Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?

A discussion article by Ian Birchall, historian and author of Tony Cliff: a Marxist for his time

lenin

It is currently a commonplace on the left and not-so-left to announce that Leninism is dead. Indeed, one might wonder why it is necessary to keep repeating the point. Nobody is writing articles to explain that alchemy or social credit are dead. The enthusiasm to bury Leninism tells us that this is something that people want to be dead.

In most cases what they really want to commit to the grave is the experience of 1917 and its aftermath. In the years following 1917 a revolutionary wave swept across Europe. The Russian Revolution, whatever its limitations, offered tremendous hope to working people that the system that had produced the slaughter of 1914-1918 could be replaced by a world based on cooperation and planning in the common interest.

Those of us who, today, want to replace the market economy with a society where working people run the world for themselves, will echo Lenin’s words from 1917:

At all costs, we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called “upper classes”, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society.

If we get into an argument about whether workers can run the world, we may cite the Paris Commune, Spain 1936-37, Hungary 1956 or Portugal 1974-75. But pretty soon we shall come back to October 1917.

And for the Revolution’s friends and enemies alike, the name Lenin serves as a symbol of the achievements of the Russian Revolution. Without the Revolution Lenin would have been a nobody, perhaps the subject of an obscure PhD on organisational debates in Russian Marxism, but certainly not a guide, authority and “great teacher”.

It is fascinating, if ultimately futile, to ask what would have happened in Russia in 1917 if Lenin had not been there. Three points in particular can be emphasised:

  1. Lenin’s ability to grasp the new conjuncture created by the February Revolution and the fact that, as he argued in the April Theses, it was possible to move directly to working-class power.
  2. The fact that, because of consistent activity over the previous twenty years, there was a party, in which he could argue for the new perspective. Without a party, Lenin’s words would have been wasted.
  3. And finally, Lenin’s political self-confidence was such that he welcomed into the party leadership people who were prepared to stand up to him, notably his old adversary Trotsky. Lenin thought that the party itself should call the insurrection. Trotsky, who had greater experience than Lenin of the soviets, had to persuade him that the party’s support alone was not broad enough, and that the call should come from the soviets.

But for Lenin the Revolution was made by the working class; he vigorously rejected any suggestion that any political force could replace it:

To be successful, revolutionary insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy, and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.

The phrase “and not upon a party” may be a bit perplexing to those who have been brought up to think of “Leninism” and “party-building” as synonymous.

Freedom versus the state

What distinguished Lenin as a revolutionary above all was his theory of the state. His State and Revolution, written when insurrection was just weeks away, is his most important work. Not only did it make clear than the transfer of power could not be contained within the existing institutions of the society, it also made clear that socialism cannot be equated with state control of the economy. Lenin summed up his position with the words: “So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.”

To understand the originality and significance of Lenin’s view of the state, it is useful to see how he was perceived by his contemporaries, some of whom had come to support the Russian Revolution from very different political traditions.

Victor Serge had been a hardline anarchist before 1914, taking positions that were elitist and even anti-working class; then he had been active with Spanish syndicalists at the time of the Barcelona insurrection. On arriving in Russia he rallied to the Bolsheviks, who, though they represented an alien political current, were at the very heart of the action. In 1924, just after Lenin’s death, he wrote a pamphlet Lenin In 1917 in which the former anarchist summarised Lenin’s view of the state as follows:

… there is only a difference between the Bolsheviks and the Anarchists over the means, and not over the end; … it is necessary to smash the bourgeois state; … it is necessary to create a profoundly new revolutionary state, the first glimpse of which was given to us by the Paris Commune.

Alfred Rosmer was a syndicalist journalist; he met Trotsky in Paris during the First World War, but had no contact with the Bolsheviks until he arrived in Russia in 1920. He described the impact of the newly published State and Revolution on the European socialist movement:

Some copies of a book by Lenin called State and Revolution had arrived in France early in 1919. It was an extraordinary book and it had a strange destiny. Lenin, a Marxist and a Social Democrat, was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians of the socialist parties which claimed to be Marxist. “It isn’t Marxism,” they shrieked, “it’s a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism”. One of them even found a witty turn of phrase and called it “Blanquism with sauce tartare”. On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism, sauce and all, was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew.

zetkinetc

Leadership, mistakes, splits

Rosmer and Serge also give us a fascinating picture of Lenin’s leadership style. Rosmer recounts his first meeting with Lenin:

