for strike action and remained trapped in trade union sectionalism, while downplaying the opportunities for broader political united fronts. This led to the formation of Unite the Resistance, a trade union network that rested upon rejecting the case for a broad anti-cuts coalition and instead stressed the narrower terrain of the unions.
Those of us in Counterfire had a different view and - because we had departed and established a new, admittedly, tiny group - could now do something about it. We worked with a range of others to establish the Coalition of Resistance, initiated in August 2010 with a very big launch conference a few months later. This aimed to connect trade unions to other anti-cuts constituencies, addressed a very wide range of issues under the umbrella of austerity, and embraced a range of methods (not just strikes but demonstrations and campaigns). We also sustained a central role in another genuine coalition on a major issue (or set of issues), namely Stop the War.

More recently, the Coalition of Resistance has played a big part in developing the People's Assembly - precisely the kind of big, broad anti-cuts coalition that we have argued and fought for over time. The hugely successful 22 June event was, frankly, a vindication of what some of us have argued since the autumn of 2008. The SWP supports the People’s Assembly – which is a welcome step – but is, at national level, to a certain extent reduced to sloganeering about what the movement should do, rather than shaping its direction.
It is the SWP's tragedy that it got it wrong on this fundamental strategic point - and has failed to properly rectify its errors. The party leadership's errors of political strategy led on to further problems. In the course of driving through the new strategy from late 2008 onwards, it developed a culture of intolerance which has since become more entrenched. The party apparatus of full-time workers was of course used to enforce the leadership's will against dissenting voices, while the leadership has encouraged what might be called majority factionalism among a layer of loyalist cadre.

Sectarian degeneration
The SWP developed greater sectarianism, as it was turning away from the kind of outward-looking attempts at building coalitions that characterised much of its history. It also became increasingly dogmatic and closed to critical or original thinking - a characteristic associated with growing sectarianism. The defence of doctrine and dogma became a priority, with growing emphasis on the distinctiveness of the SWP and an often intolerant or sectarian attitude to many outside the organisation's ranks (while dissidents inside the party were treated as being in alliance with, or infected by, hostile elements outside the party).

Here is how John Rees expressed the sectarian degeneration in a recent Counterfire article:
‘Using the split in Respect as the occasion, the dominant section of the leadership claimed ‘party building’ was incompatible with united front work and effectively marginalized work in the Stop the War Coalition and refused point blank to countenance launching a broad national response to the recession on the Stop the War model. Necessarily, sectarianism led to internal sclerosis and political degeneration in the leadership. How could it be otherwise? It is always the vitality of the struggle that refreshes and renews revolutionary organisations - if they can accommodate and react to its impulses’.

Another element in this picture of sectarian degeneration was the role of the leadership. Martin Smith, the party's national secretary until January 2011, was revered for having spearheaded the new, post-Respect, perspective. He - more than any other individual member of the Central Committee - had been the figurehead of the faction fight (on the majority's side) and the emblem of the changes in perspective. Criticising him was unthinkable - it would put you in the same camp as those who had left the organisation (there is nothing worse) - so he had to be defended, whatever his faults.
This, then, is the political and practical basis for the extraordinary, otherwise inexplicable, developments of recent months in the SWP. This is not, I should clarify, to deny the particular features and dynamics of the current, on-going crisis, which have derived from the leadership’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct made against one leading member.

The point is to contextualise that particular crisis as part of something bigger and more long term; otherwise it is impossible to understand how it could have happened in a party with such a strong historic record on women’s liberation, among other issues. It is also important to grasp the political context because otherwise we are reduced to misguided revisionism about ‘Leninism’, searching for a narrow organisational or internal solution while ignoring the wider political context. There are many good socialist activists in the SWP, yet they are stuck in an organisation that is sadly in permanent decline.

Forms of resistance today
What revolutionary socialists – in or out of the SWP - ought to be doing is building the anti-cuts movement, primarily through the People’s Assembly. In that context we can build a stronger revolutionary socialist current. I have written about the People’s Assembly elsewhere, so I won’t elaborate yet again in the present article. 

I do, however, want to briefly respond to the criticism Alex Callinicos made (at Marxism 2013) of comments by John Rees at the People’s Assembly in June. Callinicos suggested it was wrong of John, and presumably by extension Counterfire, to argue for us to deploy all tactics – demonstrations, strikes, direct action – in combating austerity, saying that in fact he should be advocating strikes as the dominant mode of resistance. This is what John Rees said in the closing session of the People’s Assembly:
“Some people want to say that there is one form of protest superior to all others, that direct action is superior to marching, that strikes are better than marching, that direct action is superior to strikes. Don’t be ridiculous! We need them all, we need every single one of them. We are going to need to break this government. And if we are going to break this government, we are going to need to demonstrate, to strike, to take direct action ..."

