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

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?

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Jim Kincaid: IS in the early 1960s

International Socialism #51Ian Birchall’s fine book on Tony Cliff records in detail the period in 1960-2 when the Socialist Review Group was transforming itself into the IS organisation. It was a highly creative phase in the development of what later became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), so maybe a few recollections might be of use in helping us think about directions for the new IS Network.

As Birchall explains, there was a small core of committed members, in a democratic organisation with subs, aggregates and voting, etc. What I was drawn into in 1961 in London was one of the broader networks which the Group generated around it. I was a student at LSE, radicalised by CND and by a taste of machine politics as a youthful member of the notably corrupt Glasgow Labour Party. I had worked with Nigel Harris in the Labour Party’s student organisation and he got me attending Socialist Review Group meetings where Tony Cliff, Mike Kidron and the others argued with each other and anyone else who would take them on.

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Kevin Crane: Some thoughts on industry and the unions

May Day DemonstrationThe emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. That's the neat little phrase that summarises the definition of revolutionary socialism. In many ways, the wider aspects of our politics about how society can be transformed, and how the ruling class, its state and institutions can be confronted, all flow from this. The most famous feature of the IS tradition, the state capitalist analysis of Stalinism, had a significant effect on the way IS orientated itself strategically, placing heavy emphasis on 'socialism from below' and 'rank and file' strategies. What these strategies meant, applied concretely, has changed over time. What I think we ought to be discussing is what they mean now.

Between 1968 and the late 1970s, IS applied its rank and file strategies by getting members in workplaces involved in workplace organisation. You can read about some of the most important experiences from this in Birchall's biography of Cliff – the article about rank and fileism on Soviet Goon Boy's blog is also very useful.

The SWP's official position on rank and file tactics have been pretty consistent since the 1970s and the old adage of the “three cogs” was pretty well drummed into us: the militants, the rank-and-file, the union. There is, however, room for debate as to what this really means today.

One of the key goals of the Thatcher government was to prevent trade unions from playing the decisive role in British politics that they had since the 1940s. In 1972, a Tory government collapsed as a direct consequence of failing to break major strikes by powerful groups of workers. A popular joke among Tories at the time was “What three institutions can never be questioned? The church, the judiciary and the National Union of Mineworkers.” What Thatcher did in the 1980s was gradually weaken and isolate the unions, starting with less significant groups then culminating in massive confrontations with sections like the print workers and the miners.

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John Riddell: Party democracy in Lenin’s Comintern – and now

John RiddellHow 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.[1] It is thus useful to review the nature of internal democracy in the Communist International (Comintern) during 1919–23, the period of its first four congresses.

Like most Marxist groups today, the British SWP looks to the Bolshevik Party under Lenin as a guiding example of revolutionary party-building, and much discussion rests on this comparison. However, in seeking a model for a revolutionary party, it is also worth looking at the Communist parties in Lenin’s time outside Russia, which functioned in circumstances much closer to what we face today than those of tsarist Russia.

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John Game: How to become a Leninist

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).


The understanding of Leninism as essentially a doctrine of the rights of a fighting minority within the wider movement led to the SWP becoming one of the most important of the forces on the far left outside the Labour Party, although there are of course many debates about how the organisation conducted itself, missed opportunities, made mistakes and worse. I joined at the point when the level of struggle had fallen very low but ideological arguments about the way forward for the left were very prominent. It's what we called in our organisation the "downturn" – a period of defeat and ideological retrenchment.

If the general period was bleak there was also struggle. We were flung into the miners' strike and after some initial mistakes and a bit of sectarianism, we succeeded in becoming a central force on the far left at that time as well. Even during a "downturn" it was the connection between the party and those involved in struggle that was the most important thing (and it was that connection that led to the development of cadre: educationals are a poor substitute, and work best when comrades can relate them to their own experience).

The arguments about the need for a party were ones I agreed with and it was clear to me at the time that socialists did need to be organised and should avoid being merely a lobby group or on the other hand simply campaigning in the Labour Party. It also seemed true that while there were many interesting independent intellectuals without organisation, they inevitably faltered on the question of political agency. My own attitude towards the Eurocommunism of Marxism Today was shaped by this: it wasn’t about hostility towards theory – this was stuff where the "to do" part wasn't addressed to activists on the ground. In short it was writing which had very little conception of agency other than the conventional ones of public opinion, politicians and parliament.