One remark he made suddenly revealed to me the secret of the exceptional position he held in his party, and of the predominant influence he had got there. As we were talking about the Zimmerwaldian minority in the French Socialist Party, he said to me, “It’s time for them to leave the Party now to form the French Communist Party; they’ve waited too long already.” I replied that this was not the view of the leaders of the minority. Previously they had sometimes been impatient to leave the Party en bloc, but the recent Strasbourg conference had been so favourable that they were now opposed to the idea of leaving. They had hopes of becoming the majority quite soon. “If that’s the case,” he said, “I must have written something stupid in my theses. Ask for a copy of them at the secretariat of the Communist International and send me the corrections you are proposing.”

This willingness to learn, the readiness to accept that he had been mistaken and to change his mind, were an essential part of what made Lenin such an exceptional leader. Serge testifies to Lenin’s ability to work collectively, to learn from his comrades:

Lenin, Trotsky, Karl Radek, and Bukharin had, beyond any doubt, become the brains of the Revolution. They spoke the same Marxist language, and had the same background of experience with the socialism of Europe and America. Consequently they understood one another so well, by the merest hints, that they seemed to think collectively. (And it is a fact that the party drew its strength from collective thinking.)

Another witness to Lenin’s leadership skills was Clara Zetkin, the veteran German socialist. In 1921 the German Communist Party launched an adventurist insurrectionary strike which led to disaster and massive loss of membership. One of the Party’s leaders, Paul Levi, publicly attacked his own party and was disciplined. The question, naturally, was central to the Third Congress of the Communist International three months later.

Zetkin, who agreed with Levi’s analysis, but had stayed with the party framework, recorded her discussions with Lenin, and his insistence on the need for compromise; he told her:

As far as the probable attitude of the Congress to the “March action” is concerned, you must realize that it is essential to have a basis for compromise. You will have to be content with the lion’s share of the Congress spoils. The principles of your policy will triumph, triumph brilliantly. And that will prevent a repetition of the “March action.” …

The Congress will utterly destroy the famous “theory of the offensive”, will adopt the tactics which correspond to your ideas. But for that very reason it must also distribute some crumbs of consolation to the adherents of that theory. If in criticising the “March action” we emphasise the fact that the workers fought under provocation from the lackeys of the bourgeoisie, and if, in general, we show a somewhat fatherly “historical” leniency, that will be possible. You, Clara, will condemn that as hushing it up and so on. But that won’t help you. If the tactics to be decided upon by the Congress are agreed upon as quickly as possible, and with no great friction, becoming the guiding principle for the activity of the Communist Parties, our dear leftists will go back not too mortified and not too embittered. We must also – and indeed first and before all – consider the feelings of the real revolutionary workers both within and outside the Party …

“Well, we shan’t deal roughly with the leftists, we shall put some balm on their wounds instead. Then they will soon be working happily and energetically with you in carrying out the policy of the Third Congress of our International.

Lenin had organised a number of splits in his time, but here he realised that the important thing was to hold the German Communist Party and the Comintern together. Splitting is a lot easier than pulling together, which is why his self-styled followers have usually found it easier to imitate him by splitting.

Was Lenin a Leninist?

Like the rest of us, Lenin was a complex human being with weaknesses and limitations. He had an underdeveloped aesthetic sense and was given to telling mother-in-law jokes that were in bad taste if not sexist. As CLR James put it, Lenin was “neither God nor Stalin”.

That Lenin was an important revolutionary leader, and that his life and work repay study, are scarcely in doubt. But what of “Leninism”? Marx famously protested that he was not a Marxist; would Lenin have proclaimed himself a Leninist? There is good reason to think he would not.

Serge quotes Kamenev, who edited the first edition of Lenin’s Collected Works, as saying that Lenin was opposed to the project, believing there was no point collecting obscure writings from many years earlier. And in 1922, the last time he spoke to the Communist International, Lenin told delegates that the resolution on organisation “is too Russian, it reflects the Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners, and they cannot be content with hanging it in a corner like an icon and praying to it.” He was applauded with great affection; whether anyone was listening is a different matter.

