Thursday, 21 February 2013

Learning not lecturing: why the left doesn’t have all the answers

If there’s one thing that gets me about the revolutionary left, it’s this: in year five of this protracted capitalist crisis, as austerity strikes blow after blow, our methods, strategies and tactics clearly aren’t working – yet attempting to question and rethink them is often met with something between suspicion and horror. We’ve been doing it this way all these years, us young upstarts are told, and we’re damned if we’re going to revise our ‘distilled’ wisdom now. How many revolutionary parties have you built, anyway?

So instead we remained on the treadmill of doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting different results. Not only that, but we have the arrogance to insist to all and sundry that our way is the only true way. Decisions come down from the wise leadership of the central committee, through the various ‘transmission belts’ of the group’s events and publications, to a cadre who go out and try to impose them on the working class. If the workers push back, it’s because they’re ‘reformist’, or have low levels of class consciousness, or are just outright wrong. You can tell they’re wrong, because they disagree with the true revolutionary leadership. (Oh, and ignore all those other revolutionary groups with their different ‘one true way’, they’re even more wrong.)

Then it all exploded in our faces, and we saw what happens when this model is taken to its logical conclusion: the fantasy politics currently emanating from the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party and its supporters. Once you come to believe that being a ‘disciplined’ revolutionary is simply about implementing the leadership’s latest decree, even its most indefensible one, any problems will appear to you not as problems with the line you’ve been fed, but as the world being mistaken – probably because of a conspiracy of hostile forces.

The leadership’s behaviour gets more disgusting by the day. But this crisis is not separate from its wider political mistakes, as both share a common root. And that root is in turn a crisis of the revolutionary left as a whole: its division into sects, veneration of particular leaders, rigidity in organisation, stagnation in growth, and refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation – simultaneously a symptom and a cause of its failure, ideologically, tactically and practically, to match up to the scale of the battle we face. Our groups, big and small, contain many good and committed activists at rank and file level, but they are used as footsoldiers by their leaderships in the never-ending war for position with rival organisations.

In this article I will contend that this top-down method is fundamentally the opposite of how we should be organising. Revolutionary politics is not about ‘injecting’ well-worn tactics and stale slogans into the working class – it’s about learning from the real struggles and movements that are going on now, being a real part of them and fighting to make them as big as possible, trying (modestly) to bring the people who have been central to them into some kind of organisation, and then combining what we learn with our historical knowledge to attempt to renew our theory and practice. Truly revolutionary politics comes not from the top down but from the bottom up.

The end of ‘the line’

To go outside the revolutionary silo for a moment, the practice of leaderships inventing ‘party lines’ out of whole cloth is hardly one that’s unique to the far left. You can see it in action at any of the mainstream parties’ conferences. Some have pretences of voting on motions, but that’s hardly the point. The party leader and various ministers or shadow ministers make lengthy speeches, all laying out their various policy positions. They attempt to reduce them to catchphrases, like Labour leader Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ or David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. These become the party line, followed by the faithful and only really opposed by inveterate oppositionists. And at any time of year, the leadership can turn (or U-turn) on a sixpence, launching new policies and initiatives on the hoof, to the adulation of the party loyalists.

For all our talk of Leninism, I’m afraid this method of policy-making is very similar to when revolutionary groups make their decisions through hours-long meetings of a central committee, who sit and deliberate in philosopher-king isolation until finally smoke rises from the chimney and the signal is ready to go out to the masses. Comrades, we have decided to launch a new campaign, and it shall be called Unite the Resistance, and it is now the central priority for us all. Comrades, the slogan of the day is ‘TUC, call a general strike’. Declarations fall on the membership’s head as if from a great height. The loyalists again exalt them as nuggets of revealed truth, and run off to tell the workers. The party turns up in the movement and shouts: hello, over here, we have the answers! Our tradition of dialogue with the working class has turned into a harangue.

