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

A comradely letter from Workers Power

Dear Comrades, 

We are writing to thank you for the invitation to observe your Politics and Policy Conference in London. 

The weekend was an example of how a commitment to democratic debate and participation can enable political confidence to grow and practical initiatives to flourish.

We attended the conference because we believed there would be a genuine debate about how to build a revolutionary communist organisation in Britain today. We were not disappointed – your honest discussion of differences and decisions is the best possible way to begin. 

In particular we thought the conference’s orientation towards the rank and file, militant antifascism and an anti-sectarian approach to united front work in general shows the ISN is taking the first steps in distinguishing from the best of the SWP’s tradition whilst separating from and rejecting the worst of its opportunist practice.

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Read more: A comradely letter from Workers Power

Ideas for branch building: Sheffield

Sheffield RevSoc have produced a blog chronicling their work, including the HE strike and other events. You can view the blog here:

Sheffield IS Network have also started putting out a newsletter - view the new issue:

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Open letter to members of the Anticapitalist Initiative

Dear comrades,

We thought it would be useful to write to you following our Politics Conference at which we passed a motion calling for “immediate discussions with the ACI [Anticapitalist Initiative] with a view to forming a new united organisation”, explaining why we would like to pursue this and why we feel a united organisation is the right approach.

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Read more: Open letter to members of the Anticapitalist Initiative

Why we are democratic



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 is part of an ongoing 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. Our 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 (Luna17), 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 counterposition of building a mass organisation against open discussion and democracy across the membership. For instance Alex argues:

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 Bolsheviks' 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”, Bookmarks (London, 2010)  and Ian Land, Lenin vs the SWP, Unkant (London, 2013)  for a good discussion of how the Bolsheviks 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 any way 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 fallout 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 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 of this on 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 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 (Luna17) “We’re the Leninists now: Renewing the revolutionary left”



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Taking Steps Towards Revolutionary Unity

This joint statement was agreed by the International Socialist Network, Anticapitalist Initiative, and Socialist Resistance delegations; they met to discuss the formation of a united revolutionary tendency last weekend.

Delegates from Socialist Resistance, the Anticapitalist Initiative and the International Socialist Network came together on Sunday 7th July to discuss the next steps on the road to forming a united, plural and hetrodox revolutionary tendency on the left in Britain. 

These discussions were born out of the recent crisis and split in the Socialist Workers Party, which led to the formation of the International Socialist Network, and also inspired debate all across the left in Britain and internationally on how we should move away from the top down and monolithic conception of revolutionary organisation that has proven so damaging in recent years. All of the delegations agreed that they were committed to building an open, democratic and radical left, which encourages free thinking, is built from below and can reach out to a new generation. Wherever necessary delegates tried to make clear the terrain of the debate within their own organisation to the other delegations. This was important for encouraging an open and honest culture in the discussions. It also made clear that the groups participating were not, and did not want to be, monolithic in their approach to revolutionary politics, but even in our own groups we were already attempting to practice pluralism.   

Initially discussion focused on a document from Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper (ACI), 'what kind of radical organisation?'. Discussion was wide-ranging but focused on the questions of building new left parties, trade union and social movement activism, and democratic organisation. Alan Thornett (SR) had produced a response to the document that focused on the difference between a broad party project and a revolutionary Marxist tendency, as well as raising some differences over how the question of democratic organisation was put across in the document.

After two delegate-based discussions of revolutionary unity it was agreed that the debate must be opened out to our wider networks and memberships, and a date for a joint national meeting was agreed for October. There was also a useful discussion of practical collaboration: plans floated for a joint 12 page publication, a common perspective for student and youth work in the autumn, working together to make Left Unity a success, and developing a joint BME caucus. For more information on these discussions then contact any one of the three different organisations involved, SR, ACI, and the IS Network. 


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Bill Jefferies: Reply on organisation

The 2008 credit crunch opened a new period in British politics. No longer were the establishment parties vying to win votes through cheap credit and minor reforms; from here on the future was to be one of austerity. To pay for the bankers' bail-out and to keep the IMF happy pay needed to be cut – and it has been, by around 10% over the last three years – the largest ever sustained fall in real terms. Pensions were to be reduced, the working age extended and public sector jobs and services to be slashed. By the end of the first term of the Tory-led coalition the cut to public services will be around 30% cumulatively.

Yet after a few limited public sector strike days the response to this onslaught from the organised working class has been extremely weak. The trade union leaders were easily able to control the movement from the top down and to sell out, with varying degrees of readiness, any real opposition to wage freezes, job cuts and pension reductions.

Where there has been community-led resistance, notably to hospital closures, this has not been supported by the main health union Unison. Indeed in Lewisham, which saw a 25,000-strong local demonstration against the proposed downgrading of the hospital, the branch secretary of the Lewisham Hospital Health Branch condemned the local campaign in a circular issued to all staff members. The campaign failed to respond, and refused to publicly criticise either the failure of the trade unions to do anything real to oppose the closure or the refusal of the Labour Party to pledge to reverse the proposed closure. There was no revolutionary alternative.

The People’s Assembly too illustrates the crisis. Well attended and demonstrating the general discontent amongst the rank and file, but offering no perspective of a real fightback. No promise of industrial action beyond the inadequate actions allowed by the TU leaders, no criticism of the sell-outs engineered by the union bosses supporting and attending the assembly. Instead it promised only a ritual demonstration and the establishment of local people’s assemblies to be built without any class struggle. Wait for Labour was the clear, if unspoken, subtext. Disagree with the perspective/resolution? Come back in 2014 to amend it!

Meanwhile the left has continued to disintegrate, divided into competing sects run by rival bureaucracies who boast about the number of members they control, rather like feudal landlords valuing their land based on the number of souls attached to it. The members after all are only sheep to be fleeced. The disintegration is most obvious in the SWP, but the stagnation affects all the rival left groups to one degree or another, with no obvious way out.

So are there answers?

The non-revolutionary nature of the period, in the UK at least, is asserted only for its significance to be denied. Revolutionary movements abroad in Greece, Turkey and Brazil are pointed to as a prelude to ditch revolutionary politics at home – to build such mass movements, we are told, means building broad, non-revolutionary parties.

But as the Lewisham hospital campaign, the NUT pensions dispute and the local government pensions dispute show, the difference between reform and revolution is a practical question of how to fight for the interests of our class in the everyday struggle. Reformist politics will not only fail to win reforms; they will fail to defend what reforms we have won. So firstly, revolutionary socialists need to reassert that revolutionary politics are what we are all about. It is a practical question that also determines how we fight to win.

Secondly, we have seen that top-down initiatives will not rebuild the movement at the base. While “building from the base” is much lauded as an objective, this needs to be matched with practical organisational measures and solutions. Local groups of revolutionary socialists need to be formed who can work together in local campaigns. Only through getting to know each other and discussing the actual practical import of our differences will we be able to work out what the fundamental red lines are that underpin our work.

Third, if and when local groups, trade union factions or other real groups based on struggles or self-identified groups begin to function, they can then elect representatives to coordinate between themselves, to the extent that this is necessary, posed by the struggle itself.

Fourth, we are not starting from a blank sheet: our diverse experiences and political traditions should be a source of strength, not a reason to divide the movement. We need to unite it and prove that socialism and socialists are a living, breathing movement open to all who want to fight capitalism.

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