Ian Birchall replies to his critics

Ian Birchall has written a comprehensive reply to the criticisms of his article “What does it mean to be a Leninist?” that appear in the current issue of Socialist Review. He responds briefly to Mark Krantz, Tony Phillips and Kevin Corr on questions of voting and party discipline, and in detail to Alex Callinicos on the SWP’s “distinctive model of party organisation”:

As Alex says, whatever we have learnt from Lenin, “in reality since the mid-1970s we have been evolving our own distinctive model of party organisation”. True enough – which means it has to be subjected to critical evaluation. Any particular organisational feature (slates, factions etc) must be justified on the basis of experience and rational argument, and if necessary subjected to scrutiny and revision.

Now it seems to me that while Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman were central to the leadership the model worked pretty well. I remain proud of our interventions around the Anti Nazi League, miners’ strikes, poll tax and Stop the War, as well as many more localised campaigns and struggles.

But in recent years the model has perhaps been less successful. And the current crisis has thrown a number of things into question. If I had died this time last year, I should have died a loyal and happy party member. Now I am finding an increasing number of questions to worry about.

Ian also examines periods from the SWP’s history, including the 1980s debates around Women’s Voice and the “downturn” argument. And he defends the use of websites such as this one as a legitimate method for conducting arguments among socialists.

Revolutionaries have always seized the opportunities offered by technological advance in the field of communications. Babeuf and his supporters gave an important place to the semaphore telegraph in the egalitarian society they aspired to build. As early as 1895 Lenin was trying to organise access to the illegal printing press of the Narodnaya Volya group. The internet allows us to develop a debate that is much more rapid, responsive and extensive than printed publications. It would be strange if revolutionaries did not welcome such possibilities.


Ian Birchall: A reply to critics

I was pleased to see that the July issue of Socialist Review contained a number of responses to my article “What does it mean to be a Leninist?”. There are important issues at stake here, and they need to be discussed as fully as possible. None of us have a monopoly of truth, and it will only be after an extended period of discussion that we can achieve the clarity necessary.

However, I was a little disappointed by some of the letters, which, perhaps because of the brevity demanded by the editor, seemed to make debating points rather than examine the logic of my position.

Thus Mark Krantz writes: “To claim, as Birchall does that, ‘insurrections cannot be carried out by majority vote’ is not true. Three times the Bolshevik central committee voted on motions for an insurrection. In the final vote, there were 20 votes in favour, 2 against, and 3 abstentions.”

Obviously I did not deny that votes, in committees or at mass meetings, are a part of the revolutionary process. What I was saying is that a vote alone did not convince the Bolshevik rank-and-file to risk their lives. They were convinced by the objective circumstances and by the powerful argument coming from the leadership. In the April Theses, Lenin insisted on the need for “patient, systematic, and persistent explanation”. Only in the context of such patient explanation can a vote be effective.

Tony Phillips admonishes me that the job of revolutionaries is “not sitting around waiting to be convinced”. That rhetoric – “stop arguing and be outward looking” – has been very common in recent months. Now I, and many of those who have recently been critical of the Central Committee, do not have a record of “sitting around” (as Tony implies). We have been involved in campaigning and trade union activity over many years.

Convinced by experience

And we have done this because we were convinced – by experience, by objective circumstances – but also by the SWP leadership. I have stayed with the IS/SWP for over 50 years precisely because it was an organisation that took initiatives, that convinced me in practice and not just by appealing to the constitutional status of a vote.

Tony says, quite rightly, that “discipline in a revolutionary party is voluntary. No member can be forced to do anything they don’t want to do.” This was put rather more brutally by a speaker at the Special Conference who said: “If you don’t like it, get out.” The problem is that rather a lot of comrades have “got out”. Some years ago we were told the SWP had 10,000 members. Now, judging from the CC’s own figures, we have around a thousand. We may indeed have “an influence on so many important campaigns out of all proportion to our size”, but if we continue to shrink that influence will not be all that great.

Kevin Corr reminds us that in 1917 Lenin said: “I shall at whatever cost brand the blackleg Zinoviev as a blackleg. My answer to the threat of a split is to declare a war to the finish, war to the expulsion of both blacklegs from the Party… a party of revolutionaries which does not punish prominent blacklegs would perish.”

As Kevin points out, this was a “life and death” situation of extreme urgency – and so not comparable to most situations we face today. But Kevin only tells us half the story. Zinoviev soon returned to the leadership: he became head of the Petrograd city and regional government and president of the Communist International.

The reason was very simple – the Bolsheviks were extremely short of able and experienced cadre (Cliff is very good on this point at the beginning of volume III of his Lenin). Despite his short term – and quite legitimate – anger, Lenin realised that he needed allies, and could not afford to lose experienced comrades like Zinoviev.