We’re told that such relentless top-downism is in fact ‘our model of democratic centralism’. But someone seems to have lost the democracy bit down the back of the sofa. We’re told that it is important, in a combat organisation, to be able to make quick decisions. Making quick decisions is great, if they’re the right decisions. But too often completely daft decisions come down from on high, always with the excuse of ‘urgency’, because what could be more urgent than the class struggle? There’s not a minute to lose! So here’s the decision, like it or lump it (or try to challenge it at conference in nine months’ time, when it’s too late to change).

So who cares, as long as things get done? We’re not a debating society, goes the argument, we’re revolutionaries. But democracy is not just important in the abstract. We don’t demand democracy because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, or because having a bit of a debate is always fun. The point is that if you don’t have democracy – if power doesn’t rest with the rank and file of the organisation and, through them, the wider class – then you are making decisions in a vacuum. Instead of tactics being based on reality they end up based on outdated bits of theory, half-remembered experiences from another era, personal prejudice and organisational self-interest.

No revolutionary practice worth the name can be created without a living connection to the working class being constantly prized and renewed – and the only way to do that is to listen, learn, discuss properly and hold a vote. It is no good saying you can come up with the ‘correct’ positions and the correct democratic structures will somehow flow from them. You have to answer the question: where are you going to get the positions from?

We need the most thorough democracy, in other words, because it is an organisation’s only guaranteed link with reality.

Are we ahead, or behind?

There’s a problem usually associated with this argument. It’s this: if we make decisions from the bottom up, won’t people bring the unevenness of their experiences into the organisation, dragging in the muck of capitalism on their shoes? Won’t we just end up ‘reflecting back’ their existing consciousness?

But as the scandal in the SWP shows, despite the party’s bombast, being a revolutionary is no guarantee of a more ‘advanced’ consciousness. Far from it. At various times – and on various specific issues – the class will be far ahead of us, especially if we still cling to theory that hasn’t been seriously revised in decades. We are even more likely to find activists who are ahead of us if we focus on those who have been shaped by the struggles, movements and anticapitalist ideological ferment of the last 15 years or so.

As I argued in a previous article, following Rosa Luxemburg via Tony Cliff, revolutionary theory doesn’t fall from the sky. It is learned from the struggle. As Luxemburg said, the most important innovations “have not been the inventions of several leaders and even less so of any central organisational organs. They have always been the spontaneous product of the movement in ferment.” Karl Marx didn’t get his analysis of the state from reading a lot of books in the British Library – he learned from the experience of the Paris Commune. Lenin didn’t wake up one morning and think up workers’ councils in the shower – they were spontaneously invented during the 1905 revolution.

If you’re suspicious of the concept of ‘spontaneity’, consider Mohamed Bouazizi. He tragically set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in Tunisia. In doing so he became the catalyst for the Tunisian revolution and then the entire Arab Spring. This was not his intent, nor could he have predicted it. Yes, existing organisations and the wider context mattered. But who could have planned those revolutions, or even seen them coming? Again and again, activists spoke of the uprisings coming as a complete surprise.

Of course, while we can learn from international experience, Britain isn’t in a revolutionary situation. But do we really think that means people outside our ranks aren’t inventing things? Spontaneity means that stuff happens you weren’t expecting, because it arises ‘naturally’, organically, from below. Anyone who has been active on the left will have seen that in action. There are plenty of activists out there who are a long way ahead of the average routinised Trotskyist, perhaps not on everything but certainly on specific issues. Think of the dynamism of Occupy, the sheer impact of UK Uncut, the inspiration of the student movement, the serious analyses of difficult issues put forward by contemporary feminists. (And, incidentally, the internet-savvy of all of the above.) All appeared as if from nowhere and became incredibly popular. Currently our supposed revolutionary leaders sometimes cheer them on for that reason, but usually feel more comfortable pointing out their ‘errors’. They are deeply suspicious of the new ideas and organisational methods produced, especially if party members start to be influenced by them.

But we shouldn’t be scared just because it wasn’t us who came up with this stuff. That doesn’t mean embracing all of it, but recognising that organisation and spontaneity exist in a dialectic. We urgently need to correct for the fact that we have been constantly stressing the primacy of organisation – ‘interventionism’ – while missing the second half of the dialogue, where spontaneity renews organisation.