Having said all this what seems to have happened to the SWP is that as one struggle after another was defeated disorientation led to new forms of substitutionism and the resulting reified practice came to be associated with Leninism. The high profile of debates about Leninism (as if this phrase summarised our entire tradition) is in itself a mark of the decay of the tradition I have tried to describe above and, I believe, its increasing irrelevance to the politics of the SWP today. This is not the place to talk about the process that led to this ossification. But the reality is that I still hold to a distinction between socialism from above and socialism from below, still believe that there must be an organised extra-parliamentary left, and still believe then, in a distinction between revolution and reform. Its important to say that I still think these remain real divides in the movement and my goal would not be to fudge them but to clarify them – without using such clarification as reason to avoid working with those with whom I disagree.

One of the things that hits me most about the contemporary SWP isn't some outlandish fossilised Leninism. It's the close resemblance between the forms of organisation they have adopted and the kinds of things we see with politicians right across the spectrum today. One thinks of the endless emphasis on "punching above our weight", "leadership", the substitution of managerialism for politics, the hierarchy, the instrumental approach to politics, etc. The logic of praxis, the logic of self-emancipation has become an excuse for little more then a crude realism in which all that matters is to keep the machine ticking over. The whole thing is like a brand, not a political party at all. It was terrifying to me that many believed that without apparatus you couldn't get people to do stuff or make things happen. What kind of a Leninism is this? It is not the Leninism of a fighting minority but a Leninism much more akin to the dead hand of the unrevised Leninist tradition.

I remain broadly a Leninist in the sense that I want to see organisation based on the most militant sections of the movement rather then simply a passive organisation reflecting the whole class (or, to put it in contemporary language, the electorate). I don't think though that democratic centralism is appropriate for the small band of socialists that exists at the moment (I do think a network is much better) and I think a new leadership should be built from the bottom up in the localities. I think the notion of a democratic centralism without such a base can only end with the absurd idea that "leadership" can be built outside the context of class struggle.

If there is a crisis of leadership in the country I think it’s a crisis of not enough organised socialists on the ground. We don't need more bureaucratic united fronts (surely the class by now has enough competitors to choose from, and of course, where appropriate we should work with them while recognising their limitations). The same is true in terms of would-be pretenders to lead the vanguard.

We need to grow the left from below right across the country around existing campaigns and struggles in a non-sectarian way.

We need to learn to work with forces to our right without collapsing into either opportunism or sectarianism.

We don’t have to be in charge of every movement we take part in (whether we are IS Network or SWP) because if we are it's likely to be insignificant (and if not it probably soon will be).

We are a fighting minority within and not outside the wider movement.

We need to drop the grand pretensions and catastrophism but keep in mind that we have a distinctive tradition which might contribute to the building of a real mass alternative.

My vision of such an alternative is of democratic centralism without a single full-timer, with formal leadership of every kind based on the electoral principle from top to bottom. If we need a paper we can write it ourselves, if we need speakers we do it ourselves – we don’t require herding around or substituting for. It’s a challenge, organising democratically in such conditions, but I think such a challenge can be met. More importantly if it could be done it would put flesh on the bones of the proposition that self-emancipation is compatible with mass socialist organisation.

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Roobin: More on Luxemburg

Another in a series of articles this blog will be carrying as the IS Network embarks on a wide-ranging discussion and debate about the IS tradition and the way forward for the left. Each piece reflects the views of the author, not a collective position taken by the IS Network.

Guest post by Roobin

Rosa LuxemburgThe first, most obvious thing to say is thank you to Tim for kicking this off. The process of recuperation from the SWP debacle starts with people sharing their thoughts, if necessary in depth and at length. The blog and the forum needs more of this.

Rosa Luxemburg does matter, but not for the reasons Tim gives. I find the question of what kind of organisation revolutionaries need to be fantastically dry. The recent debates have been no different. Loyalist arguments returned again and again to buzzwords and ideas centralism, discipline, submit to the authority, accept the vote, etc. A party must justify its existence. Why should I join? How are you different from the rest? If you have to define a party by its internal regime it’s a sure sign that party is merely self-perpetuating. Put simply, what kind of organisation do revolutionaries need? What’s the best shape for a peg?

The interesting thing about Luxemburg and what relates her thought to our predicament is how she asked the right questions but did not find satisfactory answers. Luxemburg’s political life was defined by the Second International, which operated from 1889 to 1914. The last third of the 19th century was a period of stability and frustration. After practically a century of turmoil, somewhere between the end of the American Civil War and the foundation of the German Empire, all that was molten turned to stone.

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