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

Nothing Left to salvage

Can you picture a small society run by the far left as it exists in Britain today? Take a moment away from ‘bourgeois reality’, and imagine a world where all the hundreds of left groups decided they could just about last a boat trip together and make it over to some picturesque Scandinavian Island (donated by one of those suspicious liberal democracies who were interested in watching the experiment from afar).

We can of course only speculate, but I expect it would start out with temporary structures put together by a general meeting held the evening after arrival. A cross between Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat and Thomas More’s Utopia, the declaration of a society free from all suffering would be a bold and daring one, but also full of question marks to be addressed at future steering committee meetings (these would be made up of an elected selection of proportionate membership from all the different left groups inhabiting the island). This would then lead to the next (ultimately binding) General Assembly, where a full bill of rights for all citizens would eventually be agreed.

Harmony would just about last until the third of fourth steering committee meeting, where it was leaked to the Island’s inhabitants by a disgruntled committee member that minutes had not been fully taken. There was some secret plan being cooked up by the committee to strike deals with social democratic governments in Europe. Rumours would fly around about an immediate threat of war from one of the neighbouring Scandinavian countries and there would be talk of postponing the General Assembly. Confusion and chaos would arise, and without the means to resign and leave a Facebook group, pitch forks and catapults would instead be made out of the Island’s natural resources. 'Utopia' would quickly descend into 'Lord of the Flies'.

There would be a handful of survivors, mostly members of the Imperialism Subcommittee, who were busy writing a long piece about the relevance of Nikolai Bukharin’s writings in the post-war Europe, and who had been so indulged in this work that they missed out on what the fighting was all about. They would nonetheless end up taking up separate ends of the Island (out of fear of falling into another war), living in suspicion of each other, resembling the Eloi and Morlock tribes in HG Wells’ post-apocalyptic novel ‘the Time Machine’. The imperialist attack from the neighbouring Scandinavian country would never happen, but the very threat was enough to abandon the project of Utopia in favour of state capitalism.

Imagine now if the ship had never even got there. A chance storm had struck, and the appointed sailor (an ex-navy mutineer who had joined the Fourth International before fully finishing his training) had been unable to steer the ship away from approaching rocks. Despite well intentioned shouts for “unity”, the whole thing collapsed into the sea. There was a small number of survivors who, realising the full severity of approaching storm, would jump off before the whole thing collapsed, escaping on one of the dinghy boats (which had kindly been donated by well-wishing left reformists in the Labour Party, who still had illusions in bourgeois capitalism and had thus decided not to join the Left Ship).

What a job these survivors would have! The last remainders of the revolutionary tradition; in their hands would be the “memory of the class”, a line passed down through the word of mouth of the “most advanced workers”, descending from the Jacobin Club to the Bolsheviks. The famous vanguard who had survived the great Left Ship disaster would become statespeople for the new left of future generations, and what stories they would tell! Several books would have to be written about the experience to cement the importance of the tradition for future generations, but what memories and ideas would need to be salvaged from the shipwreck? Of course, it could never be quite proven that had the ship actually got there in one piece, the whole thing wouldn’t have descended into a sectarian bloodbath… but they had their suspicions. After all, a lot of the people who were going there were not very “serious”, pulled by anarchist ideas and so on, perhaps it’s best to keep things academic and let some sort of hegemony form out of their enlightened ideas over time.

Several decades later, long after the survivors had passed away after long careers in academia and the media, global capitalism would again reach another crisis. A group of students from fractured new organisations (formed out of different interpretations from the writings about the Ship Disaster) decide to unify! Inspired by an immediate urge to do something about the increasingly unjust society they are living in, and out of romanticism surrounding the tales of the great ship experiment, they decide to buy a boat…

Let’s jump back to reality, where no well-intentioned humanitarian in their right mind would ever lend today’s Left a ship, let alone an island. Is this a fair metaphorical impression of where the far left is today? It seems that whichever turn of events face us, the left is deemed to crash or destroy each other. Of course, a lot of this might appear a touch disingenuous, any grouping would no doubt argue that their Utopia could only be built through the mass involvement of the working class, and that their organisation aims merely to be part of a vanguard aimed at steering the ship away from capitalist tyranny. There could also be a lot of vague talk of “upturns” and “downturns” in struggle, and so forth. Could you honestly, though, trust any of us to do a better job at steering a movement, in any period of struggle, than the poor ex-navy trainee from the Fourth International who crashed into the rocks? None of us have the slightest idea of what we are doing (proven by the fractured state the left is in during the most severe global economic crisis in history), so any idea for building a left which starts and ends with “unity with other left groups” seems completely absurd. As does any of us carrying on in the same old traditions which we have seen fail several times over.

To the outside the far left must look like a shower of shite, full of competing egos all trying to be top dog in a cliquey subculture (“Guuuuys, I think you are all failing to understand the dialectical nature of our current hegemony, you hear me?”). I expect the question that often runs through people minds when they first come across the Left is, “Do we really want anything to do with these weird people?” The sad thing is that when all of the genuine, well-intentioned ideas of challenging inequality and oppression, which initially draw very good people in, have become lost in a sea of sectarian wreckage from a war of egos, what is there left to salvage?

I expect “we” (whoever associates as the Left today), need to start again, and not from the basis of a vanguard network of leftists, preaching competing ideas and competing to build a left organisation which will push these arguments through, but instead from the very basic position of trying to work out what it means to be left-wing today. Who knows what the answer is, but I expect it will involve a lot less cliques of self-appointed leaders of the class, and perhaps a few less Facebook rows.