Marxism is a strong enough framework to incorporate ideas and events that at first don’t seem to fit (in fact, if Lenin’s life had an overarching theme, it was exactly that). Imagine what it would mean if there was a serious effort not just to relate to such movements from the outside but to genuinely be part of them and learn from them.

Part of the movement

What does being connected to the living movement involve? Here’s a clue: it doesn’t mean setting up your own ‘front’ and demanding that everyone join it.

I’m downright angry that we had a great opportunity in 2010, after the Tories came to office, to build a united anti-cuts movement, but the far left as a whole not only failed to take it but in fact acted as a block to it. Workers – generally the local unions, through trades councils or other local networks – set up local anti-cuts groups across Britain, without waiting for the likes of us to prompt them. Here was a genuine, grassroots response to the cuts with huge potential. It was already good, but we had a chance to help make it great.

Revolutionaries who should have seen the importance of this development instead mostly set about either effectively counterposing themselves to it – setting up local Right to Work groups, for example – or incessantly insisting that all anti-cuts groups should come under their particular umbrella, as also happened with Coalition of Resistance and the National Shop Stewards Network. By late 2010 we had Counterfire setting up the grand ‘united front’ it had split from the SWP over, the SWP leadership refusing unity with them because it couldn’t be seen to concede to the splitters, and the Socialist Party ploughing its own furrow of refusing to be in anything that involved the Labour Party. All called for ‘unity’ in statements while in practice saying unity meant joining them. A recipe for fiasco.

In many areas the situation was better, with different left activists working alongside each other well, but that was usually achieved by tactically ignoring the various centralised leaderships. The infighting and suspicion the central committees created still managed to hinder the unity of the movement, however, and ultimately helped hand the leadership of it to the cohering but conservative force that is the TUC. We saw the effects on 26 March 2011: a brilliant, huge demonstration, but the momentum it built up was allowed to dissipate.

What could we have done differently? How should revolutionaries operate in formations like the anti-cuts groups, which appear suddenly, expressing a widespread feeling in the class, and pull in wide forces? (I’d argue we’re seeing the first signs of similar waves over NHS closures and the ‘bedroom tax’.) It’s simple: we should genuinely engage in them, in a way that is helpful and pluralistic instead of controlling and domineering. We should help with what the group wants to do instead of charging in with some preconceived ‘correct’ plan which we force through with our experience in public speaking and caucusing. Building the movement is more important than getting people to sign up to whatever you’re pushing. Please, hold off on declaring another new national campaign. Unity cannot be declared by one group or another – it has to be built at the base.

That doesn’t mean sidelining organisation – it means making your organisation useful instead of allowing it to be an obstacle.

In the universities and colleges, for example, why not build socialist societies or anticapitalist societies organised along pluralist lines, rather than groups based around one particular organisation? It sounds obvious, yet it is in flat contradiction to the organised left’s current practice.

Another example: the Occupy movement. The revolutionary left’s organised ‘intervention’ mostly consisted of paper sales and the occasional speech about the fundamentals of Marxism or the need to reach out to trade unionists. (A few individuals did more, but it was mostly off their own bat.) To be fair, Socialist Worker did a lot of talking about Occupy – but it did relatively little talking with it. Meanwhile there were hundreds of young people standing out in the cold for months arguing for hours on end about politics, expressing all sorts of ideas from all sorts of traditions, but mostly pointing in an anticapitalist direction.

Something like it will happen again, perhaps in a slightly different form. Being a genuine part of it would involve properly participating in the general assemblies, but not only that. We should be part of everything from organising the talks to putting up tents and volunteering in the kitchen. That’s how you earn activists’ respect – you can debate with them as you go, and just as importantly they can debate with you and teach you things you didn’t know before. Each time I went to Occupy, the debates going on were fascinating, the model of participation almost impossible not to get drawn in by, the atmosphere of positivity so incredibly genuine. By joining in with such experiments in grassroots democracy, you see that there is much we could learn from it.