After Lenin’s death the term “Leninism” was rapidly promoted by both Zinoviev, at a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, and by Stalin, in a series of lectures called Foundations of Leninism (1924). In the plodding banal style which makes his work virtually unreadable, Stalin informed the world:

And so, what is Leninism? Some say that Leninism is the application of Marxism to the conditions that are peculiar to the situation in Russia. This definition contains a particle of truth, but not the whole truth by any means. Lenin, indeed, applied Marxism to Russian conditions, and applied it in a masterly way. But if Leninism were only the application of Marxism to the conditions that are peculiar to Russia it would be a purely national and only a national, a purely Russian and only a Russian, phenomenon. We know, however, that Leninism is not merely a Russian, but an international phenomenon rooted in the whole of international development.

second-anniversary

It was indeed central to Stalinism to claim the legacy of Lenin, in order to legitimise the new ruling class that emerged by 1928 as the sole true heir of October 1917. But for Stalin’s opponents the claim to be the heirs of Lenin was equally pressing, and far more legitimate.

When a supporter said to Trotsky “If only Lenin had lived! You would be with him to this day in Moscow!” Trotsky reputedly replied: “Not at all, he would be with me in Mexico.” In the mid-1930s the early British Trotskyists called themselves “the British Bolshevik-Leninists” – a bit like calling oneself an “agricultural farmer”. The Trotskyists were on the defensive, faced with a massive wave of Stalinist lies and slanders. Their insistence that they represented the true continuity with the politics of Lenin was a necessary and legitimate response.

At the time of the split between Russia and China in the early 1960s something similar happened. The Maoists again claimed legitimacy by calling themselves “Marxist-Leninists”. Maoism proved itself to be just as prone to splintering as Trotskyism, but usually the Communist Party of Ruritania Marxist-Leninist would be the group in Ruritania that was most Stalinist and most loyal to Beijing. As recently as the 1980s an oppositional group in the British Communist Party, forerunner of today’s Weekly Worker, published a paper called The Leninist.

It is commonly said that in 1968 the International Socialists, forerunners of the SWP, turned from Luxemburgism to Leninism. This is an oversimplification – “Luxemburgism” is an even more slippery concept that Leninism. What did happen is that IS made efforts to turn itself into an interventionist organisation – a decision amply justified by the events of the following few years (Saltley pickets, Pentonville Five, miners’ strike bringing down the Heath government, Chilean coup, Portuguese revolution). If Cliff and the rest of us were inspired and guided by Lenin, so much the better – though as I recall in those days we talked a lot about Lenin and not much about “Leninism”. (However, to claim that an organisational form chosen in 1968 remains appropriate for 2014 strikes me as distinctly “unLeninist”. But that is another story.)

Organisational truisms; tasks ahead

So there are many claimants to the label “Leninism”, and many arguments about who can claim it most legitimately. But is there a coherent body of thought that can be defined as “Leninism”? As Tony Cliff pointed out, “Authority by quotation is nowhere less justified than in the case of Lenin. If he is cited on any tactical or organizational question, the concrete issues that the movement was facing at the time must be made absolutely clear.” (Whether Cliff always heeded his own warning is not so certain.)

That Lenin made the question of organisation central is undeniable. But to reduce “Leninism” to the truism “we’ve got to get organised” is a bit thin. And on the question of how we should be organised he was extremely flexible. The whole of Cliff’s study of Lenin is a sustained polemic against the myth of “the Leninist party”. There is no such thing; Lenin’s party varied enormously in form according to circumstances.

Since the end of the Cold War a great deal of historical work has enabled us to refresh our understanding of Lenin, and get away from traditional stereotypes. Whatever reservations one may have about the work of Lars T Lih (in my view Lih overstates the continuities in Lenin, and does not bring out sufficiently his ability to learn from the class), he has undoubtedly enriched our understanding of Lenin. Pierre Broué’s history of the Comintern and John Riddell’s carefully edited recordings of the proceedings of its first four congresses mean that many of the old clichés must be abandoned or rethought. A recent study by Eric Blanc challenges the view of Lenin as the source of all wisdom on support for national liberation.

I would argue therefore that the term “Leninism” may be a positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organisation we need for the coming decades.

Being a revolutionary socialist in the 21st century rests on some essential propositions: (a) if the structures of society are not radically transformed in the direction of cooperation and equality we face barbarism; (b) any such change requires the active participation of a substantial proportion of the exploited and oppressed; (c) the process of change will overspill andeventually destroy the existing political structures of society.

