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

Getting off square one

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The question of IS renewal will unfold over some time. If we ask when and where did it all go wrong, very few, I guess, will say December 2012, although since that point all the unhealthy tendencies in the SWP have seemed to multiply like germs, quickly overwhelming the body of the party.

Some will look on the Respect split as the key moment, others the reorganisation of the party in 2004, and others still will look to the break up of branches around the turn of the century. We’ve all broken with Alex Callinicos, and many want to go back further and break with the John Rees and Lindsey German era that preceded him – but how many will break with Tony Cliff?


The argument against Cliff’s biography of Lenin, particularly the central metaphor of “bending the stick”, has been gaining ground for some time now [1]. There is a clear elitist danger in ascribing sharp tactical turns, “bending the stick”, as one of the defining features of Leninism.

It overemphasises the importance of a contingent factor, the absolutist rule in Russia and the émigré central committee [2]. As we will discuss later, Lenin never intended to create a clandestine revolutionary group attached to the working class, but a mass party like the SPD. The stick-bending analogy simply isn’t true. It opens up a number of strange, conflicting notions, such as Lenin the cynic, who would argue something he didn’t really believe in order to get his way [3].


Lars Lih’s depiction of Lenin is an urgent detox from the blundering, ‘interventionist’ party. Lenin founded his organisation based on the principles of the Communist Manifesto and the Erfurt Programme, the manifesto adopted by the German Social Democratic Party in 1891, which had a substantial commentary written by Karl Kautsky. The story it told to its members and supporters was one of the convergence of the workers’ movement and the socialist movement.

The implication of the programme, that socialism must urgently be fought for but is also inevitable, raises many interesting questions [4]. The fact remains that this outlook inspired millions of people, including one VI Ulyanov.

Socialists, who may or may not have been workers themselves, were charged with bringing clarity and enlightenment to a pre-existing workers’ movement. This is socialism of strategy, rather than socialism of tactics. The reports of the First International are a good example (here from 1868) of the merger narrative in action, with workers initiating struggle and turning to the International for support.

21 points

The point where it can be said Lenin argued for a different form of socialism is the 21 Conditions put by the Third International to parties wanting to join [5]. Let’s skip enumerating them (follow the link). The conditions are not short points but quite involved paragraphs. The language is quite anachronistic and sometimes hair-raising. It was a product of the times.

What’s new is the insistence on advocating and supporting soviet power and the reality of civil war, very real things in 1919 and a reasonable context for all the talk of “pitiless” branding and “iron discipline” etc. The more readily transferable conditions – e.g. work in the unions, propaganda in the country, explicit anti-imperialism – amount to a continuation of the merger theme: we must bring socialism to the people.

The meaning for us...

We do not need to read Lenin closely to know the IS and other small groups neither need nor are really able to be decisive interventionists. The talk of pitiless struggle and iron discipline is only appropriate for a party leading a state in the midst of civil war. But, even if we wanted to be decisive and pitiless and iron-like in our relentless polemical interventions, there is little authority by quotation to be found under Lenin.

Building the Party was of course Cliff’s authority by quotation. It was not an authoritative history for all time but part of an ideological struggle. It was Cliff’s vision of how to build a party. How has it fared? I may be wrong on the finer points but the standard story of the IS in Britain runs thus.

In 1968, when the most recent period of heroic struggle got underway, there were around 400 members of the IS. By 1974 there are 4,000 IS members. That struggle is brought to an end by the Labour government’s Social Contract. There are a number of arguments and splits in the newly founded SWP. By the early 80s there are 2,000 or so members. Patient building means by the mid 90s the party claims 10,000 members. At the beginning of the 21st century, branches are dismantled. By the time they are rebuilt in 2004 there are fewer than 4,000 members (despite thousands of people being recruited during the salad days of the anti-war movement). Today the SWP claims 7,000 members, although when asked to put their names to a loyalty document fewer than 600 responded to the CC’s call.

To put some of this in perspective, in 1941, in his pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell mocked the old CPGB as an irrelevant force with only 20,000 members to call on. Maybe we’re not comparing like with like, but, going by this example, 40 years of distilled Bolshevism means 40 years sitting on square one.

The idea of having the party as a vanguard, which builds itself through sharp tactical turns, must be dropped. Socialists are not the vanguard, they are looking for the vanguard. The Lars Lih narrative, of the merger of socialism with the workers' movement, is the right narrative for us today.

I think there is quite wide agreement that we need an independent anti-austerity movement, ideally embodied in a party. It’s generally understood the British trade union apparatus is quiescent towards the bosses and unresponsive toward the membership. No one needed cajoling toward the Left Unity initiative. No one on the organised left even thought of pop-up unions before Sussex University workers formed one.

At the moment at least we don’t need to steer these people in the right direction – we need to help them with what they’re doing.

[1] To credit at least two people, Pham Binh ( and Ian Land ( have pushed this idea for some time.
[2] It’s also a weird image, a person obsessively flexing twigs.
[3] Most contemporary descriptions of Lenin describe him as prosaic, lacklustre and only eager to convince. My favourite illustration of Lenin, in comparison to, say, Trotsky pictured in full armour, atop a white steed, slaying the imperialist dragon, is Lenin standing on top of a globe, clutching a broom, busy sweeping away the world’s capitalists and kings.
[4] It is worthy of a whole article in itself about human agency. A parallel thought: apologetics for Thatcherism often suggest (or admit) that her government’s destruction of the British industrial base had to be fought for but was at the same time inevitable.
[5] Care is needed here. Lenin contributed to the document and would have had strong sway over its contents, but he was not the sole author by any means.