We should be always asking: What do you think? How did you organise this? What have you learned? Instead of declaring ourselves the ‘vanguard’, we need to find what in Gramscian terms we might call the ‘organic vanguard’ – the leadership that emerges in struggle – and let them influence us as we try to influence them, discussing and learning and fighting together. Instead of lecturing from the outside, you engage and learn from within.

Lessons from the class

What I have not looked at so far is the strike of millions on 30 November 2011. This wasn’t just one movement among many, and rightly the left staked a lot on it. Here was the real labour movement in action, not our attempts at substituting for it. The issue here isn’t that we weren’t ‘part of’ the strike, because of course any revolutionary in those workplaces will have been part of it. But the dichotomy between lecturing and learning still fits here.

You might think you have little to learn from a strike – but every strike is rich in lessons. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a strike is worth a million. It tells you about the state of the unions, the level of combativity of the working class, any sectoral and geographical differences in these, what workers are most angry about both in work and in the wider world, how they see their chances of victory, what tactics they know already, what tactics they will happily use once they see them in action… and plenty more besides. Again, the key is to leave aside your pre-planned tactics (whether that’s the industrial department making up demands for a leaflet in the name of being ‘directional’, or some schematic view of what a strike committee should look like) and instead make yourself useful as you allow the working class to be your teacher.

Importantly this gives you a realistic basis for what tactics you should deploy next. Unlike street movements, strikes can be called into being by the trade union bureaucracy but also, under current conditions, called off just as quickly. After the 30 November strike the SWP fell into a voluntaristic overestimation of its influence in the trade union movement, thinking it could push the bureaucracy into calling more strikes by force of will, or a sufficiently clever ‘united front’. As it has proven in practice, it cannot. I don’t have some alternative blueprint – but if the party had put itself at the service of the strikers, taking up their views from below about how to handle the situation, working among the rank and file instead of focusing on the intrigues of union executive committees and yet more conferences, it could have had a far greater impact.

Marxists don’t focus on the working class because they’re somehow special or better than others, or because we think other issues ‘can wait’, but because workers hold in their hands the economic power that comes from their capacity to stop production – and the potential to ultimately take it over and run it in their own interests. At the same time, though, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that without strikes there will be no victories in more immediate battles. The campaign against the poll tax, to give one example, showed that is a mistake. The working class remains central, however the working class is a huge part of all the movements I have described – to think such campaigns are only of secondary importance unless they develop into strikes would be a mistake. We need to have the modesty to see that we don’t get to pick the terrain of battle, and be ready for what life throws at us.

How we could organise

If we are to make the left fit for purpose, we need to ‘bend the stick’ towards democracy, towards the kind of genuine participation in movements I have described, and away from sectarianism. All this doesn’t mean throwing away all our existing theory and practice – not at all. But it means questioning it, thinking again and learning from where we’ve been.

It means not setting up our own ‘fronts’, but working in the organisations that are thrown up by the struggle, such as the local anti-cuts campaigns, and throwing everything we have into building them. It means ending the search for one united front to rule them all. We have got to be able to work with other activists without them feeling like we’re just there to sell papers or recruit. We should be the experienced campaigners who they want to come to for a bit of help, advice and discussion, not the scary types in the corner who look like they’re plotting to take over. We should do more listening than speaking, and have more questions than answers.

We have to understand that leadership is not taken, it is won, and constantly re-won. And we have to understand that our failures so far show that if we hope someday to teach, we first have a lot to learn.

Get in touch: rethinkingtheleft@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter: @tomwalkr.

If you liked this article you may also be interested in Simon Hardy's latest on Anticapitalist Initiative, 'A new culture and a new approach.'

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Lenin versus ‘Leninism’: for revolutionary experiments, not blueprints

“Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created. It does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators.” – Rosa Luxemburg
Leninism is, if we’re honest, never the most popular of political concepts at the best of times. Much of the wider left, from experience as much as anything, treats Leninist groups with at least suspicion and often hostility. So it’s not surprising that the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party – still ever-escalating, thanks to the leadership’s intransigence – has produced a new round of obituaries for Leninism, seeking once more to bury it.

