John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Luke Cooper: Reply to Paul Le Blanc

Submit to DeliciousSubmit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google BookmarksSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn

In reply to Paul’s reply, the first thing to say is “I agree”. These are questions that revolutionaries in all countries should be debating out in a common heterodox tendency. This is a point he made well in his original Dangerous Ideas talk, when he said, ‘Should there be competing revolutionary socialist groups or is the merger of the different revolutionary groups preferable?’

How to achieve left unity is a complex question in one country. It becomes all the more challenging when posed internationally. But one can see from the visits that Paul has made this year alone, and the discussions and debates these are promoting across borders about the future of the radical left, that there is growing transnational engagement amongst diverse groups which reflects new possibilities (for example, see his valuable recent talk in Australia here and read about the important changes taking place on the Antipodean revolutionary left here).

In this context, Paul is absolutely right to lay stress on being concrete about differences, taking care to place emphasis on common ground in order to try to work through the intellectual and political challenges that we face. I certainly did not mean to choose an unconstructive path; the one, as he points out, so typical of exchanges on the radical left and not ‘the one less travelled by’ in the words of the poet Robert Frost. My motivation was to bring to light what Paul had left implicit in his talk. He contextualised the Stein remarks to respond to unspecified critics of them, before proceeding to engage positively with Beyond Capitalism? For those who had not read our book – i.e. the great majority of people! – I thought it would be useful to point out that we, via Alan Wald, are some of those critics and explain why we think these remarks need to be subjected to critique. I had initially only intended to note this briefly and actually planned to focus the reply on a different line of argument. Namely, regardless of whether we think that we need a ‘Leninism 2.0’ (the title of the meeting Paul did with Clare Solomon at Dangerous Ideas) can we, nonetheless, coming from different perspectives to a degree, reach substantive agreement on how revolutionaries should organise? As I sat down to write my interest in the question of the American SWP grew and, knowing that Paul was likely to take the time to reply, I thought I would leave that to the ‘reply to Paul’s reply’ – a decision that I now naturally regret. This is particularly embarrassing for me given the generosity of Paul’s engagement with our book. In any case, this time round I do want to try to focus on this point – how to build a heterodox socialist tendency – so will just address a few things.

Paul writes at one point, ‘I am not inclined to insist that some pattern from past revolutions must define the specifics of what we do in the very different world of tomorrow’. I agree with this and in my own research, which takes a rather critical perspective on the origins and nature of the Chinese Revolution, I go to great lengths to try and understand it in its historical specificity and context.[1] This is not the place to state my conclusions except to say that there could be few more authoritarian communist parties than the one led by Mao (who enjoyed a cult of personality Stalin would be envious of by at least 1942, i.e. seven years prior to the revolution). Despite this, even the CCP was dependent on a coalition to seize power. After a series of military reverses in 1946, Mao was still speaking of a ‘long and hard struggle’ of a decade or more. It was only the catastrophe of quite inept Kuomintang rule that led the urban classes to abandon them.[2] This experience does not prove a great deal except to show that Paul is right that all revolutions involve a coalition of ‘one sort or another’. In the Russian case, he is also right that ‘there would not have been an insurrection without the Bolsheviks’. The same can equally be said, perhaps in more categorical terms, in the case of China’s rupture: no communist party, no revolutionary insurrection. Full stop. More pessimistically, in both cases there was a power vacuum in societies experiencing an extreme state of social disintegration. This creates a troubling connection between extreme poverty and decay and revolutionary insurrection that I won’t go into, but that the left arguably reflects insufficiently on.

None of us would look to the Chinese Revolution to exemplify the type of revolutionary change we want to see. The Bolshevik Revolution was different because it brought into being a commune state in which power passed to the soviets. It involved genuine political plurality for the subaltern classes, and not merely compromises made by an authoritarian party bent on a one-party state that we find in the Chinese case.[3] This multi-party element did not survive 1918 and was formally annulled in 1921. Importantly, these turns were not simply justified on the basis of pure exigencies, but were indeed done so philosophically. This prompted Rosa Luxemburg’s intervention shortly before she died that I highlighted in my original post. As someone concerned to show sensitivity to  historically specific circumstances, I am sympathetic to Paul when he writes:

‘The problem is not for us to “get right” some timeless organizational logic or ethics that certain comrades of past days violated. The problem cannot best be grasped in terms of philosophy, but rather in terms of history and sociology’.

While sympathetic, the problem I see with this is that social revolutions do confront universal problems. If subaltern classes seize power intent on carrying through a transition to a socialist mode of production they will expropriate the capitalist and landed classes and de facto fuse power into a single state. As we all know, this entails all kinds of opportunities for bureaucratic authoritarianism. If a ‘monopolist’ philosophy is underpinning the practice of the party that led the successful insurrection – rather than, say, a pluralist and participatory political philosophy – it seems legitimate to say the revolution is less protected from despotism than it might otherwise be. Paul argues correctly that Stein and the American SWP supported multi-party soviet democracy and makes reference to the Transitional Programme. But I anticipated this argument in my original reply (although my literary point of reference was Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed):

A quite justified defence of Stein’s remarks at this stage would argue that this is precisely what he stood for: a genuine working class democracy in the spirit of Trotsky’s programme famously outlined in The Revolution Betrayed. The detour into the Russian events might therefore reasonably be seen as a non sequitur. Yet it is not quite as simple as all that. For the problem lies in the way in which the single-mindedness of the mission… can feed into a deep desire to subordinate the movement to the party. Only the party can realise the mission. All other parties threaten the mission. All other parties must be ‘destroyed’.

