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Conor Kostick: Reading Lenin and the IS Network

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LeninI recently had reason to be in Chicago, where I met up with the International Socialist Organization (ISO), gave a talk on Ireland’s revolutionary years and attended a day school on Lenin and the revolutionary party. The bookstall had copies of studies of Lenin by Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc and Tony Cliff. Anyone wanting to encourage the development of a revolutionary party has, of course, to form an opinion of Lenin. Before the ISO were thrown out of the International Socialist Tendency their approach to Lenin would have been profoundly if not exclusively shaped by Cliff’s works. It interested me that the ISO now had a wider outlook on the subject and the enthusiasm of the bookstall organiser meant that I came away with a copy of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. This book was first published in 1990 and I had never read it because I had little interest in what someone closely aligned with the politics of Ernest Mandel had to say on the subject. After all, I had been guided in my understanding of Lenin by someone with vastly superior politics: Tony Cliff. More than this, as an SWP organiser I had always used Lenin: Building the Party as the essential text for explaining the theory behind SWP party-building methods to those members who I anticipated would go on to play leading roles in their branches and nationally.

The ISO – in the words of one of their organisers – now draw on a canon of the best of other traditions and individuals to inform their attitude to Lenin and the lessons for today in regard to the revolutionary party. This sounds admirably open-minded. But I couldn’t help wondering if this willingness to promote other studies of Lenin was, in fact, a watering down of the revolutionary Lenin in favour of a more Occupy-friendly version. It also occurred to me that by not making more of an effort to re-examine my attitude to Lenin I was missing out in regard to developing my own understanding of the issues of party and class. Plus, the IS Network is looking at every aspect of SWP theory with new eyes and a discussion of Lenin is going to be critical to how the IS Network develops. So I read Le Blanc and reread Building the Party.


The first thing to say about these books is that the story they tell is an inspiring one. Lenin became a Social Democrat (i.e. Marxist) in 1893, at the age of 23. Twenty-four years later, at 47, he led the successful Russian Revolution. Trotsky met revolutionaries in 1896 at the age of 17; he was 38 when he oversaw the October insurrection. Reading them reminded me that when I became a revolutionary, during the great miners’ strike of 1984-5, I thought that by now I would be living in a post-revolutionary era. After all, it took only 24 years for Lenin to go from next to nothing to the 1917 revolution. It is worth reminding ourselves that the experience of Western revolutionaries from 1985 to 2013 has been a low-key one in comparison to the storms experienced by Lenin and Trotsky’s generation or that of the next. At the deepest level, the crisis of the SWP is explained by this relative historical quiescence. Although the specific illness that has arisen in that organisation deserves close analysis, it is an illness that would not have spread among people battling with the ebbs and flows of profound social upheavals such as those dealt with by Lenin.

So the point is this: Lenin’s efforts to build a revolutionary party are inspiring because of the actuality of revolution. The twists and turns and dialectical inversions and leaps of the development of the Bolshevik party are fascinating and exciting to read about, because each argument at every stage really mattered. Both books grasp this process well and while Le Blanc’s is the more scholarly in an academic sense, Cliff’s holds up surprisingly well in terms of the effort he made to concretise and contextualise each moment of the drama.

Neither author is able to access untranslated Russian source material directly; Cliff is perhaps the more eager to seize upon a tiny detail in a memoir to illuminate a particular moment. Le Blanc prefers to sum up contextual situations by reference to a secondary source, usually a work, to be fair, that is based on a detailed study of the Russian sources. Opening Lenin and the Revolutionary Party at random and finding an example, this type of statement is typical (p. 234): As Hasegawa writes, “by the fall of 1916 the [Menshevik] workers’ group was obviously losing ground to the Bolsheviks and to regain its lost influence among the workers, the workers’ group turned leftward in December 1916.”’ This methodology is often unsatisfactory, as sometimes the point being made by the secondary work comes across as an assertion without foundation.

Another difference between the books is that Le Blanc makes more of an effort to contrast his reading of Lenin with those of right wing or social democratic authors. This works to a certain extent, in ‘rescuing’ Lenin from the stereotype of the ruthless Machiavelli, but it surrounds the story with a commentary that is much less interesting than Cliff’s if your focus is the question: what does this all mean for revolutionaries today? In other words, there is no question but that Le Blanc’s is a much more helpful book for the student battling against ideologically driven attacks on Lenin. But for building the party, Cliff’s approach, potentially, has the advantage. At various points, Cliff puts the brakes on the narrative to digress with generalisations about party building and it is these generalisations that served for years to inform the practice of those on the SWP branch, district and national committees.

I say ‘potential’ because of course, the conclusions about the revolutionary party that Cliff draws do not, in fact, have the emancipatory power I once thought they did. Here, I think the best critique of Building the Party comes from Ian Land in 1994. Lars Lih can overthrow various paradigms concerning misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Lenin (not only those of Cliff), using 600 pages of densely sourced argument. And that is very valuable. But to understand what particular lens was distorting Cliff’s view of Lenin you only need a few lines. In Cliff’s experience of leading the SWP, you had to battle hard for a new orientation for the party and the people you were battling against were those who had most immersed themselves in the old orientation. Your weapons? Exaggeration and youth: the openness of new members to new tactics.