Perhaps their most helpful assistant in jamming on the coffin lid is one Alex Callinicos, the leading light of the SWP central committee who has appointed himself the patrician defender of ‘Leninism’ against such rogues. His article ‘Is Leninism finished?’ spends most of its time laying into everyone else on the left, not least Owen Jones who we are told is, shock, in the Labour Party. There is not a moment of reflection on how things went so disastrously wrong in the SWP. Callinicos’ article does not contain the word ‘rape’, speaking only of a ‘difficult’ case. (Difficult for who? You, Alex?) It only uses the word ‘victim’ once – to refer to the SWP.

You could summarise it as ‘Leninism means never having to say you’re sorry’.

But Callinicos is playing into a fear many SWP members and sympathisers hold. He is trying, albeit badly, to appeal to those who think the leadership’s handling of this has been pretty awful all round but are desperate to see the party survive – he wants to scare them into silence by pointing to the wilderness we will all surely find ourselves in without his very particular conception of a ‘Leninist party’. Reformism! Movementism! Never mind that he is the one willing to tear the party apart in order to protect one man.

Let’s try to allay some fears. We can keep hold of the best of where we’ve been while we try to scrap the worst. To do so means looking in more detail at ‘Leninism’ as a concept and as a narrative that has been much used and abused over the decades. It means recognising that Leninism is continuously contested, constructed and re-constructed in ways that usually have little to do with the actual Lenin who lived, and thinking in contrast about what our approach should be.



Will the real Lenin please stand up?

The opposition has already done well in unpicking the various lies and distortions in Callinicos’ article, so I won’t repeat their collectively-written work. (On one level Callinicos has rapidly moved from ‘big fish, small pond’, to ‘big fish, small barrel’ – though the opposition still display good aim.) But their statement also goes further than answering his immediate argument by labelling the SWP’s current practice ‘Zinovievism’.

Their starting point is that the organisational model of the SWP today, which Callinicos claims is based on “the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin's leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution”, in fact deviates from that of the Bolsheviks in all sorts of ways. As the opposition says:
“[Callinicos’] manoeuvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s; that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century…

The Bolshevik leadership of 1917 was elected individually [ie. not using the ‘slate system’ –TW]. There was no ban on factions. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposed the insurrection in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper (the ‘dark side’ of the printing press, perhaps) and resigned from the Bolshevik Central Committee. They were not expelled from the Party.

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of ‘Bolshevisation’ in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups.”
This statement shows how brilliantly the opposition’s analysis and discussion has developed over these weeks. They locate the historic break much further back than most criticism of the central committee so far, and gently suggest that the problems of democracy that have exploded now were unfortunately reintroduced into the IS tradition in the course of the ‘turn to Lenin’.

Other critiques of Callinicos’ article have come from various angles, from Paul LeBlanc to the different approach of Pham Binh), but all make a good case that the way the SWP works has very little to do with how the Bolsheviks were organised.

In particular, when it comes to one of the issues that gets central committee supporters most worked up – whether party members should be disagreeing with each other in public or not – the critics throw back the mountains of evidence that the Bolsheviks did so constantly, in the middle of life-and-death struggles. On the horror of ‘factionalism’, the loyalists’ other great bugbear, we should listen again to Trotsky for a moment:
“The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions.”
Callinicos and co will not engage on this terrain of historical fact because they know they’re not onto a winner. For all the bluster about ‘defending Leninism’, they are well-read enough to be very well aware that the internal party regime they are defending is so much stricter than the Bolsheviks – despite conditions of 21st century legality! – that it is not even a caricature. It is, instead, a set of anti-democratic practices that has developed over time to defend the party bureaucracy.

(While we’re at it, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France haven’t declined because they allowed factions – an analysis the central committee is putting forward to serve its own purposes. There are all sorts of political reasons for its decline, but the biggest is that the Front de Gauche has eaten the NPA’s support for lunch.)