While in the light of subsequent events it could be argued that it would have been better if Zinoviev had been permanently banished from the party leadership, that leaves us with the question of who could have taken on the jobs – all capable comrades were fully occupied. I wouldn’t want to push the parallel too far, but perhaps a shrinking party should recognise that it cannot afford to squander cadre.

Broader leadership

But the fullest response has come with Alex Callinicos’s piece “What sort of party do we need?”. In many ways this is a very welcome contribution. Alex’s fraternal and measured tone is very different to much of the rhetoric we heard at the Special Conference. His recognition that I (and presumably many other oppositional comrades) are part of the “broader leadership” of the party is generous, and a sharp contrast to the debate prior to the Special Conference, when I was confronted by meeting chairs with stop-watches determined to limit me to six minutes only.

Welcome too is Alex’s recognition that we have been through “a period of bruising internal debate”. This contrasts sharply with the false optimism of Party Notes, which studiously records the smallest achievements, but ignores all our setbacks. However, just as we never equate the oppressed and the oppressors, so I find it hard to equate the bruised with the bruisers.

On some of Alex’s substantial points I am largely in agreement. When he argues that “centralised political organisation [is] necessary to focus all the different forms of struggle against the most concentrated form of capitalist power, the state” I am quite happy to go along with him – with one proviso.

The SWP is not “the party” which will confront the British state – it is a small propaganda group arguing for the necessary “centralised political organisation”. During the rapid growth of the 1970s it was possible to believe that we were “the party”. To believe that at present would be a dangerous illusion. Any argument about the form of organisation we need must start with a realistic assessment of where we are.

Likewise I do not differ from Alex’s critique of “broad parties of the radical left that, to a greater or lesser degree, evade the question of reform or revolution”. Though again the argument has to be expressed carefully. After all we did attempt to build Respect, which aimed to build precisely a “broad party” of the sort Alex describes. I worked loyally to build Respect, and continue to believe that, but for our own misjudgements and the preponderant role of George Galloway, it could have succeeded and would have been a worthwhile venture for the whole left. If such an opportunity arises again we should seize it. However, I also think that the SWP was quite correct not to dissolve its own organisation into Respect, but to maintain a distinct revolutionary identity.

Question of organisation

Again, Alex is quite right to quote Lukács on the fact that the question of organisation was central to Lenin. Obviously there is an enormous amount to be learned from Lenin (and from Cliff’s study of him). But as Alex, following Cliff, recognises, Lenin’s genius was precisely in recognising that the form of organisation must be appropriate to the objective circumstances. So is a “Leninist” simply someone who realises that we need to get organised?

Actually I am fairly open-minded on the term “Leninism”. I am quite happy to see myself standing in the political tradition of Lenin and the Russian Revolution. But I become suspicious when the term “Leninism” is invoked to support arguments which need to be carried on their own merits. (Likewise with “Trotskyism” – if I am called a Trotskyist by a Stalinist or a Blairite, I reply: “Yes, and bloody proud of it”. In a more fraternal situation I would give a more considered response on the relevance of “Trotskyism” in 2013.)

As Alex says, whatever we have learnt from Lenin, “in reality since the mid-1970s we have been evolving our own distinctive model of party organisation”. True enough – which means it has to be subjected to critical evaluation. Any particular organisational feature (slates, factions etc) must be justified on the basis of experience and rational argument, and if necessary subjected to scrutiny and revision.

Now it seems to me that while Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman were central to the leadership the model worked pretty well. I remain proud of our interventions around the Anti Nazi League, miners’ strikes, poll tax and Stop the War, as well as many more localised campaigns and struggles.

But in recent years the model has perhaps been less successful. And the current crisis has thrown a number of things into question. If I had died this time last year, I should have died a loyal and happy party member. Now I am finding an increasing number of questions to worry about.

For example the slate system, which is a part of our “distinctive model”. I have always supported and defended the slate system, largely because I remember its predecessor, the “popularity poll” for a 40-person National Committee. But now I find myself wondering more and more whether it is the slate system which has given us a leadership consisting almost exclusively of party full-timers, with very little experience of trade union or workplace activity.

Thus Alex invokes “a leadership that has the confidence and authority to move faster than the bulk of members and doesn’t see itself as simply reflecting the arithmetical sum of opinions in the organisation”. I’m afraid my only answer is: if only!

Confidence and authority

Alex recalls the debates over Women’s Voice and the “downturn” from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now Alex was on the CC, while I was only a rank-and-file hobbledehoy, so it is inevitable that he will recall things slightly differently. But I should like to challenge a few points.

He recalls the way in which Cliff removed Chris Harman from the editorship of Socialist Worker at the time of the “punk paper” dispute. Now it is quite true that Cliff behaved in a wholly unscrupulous fashion at this point. And doubtless Alex is quite right to suggest that the restraint shown by Harman, Jefferys and himself may have helped to avert a split.