I am sorry that Paul feels that I ignored his contextualisation of Stein’s comments and focused on explaining why I felt they were neither credible in the American context nor desirable as a general approach to socialist politics. Nowhere did I deny that there was a highly class-conscious advanced section of the class, but, on the contrary, I noted the significant support the farmer-labour movement enjoyed. Admittedly, I did not engage with other aspects of Stein’s argument in his 1944 speech that Paul highlighted in his talk, but I’m not sure my argument hinges on this. My point is, and remains, that regardless of the many good positions Stein no doubt advanced and his contribution, he was wrong to argue that revolutionary parties should be ‘monopolists in the sphere of politics’. Paul’s reformulation of the Cannon and Stein positions in terms of intransigent struggle against Stalinism and social democracy by a determined force, the American Socialist Workers Party, attempts to render these remarks benign. My concern, however, remains that this plays down the need for political plurality within a revolutionary party of the ant-Stalinist left. Even if one does not accept this as a universal principle in the manner that I tend to argue, then to simply consider the complexities that the post-war epoch posed to the followers of Leon Trotsky surely illustrates the utility of encouraging a significant degree of ‘free thinking’.

This brings me on to the final ‘reply’ point in reference to finishing the article with the Alan Wald quote. For the sake of clarity I will just summarise what I think can be usefully extrapolated from Wald’s argument on the role of ‘historical Trotskyism’ in the development of a contemporary revolutionary politics. What I find valuable about Wald’s analysis is that it introduces an important element of relativity and experimentation in how we build stronger revolutionary organisations. It openly breaks with the conception of intransigent struggle against ‘wrong programmes’ in favour of ‘the right programme’ in the mass movement, and instead emphasises that we need to be ‘anti-monopolist in the field of politics, learning from and defending the rights of political rivals’. It also does not repudiate the entire Trotskyist tradition, rejecting vulgar anti-Trotskyism and allowing us to integrate the insights of this tradition into a modern revolutionary politics that is multi-faceted, taking from a plurality of traditions. I would imagine, judging by the discussions we have had, that Paul agrees with much of this, which is why I said in the article I was merely ‘challenging his attempt to interpret the Stein comments along the lines that would make it compatible with a plural’ approach to political organisation.


The conclusion of Paul’s article starts to bring to light the common ground. I had raised a series of questions about the differences that should be containable within a heterodox revolutionary current determined not to let differences lead to splits. I gave the examples of whether we identify as a ‘Leninist’ tendency, how we analyse the experience of twentieth century Stalinism, and the changes taking place in the working class internationally as the global division of labour evolves. Paul argues, correctly in my view, that building political organisations that are able to work effectively as a democratic collective, play a role in the struggles of subaltern classes, and convince millions they have the power to get rid of capitalism is the critical framework through which left unity must be judged.

I did not choose these questions accidentally, but with an eye to the recent debate and split in the British Socialist Workers Party, out of which the International Socialist Network emerged. These are all questions that the ‘IS Tradition Mark II’ (i.e. post-1968/1978) came to answer rather emphatically with ‘one voice’. There was a single conception of Leninism that emphasised the role of an, arguably, substitutionist party machine (this was challenged in its crisis, both by the radical opposition and, more recently, albeit in more abstract terms, by longstanding member Ian Birchall). There was a tradition in political economy, state-capitalism, around which the party came to be defined – an outlook, due to its modalities, that undoubtedly helped it through the 1990s but, insofar as it continued to define the tendency, was arguably anachronistic by the 2000s. Even on the question that Paul argues it is ‘inevitable’ to have differences on – how to understand the changes in the working class under neoliberalism – the SWP have tended to adopt a de facto ‘line’.[4] Regardless of how one views the different positions taken by, for example, David Harvey or Kevin Doogan, it is remarkable that the SWP appears to have had no advocates of the Harvey position – he is, after all, one of the radical left’s most popular scholars and activist-intellectuals. In short, the largest tendency on the revolutionary left came to be defined politically in extremely narrow terms. Is it unfair to conclude, as I tend to, that there is a relationship between its lack of ideological plurality and the lack of democratic accountability that was evident during its recent crisis? Narrowness feeds into excessive centralism. Excessive centralism feeds into narrowness. This, as Paul has argued, was not a feature of Lenin’s pre-1917 party, but has become a persistent aspect of the post-war radical left.

My point that embracing a greater degree of political plurality opens up the possibility of less ‘caution’ in our approach to revolutionary unity was meant as a simple one: once we free ourselves of the idea that an effective political organisation has to be so ideologically narrow, then it opens up avenues for revolutionary unity that we would not have previously imagined possible.