But if Callinicos’ ‘Leninism’ is little more than whatever serves his current purposes, surely our task in opposing him is to uncover the ‘real Leninism’ by closely examining the Bolsheviks’ actual historical practice and drawing our conclusions from that?



Lenin the libertarian?

If we’re going down that road then the group who recently broke from the 1974 IS split Workers Power to focus on the Anticapitalist Initiative have done some of the work for us already. Simon Hardy’s widely-circulated recent article on the ‘forgotten legacies of Bolshevism’ is an account of the Bolsheviks’ history aimed squarely at the various cherished myths that most of the far left holds about Lenin’s theory and practice.

In these days of the hovering axe of explusions, we might note his contention that throughout the history of the Bolsheviks “despite there being some very serious arguments between members in public, and breaches of agreed positions, very few people were actually expelled”. As well as the example of Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposing the insurrection (as referred to in the opposition statement above), there’s also the leaders who broke discipline and caused the ‘July Days’ not being expelled, and five CC members who went public with their opposition to a decision to suppress bourgeois newspapers also not being expelled. Hardy writes:
“What do these three examples, all from the most important year of the revolutionary struggle in Russia, show us? It shows that, whilst the Bolsheviks strived for unity in practice on agreed political lines, there were many occasions when this was not achieved and people ‘broke discipline’, but no one was expelled for it.”
All this should surely be a standing rebuke to any explusion-happy central committee. And yet:
“Compare this to most Leninist-Trotskyist groups today where the CC is usually the main instigator of purges (what Lenin called an ‘extreme measure’ in post-revolutionary Russia has become normal practice for Leninist-Trotskyist groups in liberal democratic countries).”
Such contributions are certainly helpful when it comes to showing up the leaderships of all the various far left groups, and in starting to make the case against the left’s sectarianism and in favour of a more pluralistic approach. It is worth reading in full and discussing further.

Hardy’s argument in part draws on the efforts of Lars T Lih, whose weighty tome Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context represents a comprehensive effort to reassess Lenin on a historical basis. It makes a strong case that is still being debated across the international left.

But while Lih’s work is an achievement that I would never want to do down, it does encourage a somewhat scriptural approach to Lenin. It’s like we’ve got the ‘King James Version’ of Lenin, and now the task is to retranslate it and explain that Lenin didn’t really mean what the left since has generally thought he meant. While we obviously care a lot about what Lenin really said, did and thought, such debates risk reinforcing the view that there is a ‘true Leninist blueprint’ to be uncovered, if only we could figure it out.



Lenin the disciplinarian?

Before we move on, one big limitation of such an approach is that, however many sources you pore over to build your case that Lenin was keener on democracy than generally thought (and he was), there’ll always be someone waiting round the corner with a quote like this:
“the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie.”
or this (about the Zinoviev/Kamenev incident):
“I shall, at whatever cost, brand the blackleg Zinoviev as a blackleg. My answer to the threat of a split is to declare war to a finish, war for the expulsion of both blacklegs from the Party.”
or even this:
“Dictatorship, however, presupposes a revolutionary government that is really firm and ruthless in crushing both exploiters and hooligans, and our government is too mild. Obedience, and unquestioning obedience at that, during work to the one-man decisions of Soviet directors, of the dictators elected or appointed by Soviet institutions, vested with dictatorial powers (as is demanded, for example, by the railway decree), is far, very far from being guaranteed as yet. This is the effect of the influence of petty-bourgeois anarchy, the anarchy of small-proprietor habits, aspirations and sentiments, which fundamentally contradict proletarian discipline and socialism.”
And yet, and yet. Lenin also said this:
“Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free … not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings… The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action.”
and this:
“No democracy or centralism would ever tolerate a Central Committee elected at a Congress having the right to expel its members.”
and this:
“The whole organisation is built from below upwards, on an elective basis. The Party Rules declare that the local organisations are independent (autonomous) in their local activities... Since the organisation is built from below upwards, interference in its composition from above would be a flagrant breach of democracy and of the Party Rules.”
The reality is that Lenin held all sorts of positions during his life, depending on the circumstances. He deliberately exaggerated depending on what he thought was the priority at that time, and argued tactically to try to win the argument of the day. He wrote an incredible amount of material, and we have verbatim accounts of a very large number of his speeches. This means the raw material is there to build almost any Lenin or ‘Leninism’ you want. I could have just supplied you with a grab-bag of quotes that support my own case and sent you on your way. But is that useful?