However, he omits one crucial point. The critics of the “punk paper” had particularly taken exception to the reduction of industrial coverage in the “punk paper”. When Cliff took over the editorship (though by all accounts he was a very bad editor) he did systematically improve industrial coverage – that is, he made substantial concessions to the critics. (This is described at greater length in chapter nine of my biography of Cliff.) Cliff had a great ability to listen and make concessions even while appearing to not do so. This was precisely because Cliff’s leadership had “confidence and authority”. I’m not so sure about his heirs.

Alex claims that “the time frame was quite short”, but on his own figures the connected debates about Women’s Voice and the downturn lasted for about three years. Again he rightly notes that “there was a price, in the departure of comrades who weren’t prepared to accept these decisions.” True, and such losses were regrettable, but they were relatively small. In 50 years’ membership I have never seen losses as substantial and disastrous as those of the last few months, not even at the time of the split with Jim Higgins in 1975.

In fact, despite the downturn, we began to rebuild the organisation with our excellent work at the time of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Whether we shall have such good fortune again is another matter. I think some comrades have a little too much faith in the principle that “there are more fish in the sea”.

Alex argues that though arguments can go on for ever, “in a revolutionary party discussion has to issue in action”. True, of course, but we have to note that there are different kinds of discussion. I disagree strongly with Alex about the dialectics of nature and the role of the embryonic proletariat in the French Revolution. Those disagreements will continue indefinitely and can never be resolved by a vote. On the other hand if the EDL are marching tomorrow we have to decide tonight how we shall respond. Everyone must accept the decision, though if there is a fuck-up we shall need to debate the lessons retrospectively.

Saving the party

The present debates are of a somewhat different nature. The current dispute arose from the report of the Disputes Committee in January. I continue to believe that a leadership with “confidence and authority” could have dealt with the situation in such a way as to limit the damage to the party. It did not. The decision taken by the Special Conference stands; it is too late to do anything about it. We have lost a lot of good, young members, and we shall not get them back.

The question now is what we are going to do about saving the party, something Alex and I both want to do. As Alex says “with leadership comes responsibility”. And while I am willing to accept that I, like all party members, share responsibility, the CC must take particular responsibility for recent events. Their stewardship has been singularly unsuccessful.

In my view we require a renewal and restructuring of the CC. Renewal in the sense of a change of personnel. Restructuring in terms of expanding the leadership to draw in comrades with campaigning and workplace experience. There is no fixed timescale for such decisions, but until they are taken we cannot begin to rebuild the party.

Alex in his final paragraph urges me to accept that “we both have a duty to ensure that, after a period of bruising internal debate, the SWP is reunited and turns outwards towards the struggles where we really live”. Maybe I am so bruised by debate that I have become cynical, but I cannot help interpreting this as a “duty” to persuade those who think as I do to shut up. Alex may genuinely believe his final paragraph is an olive branch – but on inspection I find few if any olives.

Technological possibilities

Finally, comrades may wonder why I am putting this reply on a blog rather than waiting till September to publish it in Socialist Review. The debate is going on now, comrades on all sides are deeply concerned about the issues, and it seems to me that it would be foolish to ignore the technological possibilities now open to us.

Revolutionaries have always seized the opportunities offered by technological advance in the field of communications. Babeuf and his supporters gave an important place to the semaphore telegraph in the egalitarian society they aspired to build. As early as 1895 Lenin was trying to organise access to the illegal printing press of the Narodnaya Volya group. The internet allows us to develop a debate that is much more rapid, responsive and extensive than printed publications. It would be strange if revolutionaries did not welcome such possibilities.

Some comrades may feel that I have touched on internal matters not appropriate for public consumption, and that I should wait till November to submit it to the Internal Bulletin. I would refer them to World News, the weekly journal of the British Communist Party, for the period from December 1956 to April 1957. This journal, on public sale, contained a more extensive discussion on the CP’s post-Hungary crisis than anything the SWP’s press, public or internal, has ever carried.

Those we work with, in campaigns and unions, those we try to bring to Marxism or hope to recruit, are aware of our internal disputes. If we expect them to trust us and work with us, they have a right to know what we are talking about.

Of course it is true that the party’s enemies will rejoice in, and seek to take advantage of, our problems. That is something that at least one comrade might have thought about at an earlier stage of the process.

But it is worth remembering Clara Zetkin’s words at the Third Congress of the Comintern when Radek argued that criticism of the March Action played into the hands of the Communist Party’s enemies: “For if we are prepared to accept as a criterion what our opponents make of the written or spoken utterances of us Communists, then we should never write a line, and never open our mouths, for our opponents will misrepresent everything.”

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