Nothing there that Lenin would disagree with (though he died too soon to see the full potential for barbarism). But it leaves a great many questions unanswered. History does not repeat itself and all revolutions are surprises. The future is not scripted in advance so that all the revolutionary party needs to do is learn its lines and make sure it turns up on stage at the right moment.

Among the many open questions facing those trying to develop a revolutionary organisation in the present period, I would mention three:

  1. How do we combine the maximum democracy (so that the organisation can draw on its members’ experience) with the structures that permit a rapid and coordinated response to events?
  2. How do we liberate the initiative and imagination of new comrades while enabling the organisation to educate them by drawing on the knowledge and experience of long-standing members?
  3. How do we build united fronts that combine the broadest possible unity with the maximum political clarity about the objectives of the campaign?

There are many more. They are questions of balance, of art not science, which cannot be resolved by a neat formulation or a quote from the classic texts. A study of Lenin – as part of a much broader historical study – will undoubtedly be of value, but will provide no readymade solutions.

At some point in the future we shall undoubtedly need centralised political organisation to focus all the different forms of struggle against the most concentrated form of capitalist power, the state. But it is hardly the problem at present. Our first task is much more basic, to rebuild the revolutionary left in a difficult period. So I shall end with a quote, not from Lenin, but from William Morris (who had a lot more in common with Lenin than admirers of his wallpaper might imagine): “We believe then, that it should be our special aim to make Socialists.”

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 edition of rs21 magazine

There are 91 comments

  1. Ray B

    Without a rise in class struggle in the UK then left reformism is just as limited potentially as rebuilding rank and file organisation. In Greece, Syriza has grown out of the fight back not in spite of it. Unless there’s a revolutionary alternative to reformist ideas when there is a rise in struggle then its much easier for the bureaucracy to drag the movement (that includes left reformists) towards accommodation with the state. On the hand, simply denouncing reformists will cut revolutionaries off from those who want to fight but have not yet embraced a revolutionary solution. That is particularly self-defeating during a rise in struggle when left ideas are growing in a volatile situation.

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  2. Sparky

    That is true Ray B, but arguing that the trade union leaders want to fight, rather than at times they are forced to fight, is following the tragic line of the CP in 1926. It wasn’t that the CP were not brave fighters, they were, the problem was the Centrist direction of their politics. Of course if you believe the main task is to act as a ginger group or broad left then building the rank and file is not central. The tragic consequences of this political position was demonstrated in 1926.

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  3. Ray B

    To restate, there’s no contradiction in calling on the bureaucracy to fight and building rank and file organisation. Claiming that all of the TU leadership are sell-outs is completely sectarian and a false simplification of a much more complex set of circumstances. You’re confusing the objective tendency for the labour aristocracy to accommodate to the state with the subjective behaviour of individual parts of that bureaucracy who vacillate during periods of escalating struggle (should that develop.) To not take advantage of that indecisiveness is to squander the opportunity to influence the subjective conditions and pull workers towards more radical solutions. How this strategy is used in any given situation is open to debate but I doubt anyone on the left will take seriously your comparison between the SWP now and the influence of Stalinism on the CP’s strategy in 1926. It smacks of throwing any kind of denunciation in the hope that something might stick!

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  4. Sparky

    The point is Ray B that there is nothing new in using left wing language to claim we are in “new times”, that the bureaucracy are compelled to fight with or without pressure from below.
    As the General Strike 1926 book says, it was wrong then, and is wrong now.

    As Cliff/Gluckstein say:
    “Of course the bureaucracy is not homogeneous. Union officials in different industries find themselves under varying pressures from below and above. Again, ideologically, union officials are not the same. The division between left and right-wing union officials is significant. Splits in the bureaucracy – between unions or within a union – can weaken its conservative influence.
    The fundamental fact, however, overriding all differences between bureaucrats, is that they belong to a conservative social stratum, which, especially at times of radical crisis – as in the 1926 General Strike – makes the differences between left and right-wing bureaucrats secondary. At such times all sections of the bureaucracy seek to curb and control workers’ militancy.”

    It is the same built in cowardice that Billy Hayes of the CWU showed when calling off the postal workers strike against Privatisation, as that shown by Purcell, Hicks, Swales (and to a lesser extent AJ Cook).
    Whichever era you look at, in a crisis, left wing “firebrands” back down, you can see the same process with Jones and Scanlon in the 1970’s.