As Jim Higgins wrote:
“Such is the frequency with which some of the Lenin quotes are used that I would like to make a modest proposal that would save ink and paper – a vital consideration in these ecologically sensitive times. In the logging camps of North America the lumberjacks were isolated for months on end and before long they had heard one another’s jokes so often that they gave each one a number. Thus, just by calling out the number – so long as you avoided number 37, which was too disgusting even for lumberjacks – you could get the laugh even though you had forgotten the punch line. By the same token, why not give these Lenin quotations special codes? Using a modified Dewey system we could arrive at LC17/430/2/1-5, which would indicate a reference to Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol 17, page 430, paragraph two, lines one to five. As it happens this is a very boring denunciation of the fake liberalism of the Cadet party in 1905, but it might have been an absolute cruncher like LC56/54/1/4-10. To which the only reply, and that a purely defensive one while you regroup, is LC24/623/1/1-4.”
Frequently our exchanges of quotes really are that ritualistic. Let us draw an end to that long war of quotation.



Lenin the myth

To put it simply, Lenin was not always right, whatever Stalinist mythologising may say. No one can be. And when he was right, he was right in specific historical circumstances, not right for all time. As in any life, he contradicted himself frequently, and attempting to deny that will lead to spectacular contortions. Most of the ‘Leninist’ left agrees on this in its better moments, even as it ignores it in practice.

The many problems we have ended up with today, however, are not just down to misinterpretation and misuse of Lenin. Much of it goes back to when Lenin and the Bolsheviks, after they had been forced into all sorts of changes to their previous practice by the circumstances in which they found themselves after October 1917, attempted to ‘distil’ their experiences into a ready-made model for adoption for Communist Parties across the world.

Rosa Luxemburg in 1918:
“It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances [ie. the war] they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics… they render a poor service to international socialism for the sake of which they have fought and suffered; for they want to place in its storehouse as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion.”
Nearly a century on, it’s worse than she thought. As Luxemburg points out, there was already some distortion very soon after the revolution. By the time we get to ‘Zinovievism’, it has been distorted again – and that is where we ended up with a large part of ‘democratic centralism’ as we know it. But that’s not the end of the story. Instead of thoroughly challenging this model, Trotskyists have tended to see it as ‘pre-Stalinist’ and therefore fine to adopt, with a few modifications, without accounting for how far the degeneration of the revolution had gone by the early 1920s. In 1921 Lenin was repeatedly referring to “the evils of bureaucracy” (at the same congress that infamously banned factions). As Trotsky later wrote:
“The very center of Lenin’s attention and that of his colleagues was occupied by a continual concern to protect the Bolshevik ranks from the vices of those in power. However, the extraordinary closeness and at times actual merging of the party with the state apparatus had already in those first years done indubitable harm to the freedom and elasticity of the party regime. Democracy had been narrowed in proportion as difficulties increased.”
When the SWP re-adopted a version of the 1920s model in the 1970s, Cliff would also have come to it through the prism of his own experiences in post-war Trotskyism. And, of course, that model has also been distorted many times before and since. How could it not be when you see what the Trotskyist left has been through during that time?

John Molyneux, who has sadly now turned himself into a staunch defender of the SWP leadership, wrote in 1978:
“Naturally the Leninist theory of the party, for so long defended by Trotsky, has not remained unscathed by this degeneration of Trotskyism. While all Trotskyist sects adhere to the letter of this theory, its ‘spirit’ has undergone two kinds of revision. The first could be characterised as extreme dogmatic sectarianism. In this variant the organisation, no matter how manifest its smallness and insignificance, proclaims and demands its right to the leadership of the working class. It defines itself as the revolutionary party not on the basis of its role in the class struggle but on the basis of its possession of the ‘correct theory’ and the ‘correct line’. Essentially the party is seen as separate, not only from the working class as a whole but also from the advanced workers. If, for Lenin, the party was both educator and educated, in this version of Trotskyism the party attempts to play schoolmaster to the working class. Internally such organisations tend to authoritarianism and witch-hunting and even at times to the cult of the leader. Externally they exhibit gross delusions of grandeur, paranoia and above all an inability to look reality in the face.”
How unfortunate to become your own most damning critic, as you defend the Nineteen Eighty-Four situation of people being expelled to ‘protect democracy’.