So we learn this about the young Lenin from Cliff: This readiness to bend the stick too far in one direction and then to go into reverse and bend it too far in the opposite direction was a characteristic that he retained throughout his life. It was already clearly apparent at this early stage of his development as a revolutionary leader.’

Later, in discussing the rules of the party, Cliff wrote: ‘An overformal party structure inevitably clashes with two basic features of the revolutionary movement: (1) the unevenness in consciousness, militancy, and dedication of different parts of the revolutionary organisation; and (2) the fact that members who play a positive, vanguard role at a certain stage of the struggle fall behind at another.’

If you are trying to explain to a party member why, having campaigned on a certain issue in a certain fashion, the party is now doing something radically different, these formulations are a great help. They address an important truth, which is that the currents of revolutionary politics are fast changing and the party has to be able to make swift turns and not be trapped, for example, by the moralism of a declining campaign, into substituting for a real movement. Nor must a revolutionary party be afraid of pouring every resource behind a critical strike, say. But Cliff’s formulations address this truth in a one-sided fashion.

Is it accurate to characterise Lenin as believing he was being excessive but that the outcome would justify his exaggerations? In other words, was Lenin willing to deliberately present a distorted picture of the world to win his perspective? In short, the answer is no. Le Blanc and Lars Lih and my own reading of Lenin’s works convince me that fundamentally at every stage Lenin believed that the truth was on his side, until events proved otherwise. Holding doggedly to a particular focus and task for the party is not the same as telling the party something which deep down you do not actually believe, but which you consider expedient.

Here’s how one staunch defender of Cliff puts it in more recent times: ‘Cliff had learned from experience that shifting an organization of several thousand members (as opposed to winning an academic or historical debate) from one strategic orientation and one way of working to another to meet the challenge of changed circumstances, required an almighty great tug on the relevant levers and, sometimes, a certain exaggeration. For Cliff achieving the desired end was more important than terminological exactitude or consistency and he rather thought, as do I, that Lenin felt the same way.’

There is a slight evasion here. The argument is not whether Lenin was fussy about terminology but whether Lenin ever felt it necessary to deliberately exaggerate ‘to achieve the desired end’. John Molyneux believes so. I do not. Lenin was fully aware the dialectics of revolutionary socialism do not allow for the separation of means and ends. If you employ dogmatic means (exaggeration, bullying, distortions), you will never achieve emancipatory goals.

Secondly, look again at the question of party structure. It is an observable fact that all revolutionary parties are uneven, Cliff’s (1), but (2) is not as clear cut as it seems because it contains a value judgement. Who decides whether a member is falling behind, while another member is being ‘positive’? The true test has to be in regard to how effective the respective members are in changing the world. And that is a complicated question, where collective decision-making, honest accounting and democratic forms are essential. But in Cliff’s hands, this piece about rules can be read as follows: rules are all very well, but when some idiot is dragging the party down, it is necessary to find those who are getting results and use them to smash the conservatives, even if that means violating formalities.

Anyone expelled – or rapidly thrust from leading bodies within the SWP – by Cliff will be familiar with what this depiction of Lenin meant in practice. But I think this depiction of Lenin also helps explain something of the attitude of the so-called SWP loyalists today. They have internalised the same ideas as profound revolutionary truths, which leads them to reason along the following lines: ‘I don’t want to be like the committee-men of 1905 who resisted the party’s turn to the class, therefore I will overcome my reservations and embrace the latest line from the CC. After all, this is the best way to test a perspective.’

As a guide to nature of a successful revolutionary party, Cliff’s depiction of Lenin’s approach to rules only works if Lenin (and Cliff) are always right. Otherwise, it leaves unanswered the question of who judges the judge. History? History is currently making its judgement upon Cliff’s party.

If Cliff’s Building the Party is flawed in this way, i.e. flawed at the points where it addresses the methodology of ‘stick bending’, is Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party the new tool for educating party members in the theory and practice of building the revolutionary party? I don’t believe so. In fact, despite the criticism I’ve just made, I’d rather give someone Cliff’s book, mainly because of its activist focus. Le Blanc’s is a very good history written by someone with a clear understanding of the political stakes in the various debates but it has half an eye on academia. This means the scholarship standard is high, but at the cost of the book being less of a manual for revolutionaries. It also has some political weaknesses, perhaps the most important being the failure to articulate the full scope of Lenin’s anti-imperialism. The author has a soft spot for the Sandinistas, bringing them up to the level of the Bolsheviks, and for Cuba. This means Lenin’s emphasis on not giving anti-imperialist movements ‘communist colouring’ is lost.

Where does this leave the IS Network in regard to reading Lenin? I think the answer is: in the same position as the ISO. To return to my earlier question of whether the ISO are watering down Lenin. I don’t believe so. We are faced with a situation where an uncritical approach to Cliff’s works no longer serves, but where there is no obvious single alternative. Best, then, to offer a variety of books and, of course, the works of Lenin himself.