Regardless of what theoretical tradition we choose to inform our approach to revolutionary organisation today, it might be possible to agree on the following:

    • The starting point for the formulation of an effective policy should be discussion amongst as many of the membership as is conceivably possible in the circumstances we are facing (taking into account conditions of legality, and so on). A membership that is involved in the active formulation of the policy will be more inclined to implement it energetically. Creative experiments in ‘referendum’ of the type practiced by the autonomist IOPS might be used, so long as they do not encourage the development of an atomised membership of passive individuals.
    • An effective organisation should aspire to unity in action around collectively agreed points. But sometimes that unity in action might not be possible. Rather than splitting and forming a different organisation to operate a line free of the constraints of central discipline, it is surely better to allow both currents to put their position to the test of practice yet still remain in a common organisation. Discipline, in this sense, would be voluntary, rather than coercive – a view more complementary to the cultural ethos of the twenty-first century that Paul Mason has emphasised.
    • Bureaucracies are necessary evils of the modern world. Professional administration, effective communication, and the organisation of participatory democracy, all become harder without central organisation in any form. The danger that arises lies in how material interests become invested in a position within the central organisation. For the radical left the awards are not monetary but nonetheless confer privileges; a less alienated, more self-directed and intellectual form of work and a position of authority and power over the membership as a whole. If a bureaucracy feels itself under attack then tribalism can result, compounding the disparity in power relations between the lay members and the centre. The measures that might be taken to overcome these dangers foreshadow the type of anti-bureaucratic policies that would be needed in a working class state, such as regular competitive elections for office-holders and/or a policy of rotation in position. But there is also a cultural question of encouraging members to take on responsibilities for the group’s work and thus avoiding the substitution of the membership by the apparatus.
    • Freedom to dissent can be tackled culturally as well as procedurally. A heterodox tendency will encourage difference and freethinking, creating a culture of challenging debate and argument. The freedom to form opposition groupings (‘factions’) should be total, even if the danger of drawing permanent fixed lines of disagreement is recognised.
    • An active orientation to the working class has to involve – as Paul has emphasised in relation to the post-Occupy conjuncture – trying to build durable organisations in the class that are not subject to the passive bureaucratism of the reformist labour movement. The British left in particular is prone to a ‘cult of the next big thing’, which tends to eschew the long-term orientation necessary for the left to accumulate trust and authority in working class. This is particularly important to recreate a sense of community that has been undermined, but not entirely eroded, by the cultural impact of neoliberalism on mass social consciousness (a point emphasised by Richard Seymour in his speech to Crisis and Unity).

I agree with Paul that an active orientation to class struggle is critical for any radical left wing project. Dan Swain remarks in response to Paul’s speech that socialists need to gain practical-knowledge through this orientation, which forms part of the ‘most advanced ideas’ in society. This also echoes, albeit in more Leninist terms, the plea of Tom Walker for more ‘learning’ and less ‘lecturing’ on the left. Agreeing entirely with these viewpoints, my concern only arises if practical collaboration in the working class becomes counterposed to socialist unity. The idea that there can be no revolutionary party without a radical vanguard within the working class, true as it is, can potentially be drawn upon to justify passivity towards the question of revolutionary unity today. Counterfire, for example – the group that organised the Dangerous Ideas event – are not in favour of pursuing left regroupment in Britain and counterpose to this joint work in forums such as the People’s Assembly. ‘Build the struggles today and socialist unity will come in the future as a spontaneous result of it,’ goes the argument. I am still Leninist enough to emphasise the need for active initiative for unity. Hence, my concern that Paul’s remarks – particularly when seen in the context of speaking at the Counterfire event – could be seen as overly cautious.

This, I hope, puts a little more flesh on the bone on a remark in our book that Paul highlighted in his speech, “the need to regroup the left in new political formations that provide a space for strategic thinking, that allow different strategies to co-exist in a certain tension, while also creating the conditions for unity and action.” There is, I am sure, much more flesh still to come.

[1] I am no expert on the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions, so I hope Paul forgives me for trying to elaborate on my point through the Chinese case.

[2] The alliance with the middle class nationalist intelligentsia was buoyed by the patriotic favour created by the Korean War, sustained into the First Five Year Plan, but fatally broken in the post Hundred Flowers Campaign repression (1956).

[3] Formally speaking a pseudo-multi-party system existed and was enshrined in the People’s Political Consultative Conference that agreed the popular frontist ‘Common Programme’ of 1949. But in practice political and economic power was effectively centralized into the hands of the CCP. This footnote is for the sake of clarity – I can’t imagine my remarks on this are controversial.

[4] This ‘line’ has been particularly characterized by the use of sweeping straw man arguments against their opponents: “There is a myth that changes in capitalism have made workers virtually powerless. Many commentators and academics suggest that permanent jobs are a thing of the past and that everyone now faces a world of constant turbulence, transient work and rootless employment. If the great majority of us are permanently insecure at work, the balance of power has swung massively towards the employers.” Kimber, C. ‘Precarious Reflections’ International Socialism Journal no 123 25 June 2009.