#M2013: Alex Callinicos on Leninism

Anindya Bhattacharyya writes:

Saturday evening in the Institute of Education’s Logan Hall saw Alex Callinicos speak on Leninism in the 21 century. The debate was a fractious and bad-tempered one that many comrades listening found confusing and demoralising. The demoralisation stemmed from the clear demonstration that the SWP was facing a crisis of unprecedented gravity. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the debate tangled together two related issues: the nature of Leninism today, and the questions raised by allegations of sexual harassment in the party and the way those allegations have been handled.

What follows is a summary of what Alex said and key points from the floor debate. I have attempted to untangle the issues and present an account that is fair but critical. I have tried to do this as best as I can given that my position on the latter set of questions lies unequivocally on the side of those who believe the allegations have not been handled correctly, and that it is this catastrophic failure that has precipitated the wider crisis.

Alex Callinicos’s lead-off

Alex began by noting he had recently been accused of evasion. He denied this, insisting that his aim was to point out a “clear and present danger”: that of a resurgent left reformism exemplified by figures such as Owen Jones, a prominent left wing Labour Party member, author and columnist.

He then proceeded to set out his case against left reformism, for Leninism, and for the particular interpretation of Leninist organisation that has been adopted by the SWP for the best part of three decades. He warned that the term “Leninism” was a problematic one, but insisted that there was nevertheless a “core” of Leninism that lay beneath the layers of contradictory discourse that obscured it.

Lenin’s greatness, Alex said, lay in the fact that he was the first Marxist to properly theorise the question of revolutionary organisation. This question arises because workers’ consciousness is diverse and “fragmented”. Alex characterised this diversity in almost wholly negative terms: it was a fragmentation induced by the fragmentation of the capitalist system itself, and it acted as a barrier to workers’ movements developing revolutionary consciousness of their own accord.

The Occupy-style street protests that have sprung up across the globe in recent years were an example of such fragmented and therefore weak movements, he said. Radical left parties such as Syriza in Greece were incapable of addressing these weaknesses because they fudged the question of reform versus revolution. Leninism, in contrast, offered a coherent solution to these weaknesses, especially those posed by the nature of the capitalist state and the centralised organisation adopted by the ruling class. The Leninist party was a means to an end, he stressed, a tool that could assemble the fragments into a totality capable of effectively challenging state power.

He then moved on to defend the SWP’s distinctive version of the Leninist party. He noted that the SWP was unusual in having a very small leading body – the Central Committee – invested with a great deal of executive power. But this was in fact a highly democratic arrangement, he claimed, since the CC is elected by a delegate conference held once a year, and was therefore annually accountable to that delegate conference.

Alex paid tribute to the intellectual and political abilities of John Rees, a former leading member of the party. But since John Rees had left the SWP he had broken with certain Marxist fundamentals, said Alex, particularly by claiming generalised forms of protest were as important as strikes by workers. Consequently John Rees was now acting as a cover for the insurgent left reformism Alex had been warning of. This demonstrated that the SWP’s model of Leninism was “precious” and should not be toyed with: life outside the party could only lead to the swamp of reformism.

Floor debate

The floor debate opened with a speaker who said the reason we in the SWP “punched above our weight” was that we were not a debating society or a talking shop. He insisted that our debates were confined to the pre-conference period, and that once those three months were over those with qualms about the party’s direction should be silent. The alternative to this discipline was “permanent factions”, which in fact stifled debate rather than encouraging it.

Rob Owen from south London SWP then spoke. He stated that the party had failed a test on the question of oppression, and had to acknowledge that failure in order to begin rectifying it. The solution to the crisis in the party was not three months of debate followed by diktat. We needed a broader CC and some humility. And we needed to prove in practice that we can unite and lead rather than merely declaring our intentions of doing so.

Paul M from east London SWP was up next. He warned of “dangers on both sides” of the arguments raging within the party. He stressed that we needed to be both open to debate and united in action. This was a difficult task and hard to get right. We could not perform this task by pretending to have a “monopoly over truth”. But neither could we perform it by jettisoning unity in action and becoming a talking shop.

Comrades from Spain and Liverpool spoke describing their struggles against austerity, fascism and war, and outlining how the Leninist party had been crucial in enabling and empowering those struggles.

Dan Swain from Norwich SWP spoke next. The point of the revolutionary party, he said, was to relate to diverse currents and fuse them into a coherent revolutionary force. In order to do this we must relate to all the most militant elements of society, and this relationship must be adequate. We cannot assume we are right – the party also learns from the class. That was why we had to reflect on why we had “failed to integrate” the young radical activists involved in recent street struggles.

