- Category: Party and Class
- Published on Tuesday, 2 April 2013
- Written by John Game
A comrade asked me why I had ever chosen to become a "Leninist". I reflected on this for a bit and then wrote a reply. It's been suggested to me that it might open up a useful discussion.
I didn't join the SWP because it was "Leninist". I joined initially because of the idea of "socialism from below". The touchstone of the organisation was that "the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class". The theory of state capitalism came to be directed against both reformist and Stalinist bureaucrats who saw themselves as doing things on behalf of the working class or the people or the nation or whatever.
This conception had very broad implications for all areas of politics and practice (and I believe still does). One of them involved a revisionist theory of Leninism. We believed that talk of "the vanguard party" had been distorted by the Stalinist tradition (beginning of course with the degeneration of the Comintern from a very early stage) into a species of substitutionism. Here the vanguard was seen as an elite separated from the class, not that different from various kinds of underground nationalist organisations. Within a degenerated orthodox Trotskyism there were more scholastic and less militaristic forms of elitism. What they had in common was a reification of both "leadership" and "theory" as something that developed independently of the class struggle. In our tradition, by contrast, the vanguard was simply something that already existed in the working class, and our argument was that this vanguard (which hopefully we were a part of) should organise itself: in other words actually existing militants and fighters and not a bunch of experts with some special esoteric theory. We incessantly asked "Who teaches the teacher?" to such pretenders.
The Leninism of the organisation was, at least in theory, firmly subordinated to the self-consciously heterodox version of revolutionary socialism which the IS tradition had emerged out of: a combination of dissident Trots, the new left of the 1960s, and many of those attracted to radical politics by the new struggles of the time.
This revisionist Leninism was a doctrine of the rights of fighting minorities, and its truth was prefigured in the actual life of the class: In the shop stewards movement of the 1920s that said they would follow the leadership where they represented the interests of the membership but act independently if they misrepresented them. In the Great Strike of 1984 where the vanguard of the NUM acted independently of a ballot proposal designed to split the class. In every unofficial walkout, in every protest and campaign.
That's how we linked the texts of old to the more prosaic politics of the present. But this practice also allowed us to debate orthodoxies. I recall criticisms of Trotsky’s "piston and steam" metaphor as implying too unconscious a conception of the working class and too mechanical notion of leadership. There was the turning of a thesis on Feuerbach into an incessant question: who teaches the teacher? Steam is not educational and a piston has no brains. We need both. This whole conception could not but also inform our attitudes towards discussions about oppression.
The revolutionary possibilities of self-emancipation emerged together with the working class but these ideas had the potential to galvanise and change the way militants and fighters saw all struggles against oppression and exploitation and inevitably shape the debates and arguments of the oppressed. There is a lot to discuss here about how the analyses of oppression actually went (particularly on gender) but I remain convinced that that framework remains a relevant one, particularly in relationship to developing a critique – that is now so obviously necessary – of the ossified position on women’s oppression. Here it is important to point out that if we opposed what we then described as "separatism" we always defended the rights of self-organisation in the movement even while continuing argument. And we always believed that the oppressed themselves would lead a united fight against oppression.
It was this kind of a (imperfectly realised) Leninist organisation that at various points had succeeded in merging with and carrying with it live streams in real struggles in the outside world. The radical youth in CND of the mid-1960s opposing the arms race and the prospect of nuclear catastrophe. Some of the best of the student militants of the late 1960s taking part in the fight against the Vietnam War and racism. A very important layer of industrial militants in the 1970s at the cutting edge of the class struggle. It always combined this with attracting some of the best intellectuals who came into activity in these battles, not just as ornaments for rallies, but often as key figures in the elaboration of ideas within the group (as well as loudly proclaiming their dissidence at various points). There was also, in a genuine sense, a merging of these different layers of the membership (rather than what often seems an arbitrary division of labour today with its separate conferences for activists and intellectuals, with no real sense of the relationship between theory and practice, and one suspects a reification of both).
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