    Stalinism is thankfully gone, but we cannot replace it with a more leftwing Centrism.

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  5. Ray B

    “Stalinism is thankfully gone, but we cannot replace it with a more leftwing Centrism.”

    It seems pretty obvious to point out that we’re not in an upturn in struggle like the General Strike. Regarding the demise of Stalinism, the campist positions taken by some on the left over Ukraine leaves that open to question sadly.

    The SWP and many on the rev left, including I assume RS21, have condemned the decision to call off strikes where this has occurred. The evidence of this position is clearly outlined in a variety of SWP publications not least, SW. If you want to claim that these published condemnations are concealing reformist practice then what is the evidence? Simply quoting Cliff does not prove this especially when one of the authors of the book you quoted has an article in the latest ISJ concerning this subject. The way the SWP implements this strategy is open to debate but to claim that it no longer supports it is completely misleading.

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  6. Sparky

    We could be in an upturn of struggle if your Unite the Resistance man Comrade Hayes had fought instead of selling a no strike agreement to the postal workers instead. Around the same time the PCS, NUT and FBU called off action, (though the fire-fighters forced the re-instatement of action).
    The line that the bureaucrats lack confidence is a sick joke, it is the workers who face pay cuts, pension cuts, job losses and loosing their homes, not the trade union leaders.

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  7. James

    Sparky cliff. Book on Marxist internet archive and advertised as such on the latest socialist review..calling it one of the sharpest books on the trade union officials..so you will need to get some other “evidence”!

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  8. Ray B

    The debate about how revolutionary socialists should organise had been going on long before 1957 which was specifically precipitated by Stalinist foreign policy. There are historical examples that are much more relevant to contemporary debates that occurred among revolutionaries during the period that Lenin developed his concept of the party. No one on the rev left is now arguing for a Stalinist organisation despite some on the left falling into campist positions over the Ukraine.

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  9. Michael Rosen

    Ray B., if you read what Christopher Hill et al were writing about, I think you’ll see that the wordl ‘precipitated by Stalinist foreign policy’ doesn’t fit the bill. To take my own parents as an example, they were in favour of ‘Stalinist foreign policy’ but opposed to the way democratic centralism was run in the party. The key features to emerge from the 1957 discussion was a) the ‘slate’ method of choosing several members to the executive as a package b) a secret ‘political committee’ which wasn’t elected which determined the ‘line’ and c) the weighting of full-timers both on the EC and the very committee that was supposed to be looking into the question of ‘inner party democracy’. None of this has anything to do with Hungary etc. so I’m not sure why, Ray B., you should want to brush it away like that.

    To my mind, those discussions then are particularly relevant to anyone or any group trying to figure out the best ways to organise on the radical left. So far, we haven’t cracked it, have we? If we’d’ve cracked it, the radical left wouldn’t have been made up of a handful of groupuscules for the last 50 years, none of which has succeeded in retaining its members. If we’re serious about facing up to why that might be, then part of the answer should be to investigate why that might be. I regard the usual one of blaming the ‘conditions’ or the ‘balance of class forces’ as a cop out.

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  10. Ray B

    Michael, the problem with your theory is that you separate the Stalinist policies of the CP from the way it was organised and proceed from there to generalise about the left over the last 50 years. This ahistorical approach to political organisation has more in common with Stalinism than you are willing to recognise.

    When you state as a question that “we haven’t cracked it” I assume you are referring to some holy grail of organisation that exists outside of subjective conditions. Perhaps that’s why you view them as a “cop out”. Your inference is that there are those on the rev left who believe they have already “cracked it.” I’d like to know who they are because I certainly haven’t met them yet.

    The only places where the left has grown has been in conjunction with workers fighting back for example in Greece. Throughout the West, reformist currents have shrunk as social democratic parties have embraced the market. The various non-aligned movements have dissipated despite some on the left heralding them as forms of organisation that might revive the left. In that context it’s surprising that you view the lack of growth as a case of poor organisation. Where is the class analysis?