Esme C, a health worker and leading member of the party, followed. She underlined Alex’s point that the party was not an end in itself, but a tool for struggle in the here and now. Flexibility was the key to combining the maximum debate with the most unified action. She outlined the way the party had worked within Unite Against Fascism in response to Islamophobia as an example of how this flexibility, debate and unity could be achieved.

Ron Margulies from DSIP, our Turkish sister organisation, spoke next. He noted how the absence of formal leadership in the recent Taksim Square occupation had allowed older, bureaucratic and more unrepresentative forces to take on that mantle of leadership instead. This was why it was so important for revolutionary socialists to conduct these argument within such movements as a matter of urgency.

Next up was John Molyneux, a prominent defender of the leadership’s recent actions. He backed Alex’s claim that left reformism was on the rise and was dangerous. But he further claimed that these reformist currents were now being reflected inside the party itself. The arguments were not about the sexual harassment disputes, he said, but about wider political issues. Those calling for “new thinking”, “new ideas”, “renewal” – he spat out each of these terms with audible contempt – had failed to explain what these new ideas might be.

John Molyneux was followed by Willie B from Edinburgh SWP. He denounced the notion that the divisions in the party were between doers who don’t think and thinkers who don’t do. And he said we should be a “debating society” in one sense: we should be an organisation that debates everything and everywhere. It’s not about the CC telling you what to think or issuing orders. He ended by quoting the late Julie Waterson’s exasperated reaction to a roomful of earnest men trading Lenin quotes: “Lenin’s fucking dead – we’re the Leninists now.”

Candy U from central London SWP spoke next. She underlined that if we weren’t capable of learning collectively, we won’t be able to unite and lead in practice. She warned that permanent factions would entrench divisions in the party to the point where they would be irreconcilable.

Candy was followed by Yunus Bakhsh, an SWP member in the north east of England and prominent worker militant who recently won an important tribunal victory over attempts by his employer to victimise him. This was not a “parlour game”, Yunus warned – it made a difference to people’s lives. Oppression in the workers’ movement could not be tolerated: he cited the example of the way a racist comment in a meeting of electricians had been handled. But he also said democratic decisions made by worker organisations should be binding on all members.

Ian Birchall, biographer of Tony Cliff and longstanding SWP member, was next. He said he agreed with 95% of what Alex had said, but that was hardly surprising since they had been in the same organisation for 40 years. But he criticised Alex for being “abstract” in the bad sense of the term: operating on a level of generality that failed to have any purchase on the situation.

A leadership should be confident and have authority, said Ian – nobody denies that or wants the opposite. But a confident leadership must be not run shy of listening to the other side, and must be capable of changing its mind when it gets it wrong. Lenin only managed to make a sharp turn with the April Theses because people knew his track record and trusted him. We’re in danger of losing that, said Ian. The pre-conference period should open now and, de facto, it already has. He ended with a call for proposals to renew and restructure the organisation that could be debated at our next conference.

The floor debate ended with Gareth J from Hackney SWP, who accused those raising internal questions of seeking an “internalised short cut of perfection of the party”.

Alex’s summing up

Alex’s summing up speech sent out a variety of messages in different directions. He acknowledged that the crisis in the party had been profound and painful. “I am part of a determined effort to address the complaints and learn the lessons from that,” he said.

Alex accused Rob Owen of using the dispute over sexual harassment in an opportunist manner in order to attack the party. But the party had got it right in recent months, Alex said, successfully reorienting from the 30 November 2011 public sector strike to the bedroom tax protests and the People’s Assembly. It was a “disgrace” that UAF was being used as a “factional football”.

He said Rob Owen was also seeking further a hidden agenda of “left regroupment” – fusing the SWP with other Leninist organisations which would only lead to the “micropolitics of sects”. Rob was ignoring existing vanguards in a vain search for new ones. Alex attacked the influence of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who recently argued that the “salaried bourgeoisie” were a new radical force. In contrast, Alex said the combative workers were the ones in public sector workplaces and unions such as PCS and NUT.

Alex conceded that the party should be prepared to experiment and acknowledged that there had been a collective failure by the party to integrate students. But that mistake stemmed not from failing listening to students, but from “flattering” them excessively. He contrasted the withering treatment he had received as a young student radical from Tony Cliff.

Alex criticised Ian Birchall on the grounds that intellectuals should never attack abstraction. In response to Willie B, he cited Cliff to the effect that there was no rank and file in the revolutionary party: every party member should lead outside in the class.

Alex ended by issuing a challenge to “comrades in the faction”. This was greeted with shouts from the audience: “Which faction? There are two factions.” Alex continued: Say what you will do if you fail. Are you going to carry on organising? He said he thought the opposition would fail – but urged oppositional comrades to remain in the party in that eventuality.

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