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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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

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Financial Appeal

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

Financial Appeal

Why we are Democratic

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In the past few weeks the IS Network has seen a lot of internal discussion over democracy, such as whether we should employ a part time worker and what sort of relationship should exist between our membership and our National Steering Committee. This follows an on going debate we have been hosting with socialists inside and outside the organisation about Leninism in the 21st Century, and what sort of left organisations are needed today. These are discussions we have had out in the open, where we have posted up articles on our website for those inside and outside the network to read and take part in the debates.  Out Network is still at a very early stage and we are far from being a perfectly functioning organisation; but there seems to be a strong agreement across our members that we are right to see openness and democracy as being a fundamental to everything we do.

In response to our recent debates Alex Snowdon (Luna 17), a founding member of Counterfire, has written a criticism of the importance we place on democracy, and instead offers a model of Leninism which I believe displays some of the politics of socialism from above. This is something I fear holds back their group as a whole, and I think it is a way of organising which the new groupings on the left should try to avoid. The most serious problem with the article, which I think is important for us to discuss, is the counterproposition of building a mass organisation against open discussion and democracy across the membership. For instance Alex argues that:

 “Formal questions of organisation and internal democracy are of secondary importance in comparison [to political strategy]: 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”.

This perception of priorities  poses an interesting question though; if we are to create a successful political strategy before we need to bother with secondary issues such as democracy, where then does this party strategy come from? 

I think for the IS Network, the culture of open debate over democracy is born out of a healthy obsession with trying to create a real members organisation. I agree with Alex when he states in his article that Leninism is not a dogma, and I do not believe that it holds an all encompassing key to building the left today; but one thing which I think is worth pulling out of the early experiences of the Bolsheviks is the central importance they placed on their members.

In the period after 1912 when the Bolshevik faction broke from the rest of the RSDLP and really started to build on their own, there was a culture where each member was encouraged to be a “leader”  in their locality. This was not a leader in the sense of telling other workers what to do, but a leader in gathering all the important experiences of those around them and relaying this to the rest of the Revolutionary party. From this, members with some very different experiences would discuss what is happening in each of their areas both locally and nationally. Out of it a strategy was born which was designed to combat some of the many different challenges workers faced. 

It was the effectiveness of gathering information, and discussing how to build an appropriate strategy in relation to this which was central to the Bolshevik’s growth as an organisation. This meant that they could be relevant to the contemporary issues facing workers in Russia. The removal of democracy in this process would have made their growth impossible, as it was essential that every member was listened to, and that from this the right decisions for the Party were collectively made.  (See Tony Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party, “Chapter 14: Strategy and tactics” (London, 2010)  and Ian Land, Lenin vs the SWP, Unkant (London, 2013)  For a good discussion on how the Bolshevik’s organised.)

The importance we place on members I believe also fits in with a model of what Hal Draper described as “socialism from below”. In “the Two souls of Socialism” Draper saw a key difference between the notion of socialism created by Utopians, Stalinists or Social Democratic parties, given to a mass population by a small number of left leaders or thinkers (which he argued was Socialism from Above), to the socialism created by a mass movement from the working class (socialism from below). Draper argued that only Socialism from below can bring about the self emancipation of the working class. (Hal Draper, The Two souls of Socialism, (1966)) In the IS Network we obviously do not claim to in anyway represent the mass of the working class, we are an organisation of merely 300 socialists. But I think we try to reduce this model to an organisational function as best we can, where we see the building of our political strategy as born out of the members, not out of a small leadership section or a cadre within the group.

 There are times when we might get things wrong, and a tension can be seen in some of the discussions we are having. We also do not claim to have yet come up with a comprehensive strategy to face all the major challenges facing workers today. For us we only see a successful political strategy as coming from as many different experiences from our members and those around us as possible, so building a strategy goes hand-in-hand with building our organisation. To do this we require a real openness and democracy, and that is why we see this as a fundamental (and not a “secondary”) issue.        

The different approaches to this question I think gets to the core of the difference between the split from the SWP in 2009 (which Counterfire was born out of) and the recent ongoing split which has created the IS Network, and a left opposition still in the SWP. Alex fails to really mention the fall out within the party over the democracy commission as being fundamental to their split. Leading Counterfire members were on the wrong side of a debate which aimed to create greater democracy within the SWP (something which was seen as clearly needed after the failings which happened during the Respect era), and I believe this was the real grouping which the 2009 split and the creation of Counterfire came out of. Clearly the SWP has failed to create anything near to being a sufficient level of democracy since then, but during that period their faction acted as a barrier to those who tried to challenge this.

The influence on this to their overall strategic outlook can also be seen in their refusal to engage with broad political initiatives such as Left Unity which is also currently seeing a strategy created by a membership (see the recent debate over their political platform) as opposed to a self made strategy given to them by a small group of leaders or thinkers.

I do not claim to know exactly how Counterfire organise themselves, but I expect (from Alex’s article) that a political strategy is largely created by a minority within their group. I believe that by failing to see the political problems in this way of organising, they will sadly be held back in what they aim to achieve.  

This article is a response to Alex Snowdon (Luna 17) “We’re the Leninists now”- Renewing the revolutionary Left” http://luna17activist.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/were-leninists-now-renewing.html