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  11. art

    Michael’s contribution is very dissapointing in that it reeks of a lofty and rather pompous dismissal of those trying to build revolutionary organisation. It isn’t a cop out to cite how the world has changed and the impact on the left of social democracies embracement of neo liberalism and connected impact of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall etc. Alongside that in the UK the long shadow of the miners defeat still has an impact years after many of us thought it would. To say these dont matter and its irrelevant how militant and confident workers are to fight their own bosses and this has no connection to how succesful a radical and revolutionary left can be is of course a variant of idealism. How many times has one heard in campaigns etc that if only we did something new and different everyone would come flocking to the struggle when in reality it is the prospect of winning that can turn large numbers of workers and students into an audience for radical ideas. Michael unfortunately gives no alternative which he says can suddenly transform the propects of the revolutionary and radical left. His organisation left unity is mired in its internal world and with a deep sectarianism towards working with others on the left. Perhaps Michael should look at his own organisation before sniping at others.

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  12. Michael Rosen

    James, I’m not a masochist. Ray B argues with me point by point. He clearly disagrees with me but doesn’t go in for personal abuse. That’s why I’ve replied to him and I hope we go on talking. He might convince me. I’m thinking about what he’s saying. art has a personal agenda and I really don’t have to join that one, do I? Thanks for asking though.

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  13. Ray B

    It’s important to have this debate in as fraternal a way as possible not least because of the still recent conflict in the SWP. But this debate didn’t happen in a vacuum and that’s what is so frustrating about blanket condemnations of democratic centralism. There is a tendency to separate the issue of organisation from political activity in these debates. Especially among those who are proposing a reformist strategy. For example, Ed Rooksby’s opposition to those on the left critical of left reformism is based on characterising Stalinism as the logic of “Leninism” when, as Paul Blackledge explains, it has a lot in common with those who believe the capitalist state can be reformed whether along more democratic lines or in its state capitalist bureaucratic form.

    In many ways this debate is the healthy consequence of the search for solutions to building a new movement by those who are recent to activism. But there is also the very unhealthy opportunism of those who have old scores to settle with revolutionary socialists. In either case, this is an ideological struggle over how to organise. Which is why, at times, the debate has become very antagonistic just as it did in the past. And while the struggle in the CP in ’57 is an example of this conflict it’s not the most useful one now unless the intention is to characterise the leadership of contemporary democratic centralist organisations as inherently Stalinist. In which case such generalisations will invariably encourage equally unhelpful and dismissive responses.

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  14. todd

    Ok lets remove the first sentence and the last and see if Michael would respond to the points raised by a previous post?

    It isn’t a cop out to cite how the world has changed and the impact on the left of social democracies embracement of neo liberalism and connected impact of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall etc. Alongside that in the UK the long shadow of the miners defeat still has an impact years after many of us thought it would. To say these dont matter and its irrelevant how militant and confident workers are to fight their own bosses and this has no connection to how succesful a radical and revolutionary left can be is of course a variant of idealism. How many times has one heard in campaigns etc that if only we did something new and different everyone would come flocking to the struggle when in reality it is the prospect of winning that can turn large numbers of workers and students into an audience for radical ideas. Michael unfortunately gives no alternative which he says can suddenly transform the propects of the revolutionary and radical left.

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  15. Michael Rosen

    I think that the ‘radical left’ (not my term but it was the one that Alex C. used in his article in ISJ about where we are) find it very difficult to deal with oppression in its own organisations. Our own analysis of how oppression comes out of capitalism should tell us that none of us is immune. Even as we resist it, we might ourselves reproduce it. Linked to this is the matter of how we view what we call ‘political activity’. In anthropological terms, it is analogous to other kinds of ‘comings together’ and production of artefacts. So, our meetings and conferences and benefits are in that sense not different from other people’s equivalents. Our leaflets, papers, and speeches are analogous to equivalents too. So, the radical left – no matter what kinds of sense it makes through the activisms themselves, is perceived and judged in an anthropological way too. If it looks as if we do not address the whole of lived life, that we are engaged with the ‘everyday’ (in the marxist sense – Lefebvre etc) then we are judged on that matter too.

    Apols this is so brief.

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  16. rs21

    todd/art/Janet – we don’t mind you posting under pseudonym on these threads but please pick one handle and stick with it. changing your username to make it look as if there’s more than one of you is a pretty shabby tactic. if you persist we’ll just ban you.