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Tony Benn 1925-2014

We would like to extend our condolences and sympathy to the family and friends of Tony Benn who died this Friday morning aged 88. Tony was a huge presence on the left and he will be greatly missed by the movement to which he contributed so much. Few can claim as many achievements as Benn; however he was never one to rest on his laurels, always throwing himself into the next campaign.

Even in his later years he was a delight to watch, arguably moving to the left after leaving the House of Commons to, as he put it, ‘devote more time to politics’. Often running circles around his juniors, his sharp and plain speaking style was both effective and an inspiration to many generations of activists. Those of us lucky enough to have worked with him will remember his infectious enthusiasm as well as his warm and friendly character.

Whether you remember him for his days as an outspoken MP, his staunch support of the miners’ strike or as a spokesperson for the anti-war movement, his absence will be a great loss to the many causes he championed.

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Why the IS Network should include a line on mental/manual labour in their constitution – and read Raya Dunayevskaya, Daphne Lawless and Bishop Brown

I miss something in the IS Network constitution, something which might solve problems shadow-boxed at the October conference in the dispute over full-timers (and in subsequent tussles about who makes the sandwiches). Its absence could explain how the party we once believed in degenerated into a clique of rape apologists shrieking, “How dare you?” I’d also contend my addendum is a fundamental principle of genuine Marxism – and of a genuine, creative Leninism too. It’s this:

The IS Network recognises that the split between mental and manual labour in capitalism, a split which leads to grotesque unfairness and inequality, cannot be challenged, much less solved, by reproducing this split inside our own organisation. Add a comment

Read more: Why the IS Network should include a line on mental/manual labour in their constitution – and read...

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 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

 

 

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Conor Kostick: Reading Lenin and the IS Network

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.

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Read more: Conor Kostick: Reading Lenin and the IS Network

Tom Walker: Say no to revolutionary jargon

Intervene. Build. Cadre. Recruit. Centralism. Discipline. Indiscipline. Smash. Oppositionist. Comrade. Purge. Bourgeois. Layer. Expel. Vanguard. Front. Turn. Propaganda.

All these words and more are part of the very particular jargon we have been used to, both in the Socialist Workers Party and on the wider revolutionary left. Taken together, they are certainly evocative – and not in a good way.

In our day-to-day conversations in the IS Network, many of us are still using these words. In part, that’s an admirable effort to make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. In part, it’s a nervous attempt to affirm our revolutionary credentials, a defence against the inevitable accusation that we have “broken with Leninism” – as if revolutionary politics were encapsulated in jargon, rather than expressed (or sometimes not expressed) through it. The words are waved around like a Leninist talisman.

The trouble is, while I believe we are all committed to building a better, more democratic culture on the left, using this old language makes us sound as though we haven’t changed at all – especially when we use it publicly, to people who don’t know us and are taking our words at face value – with all the connotations they attach to them because of their own experiences on the left. This vocabulary can still sound cynical, manipulative, and to many, frightening. It doesn’t make us sound like the kind of people you’d welcome into your campaign group.

“Comrades will launch a disciplined intervention into the campaign with our propaganda in order to recruit” – on one level that’s a not unreasonable statement of something we might want to do. But say it to someone not versed in the language of Leninism and they'd run 100 miles in the opposite direction. To most people, “discipline” is something you suffer in school, “propaganda” is what is produced by totalitarian regimes and “recruiting” is what armies do. Yet the sentence has a quite benign meaning: “We will get involved in the campaign and argue for our agreed policy using our leaflets, and see if anyone wants to join our group.”

Is this a deep political disagreement dressed up as one about language? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the use of language made me overestimate at first how far apart people are within IS Network – instead of “covering up” differences, the words we use are creating the appearance of bigger differences than actually exist. Of course there is much we will need to debate over the coming months and years, and that’s to be actively encouraged – but if we are unclear with our words, we will talk past one another.

For example, some in the Network are for the continued use of the term “democratic centralism” to describe our organisational practice, arguing that what we are currently constructing is “real” democratic centralism. I believe that this term has been systematically misused for too long to be rehabilitated in this way – we’ll know what we mean, but people who don’t know us will be scared off, thinking we intend to do the same old, same old.

In truth, it seems to me that both sides of that debate are committed to the same actual practices: the most thorough democracy, elected committees, recallability, voluntary as opposed to bureaucratic “discipline” (if we must use that word – “voluntary discipline” feels like a contradiction), autonomy of local branches.

This is a very different model to that of the SWP, and a much healthier one, one much more in line with the real, historical Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the run-up to 1917. In that sense, it is “real democratic centralism”, although Lenin scarcely used the term. To continue to use such a loaded phrase, the battle cry of the left’s drop-of-a-hat expellers over all these decades, is to make a fetish of language over meaning – and to risk being misunderstood. The left is full of groups claiming to employ “democratic centralism” (and, of course, claiming that theirs alone is of a “real” or “authentic” variety) – how do we make it clear that we are not just another one?

We need to break with these linguistic holdovers from the “old party” and its internal culture. In hindsight, we were almost talking to each other in code, repeating certain phrases as a demonstration of orthodoxy. If you use this jargon long enough, you forget how it sounds to the ears of “outsiders”.

The way to create a better culture on the left is not to take those orthodox phrases and attempt to change their content. That is a recipe for talking past one another, never knowing how far someone's definition of a particular word has or hasn’t shifted. The answer is to be clear about what we actually mean, and to try to speak in a vocabulary that brings us closer to those we want to work with instead of pushing them away.

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