The Callinicos response, it seems to me, is classic sloganeering, the like of which used to earn contempt (and rightly so) from SWP members. It is not only dubious at a general level – yes, there are specific benefits to strikes, but we revolutionaries have never operated with a crude hierarchy of resistance methods with strikes at the apex – but is also obviously not appropriate right now. The situation at present is that we need a co-ordinated national movement that combines a range of tactics to be as effective as possible.
It’s a comment that reflects a wider problem in the SWP, which has developed a narrow conception of class struggle that regardless of concrete circumstances privileges the call for strikes – despite actual strike levels being historically low – and downplays other forms of struggle, sometimes deriding them as ‘movementism’.  Paul Le Blanc responds to the comments by Callinicos as follows:

This seems problematical to me, particularly since a majority of today’s working class finds itself outside of trade unions and participates in struggles, necessarily, through mass actions organised by social movements outside of the workplace.
This relates to another aspect of controversy in and around the SWP. It seems to me that the human beings who make up the working class majority find themselves in different sectors (involving various blue-collar and white-collar occupations and skill levels, as well as those not currently employed) and are characterised by a variety of identities (involving gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and more), beset by various forms of oppression which must be understood and engaged with by revolutionaries and others through distinctive movements and struggles -- which is inseparable from the overall struggle of the working class for a better life for all. What is dismissed as “movementism” can be essential to the actual, real-life class struggle.
There have been times in the past when the party made initial mis-judgements about what forms of action to prioritise, but in all those cases the mistakes were corrected. In the late 1970s it was only through experience that the party realised the Rank and File Movement was going nowhere but the Right to Work Campaign had great potential, necessarily correcting its perspective (which had previously regarded the rank and file union work as paramount, while work among the unemployed was a mere adjunct).

Again in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 there was an initial over-estimation of potential for workers’ action, with a focus on calling for secondary strike action that quickly turned out to be less important than building practical solidarity campaigns in localities (which had at first been derided). The party – including the leadership  - learnt from evolving experience and changed tack. When the poll tax was introduced in Scotland the party adopted the line of calling for strike action by those responsible for collecting and administering the new tax, while ignoring the emerging non-payment campaign. Thankfully the line changed when the poll tax was introduced in England and Wales. (See Ian Birchall's magnificent biography of SWP founder Tony Cliff for reference to these three episodes).
The way ahead

Those three examples were understandable errors, in the context of a generally correct wider perspective, and were remedied in time. Now it is different. The entire direction has been wrong since 2008. The SWP has failed to develop an anti-cuts strategy that reflects real political forces and the forms of resistance which currently pre-dominate. It is an approach that traps it in sectarian isolation. There is no evidence of re-thinking or positive change. That is, ultimately, what dooms it to terminal decline.

All of its other problems – the alleged cover-ups, the crackdown on democracy, the disciplinary measures, the dogmatic propagandism, the theoretical sterility, the endemic factionalism, the splits and falling membership, the bad-tempered tone of debate, the chronically weak leadership, the absurd backwardness towards the internet - need to be reckoned with in that context.
The rest of us on the revolutionary left need to start by getting our broader political tasks right. Before all else, build the People’s Assembly. Any talk about ‘revolutionary realignment’ is empty without that. Paul Le Blanc concludes his most recent article as follows:

While carrying on serious socialist educational efforts, we must be involved in mass social struggles in the here-and-now, most definitely for reforms. This should not be dismissed as “movementism” or as “left-reformism”. Rosa Luxemburg explained the point well: “The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the socialist movement an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim”.
Such initiatives as, for example, the People’s Assembly should be embraced and whole-heartedly advanced. Efforts such as these are what can help to create the preconditions for a revolutionary party. Whatever British comrades decide to do in regard to the SWP, it will be vitally important for all to engage in the actual struggle.’

The revolutionary left has to show that it can deliver, has to be part of shaping new political struggles. Too much current discussion about Leninism, organisation and realignment neglects this basic truth, instead focusing on secondary issues and turning inwards. Build a mass anti-austerity movement and expand the influence and size of the revolutionary current within it: these are the two main challenges we face.



  1. Alex, the organization question is worthy of discussion on its own merits. Your 10 points on Leninism, if meant as a contribution to the debate, are far too general, if not unfocused. People are raising specific matters such as the role of the Internet, the use of slates, the leeway given to factions, etc. You seem uninterested in the messy details.

    1. 'People are raising specific matters such as the role of the Internet, the use of slates, the leeway given to factions, etc. You seem uninterested in the messy details.'

      These details are minor and secondary (which is not the same as being totally irrelevant). Every revolutionary organisation naturally has to decide what to do about them. In Counterfire we don't have the absurd prohibitions on internet use associated with the SWP in recent years (and, more generally, we put a lot of emphasis on positively using the 'net), we don't use a slate system for electing our Steering Committee, and we don't have any prohibitions on factions.

      So what? In all these three respects we have a particular approach. In all three respects that approach is somewhat different from the SWP's current approach. But it's not these points that distinguish us from the SWP or from anyone else. They do not make us more or less Leninist than any other organisation either.

      The really important stuff is what I've written about above. Political strategy and practice are the things a revolutionary group today needs to get right, above all else. In that context, in the process of actually building something worthwhile, the minor internal/organisational issues largely take care of themselves. They are certainly not the basis for building revolutionary organisation today - a new group might adopt impeccably democratic procedures, but that is meaningless if they don't get the question of strategy right.

      There has already been endless internet discussion - including on your own blog Louis! - about the ins-and-outs of these relatively minor questions. It's time to re-focus on the big issues.