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  17. Ray B

    Based on what you’ve argued here and on your blog, Michael, your CP example comes from the perspective that democratic centralism is intrinsically Stalinist. Even among the highly contested theories of anthropology that kind of ahistorical generalisation is untenable. This line of argument existed long before the internet came along and, while the internet may have allowed wider access to information more generally which has resulted in some interesting studies, it has also cultivated a tendency among activists in search of new (perhaps modish) ideas to connect disparate theories in a superficial way that gloss over or ignore the contradictions in their ideas. I don’t think the cut and paste approach, accelerated by the internet, to contemporary academic writing especially among cultural theorists helps clarify our understanding of how to rebuild the left. When an organisation and its members are being held to account it’s equally important to understand the perspective of that account which in your case I do not agree with.

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  18. Michael Rosen

    Thanks for that, Ray B. First up, you seem to have a problem with the ‘cut and paste’ culture. I’m not sure why this is any worse (or any better) than the practice we are all guilty (or innocent of) which is combing through texts for evidence for our arguments. If it was an argument with me, then can I assure you that a) the documents from 1957 are not on the internet. The Minority Report (Christopher Hill et al) is, as far as I’ve been able to find out, only available in very few libraries and perhaps in some private collections. I was able to get a photocopy from (from memory) the Working Class Movement Library. b) all my comments about the WRP in this context come from long conversations with ex-WRP members c) re Militant – conversations with people who had been ‘close’ to Militant d) re SWP – talking with present and ex-members, reading articles in print and online. I’m not sure why you think I would think about this sort of thing ahistorically. There hasn’t been room or time here to tease out the differences between each of these episodes. Likewise, the history of democratic centralism. In fact, this was indeed a subject tackled by the CP in those days, where the argument against the Minority Report was that d.c. was rooted in the ‘British’ trade union movement. Of course I know and understand that there have been various forms to this and will go on being so.

    Now to the argument about ‘oppression’. I would suggest that any of us who call ourselves marxists would benefit from a bit of humility in this field. Many advances in thinking about how and why people oppress each other have been made by people who do not call themselves marxists. What’s more, if we tie oppression to exploitation and class in every instance, I suggest that we will find this unsustainable when we put such a template over millions of people’s everyday experience. So, to take one example: teachers in schools at the moment are experiencing bullying from school ‘management’. This bullying can come from men to women, women to men, men to men, women to women. It can be from white to black, black to white, white to white, black to black. It’s clear that in the present context of the hegemony of ‘management’ ideas, in the context of neoliberal ideology about competition etc, then within the public sector, these forms of oppression are going on. People who were last week our colleagues become managerial ogres. They take up various form of oppression and harassment etc. What also takes place in some instances are classic consequences of oppression namely ‘self-blame’ where the victim ‘internalises’ the values of the oppressor. These insights were achieved more often than not by people who were not classic marxists, people who did indeed look at the particular historical nature of these processes (e.g. within slavery and post-slavery) and we can see forms (not the same ones) in operation e.g. within a single school. My argument is that left organisations are not immune from this as evidenced by the examples I’ve given. By no means am I suggesting that these should be considered ahstorically. In fact, like you, I would argue that in order to understand the particular kinds of oppression going on, we would get to grips with it all the more if we did consider them in their respective conditions. And, as it happens, that’s what I see as lacking in any of the analyses I’ve seen to do with what happened e.g. in the SWP. It just ‘happened’. Processes have been put in place which will prevent it happening again, without us knowing why they did, or indeed how was it possible for people who knew all the arguments for why it was wrong, could indeed do what they did. But that’s not a discussion to have with me, Better to have that with the people who left and who are still scratching their heads on this matter. If you think that there is nothing that anthropologists or such people as Foucault or Freud can offer, so be it. If you think that all the answers are within the texts of classic marxists and only in those texts, then can I suggest to you that, for example, many of the texts enjoyed and loved by e.g. Marx (we happen to call them ‘fiction’) are not ‘classic marxist’ texts, but offer insights into how and why people behave towards each other (in specific historic instances) in oppressive ways.

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  19. Ray B

    Whether or not you have undertaken exhaustive research into the history of democratic centralist organisations on the left is not the point. You still make false comparisons and jump to wrong conclusions about this subject because you claim that subjective conditions are a “cop out”.