But his is not a new betrayal. If we look beyond our corner of the left in our corner of the world, internationally there are many thousand ‘Leninisms’, all claiming to be the one true interpretation – a ‘hall of mirrors’ of revolutionary parties.



Lenin the experimenter

Against the warring blueprints, we should assert that our task is not to go back and plunder history in a quest for the ‘correct’ model. If it were, presumably we would spend our days and nights poring over Lenin’s correspondence (preferably in the original Russian), until we had ‘fixed’ the party – until our conference looked exactly like that of the Bolsheviks, all our structures were precisely the same, our paper looked the same, and so on. It means thinking, like Callinicos, that revolutionary organisation works something like KFC, with its ‘secret blend of herbs and spices’. Most of the far left has gone far enough down that road already.

It will never work to attempt to condense any great revolutionary’s life and work into a particular set of universal organisational rules. This is certainly not our approach, for example, to Marxism. Instead we understand it as a philosophy, a set of tools and a method. And that was always the strong point of the International Socialist tradition – its rejection of fixed orthodoxies and products of historical circumstance in favour of using the Marxist method to look at the world anew.

So this is a call, above all, for experimentation. We will not take everyone with us at first, but we shouldn’t fear to go ahead and start making the path by walking. As Cliff wrote:
“If there are ten people in a group, one or two will be ready to experiment, to try new things; one or two are so conservative that even a successful experience will not convince them, while the majority will vacillate between the two extremes, and will learn through experience. The key is to be part of the one or two ready to experiment, to find new ways to take things forward, and if successful, to win the majority for the new direction.”
Lenin, after many years of trying, experimenting and refining, found a model for the time and place in which he lived, the mostly-agrarian Russia of the early twentieth century. In fact the Bolsheviks insisted, against the Marxist orthodoxy of the time, that there could be not just a bourgeois but a socialist revolution in a ‘backward’ country like Russia. (And of course, theirs wasn’t a perfect model – it was one that gave us a glimpse of the potential for socialism, not a socialist world.)

Discovering a model for our own circumstances – liberal, democratic capitalism in 2013 – will mean doing that level of systematic work again. We have a huge wealth of history to learn from, but it seems likely that what we come up with will look very different to what Lenin came up with, just as Lenin’s model was different to that of previous generations of revolutionaries. And that’s OK! Lenin was about learning from the best of the past and using it to fight for the future. That is the Leninism we need today.

There is hope on our side. Capitalism may be more entrenched, but the working class is far bigger now both in Britain and internationally than either Marx or Lenin could have dreamed of. We may have scattered, smaller workplaces instead of the Putilov Works, but we also have drastically better methods of communication. (Including, yes, the scary internet!) Saying Lenin found the one true way to socialism is like saying the sailors of history figured out everything we need to know to build a rocket. We will surely borrow some of their practices and terminology, and definitely build on their innovations in navigation, but we will need to come up with many ideas of our own.

If Marxism is a science then we need to experiment, learn, make modifications, and experiment again. We do not need a yearly schedule of doing the same thing over and over again, never learning from our mistakes, even the most awful ones. If we do that we will spend our whole lives ‘building the party’ but never see it grow, damaging the left as we chew up members and spit them out. Cliff once more: “the moment Marxism stops changing, it is dead.”

If you have ‘forty years of experience’ of Leninism, and your organisation is about the same size now as it was when you started, you’re doing it wrong.

Get in touch: rethinkingtheleft@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter: @tomwalkr.