    If you attended any recent Marxisms or read any recent SWP literature such as the ISJ then you would be aware that your claim that the SWP is dismissive of non-marxists who have contributed to an understanding of oppression is patently false. You refer to a text by Alex Callinicos in one of your posts. He has published over the years many books that are rich in critical analysis of other marxist and non-marxist theories about identity, morality, cultural theory, history and numerous other subjects. Just one example of SWP members treating these subjects seriously. There have been debates about reproduction theory, transgender rights and the origins of women’s oppression in the ISJ in the past and more recently. Yet you claim that the SWP doesn’t engage with any of these issues.

    If you insist on misrepresenting the SWP in this way then it comes as no surprise that you can’t or won’t distinguish the difference between a poorly handled disputes case involving a leading SWP member and Stalinism. Having been involved in the LGBT movement since the early ’80’s when we would get jeered at on Pride marches and more recently working with the Occupy movement and the Bank of Ideas organising an art show with other students at Chelsea College of Art I won’t take any lectures from you about the nuances of oppression and cultural theory. When someone disagrees with you Michael be aware that they don’t always do so from a position of ignorance.

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    1. Michael Rosen

      Whoaa, Ray, where does it say in my last post that it was the SWP that wasn’t looking at what non-marxists were saying? I have read a good deal of Alex’s work. I read ISJ. I read Socialist Review. I read Socialist Worker. My argument was with you – (I didn’t if you’re in the SWP or not) – and with what you said in reply to what I said about oppression. What I said about the SWP was specifically about how it had dealt with (or not dealt with) the events of the previous few years which indeed were in part about oppressive behaviour. So you’ve conflated several things in order to make another point.

      My point about what you call ‘my researches’ was a reply to your accusation that I had done a ‘cut and paste’ job. If you think I draw the wrong conclusions from the different episodes I refer to, that’s fine. As it happens I didn’t think I had really begun to draw any conclusions… As I said, the historical specifics of these different organisations haven’t been teased out yet.

      I know it’s hell for members of one marxist groupuscule to be ever compared to the behaviour of another marxist groupuscule. I have a clear memory of an interesting conversation at an SWP meeting about why and how the events in France of 1968 failed because there wasn’t, said the member, the ‘right’ revolutionary leadership. I posited that there were at least five organisations offering what they said at the time was the ‘right’ revolutionary leadership including at least one which members of IS had ‘approved of’ at the time…so what wasn’t ‘right’ about the leadership being offered in 1968? I’m still thinking about this one too…

      As for ‘ignorance’…perhaps you should look back at what I was saying and not make big leaps from what I was saying to what you would like me to be saying – so that you can make a completely different point.

      As I said before, your argument with people arguing with the SWP is not really with me. There’s a much more serious one: with the young members who left and with the old longstanding members with decades of experience, reading and knowledge who left. What they’ve said in private and in public is much more serious than anything I think or have said.

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  20. Ray B

    I’ve based my replies on the explicit and implicit meaning in your comments. The fact that your CP example leads on to your condemnation of the SWP’s position on oppression confirms that. I think you’re now trying to move the goal posts because I’ve pointed out the fallacy in your argument rather than admit that you haven’t got a case to make. What I object to is others using (my) oppression as a sectarian stick to beat socialists with. My only responsibility in this case is to challenge the cold war canards about “Leninism” that your comparison raises.

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    1. Michael Rosen

      On that basis, Ray, none of us would ever make any comparisons of anything in case it might be inferred by people like you that we were making ‘implicit’ and ‘ahistorical’ analogies….even when we say quite explicitly, several times, that the historical differences are yet to be teased out. So, really, that way of arguing is just a means of silencing people.

      I sense that your phrase ‘I’ve pointed out the fallacy of your argument’ needs to be taken up with members of the exodus from the SWP not with me. I’ve been around the left so long that most of the people who’ve said to me from left groups that they’ve ‘pointed out the fallacy of my arguments’ that they’ve given up on left groups and gone off to be experts on lawns or beer or hard discs. They’re not even here for you to argue with them. Excuse me then, if I take that kind of rhetoric with a pinch of salt.

      To repeat, to date, neither you or anyone else in the SWP seem to be able to explain in marxist terms why or how a group of people thoroughly versed in all the marxist arguments about oppression could end up acting in oppressive ways. It really is that simple. If they are ‘mistakes’, why or how could they have been made? You presumably think that the particular form of democratic centralism within the SWP is in no way responsible. So what was? The betrayal of social democracy? The defeat of the miners? Or what? I may well be miles offbeam on this matter. But then it wasn’t me doing it, was it? In the meantime, part of the raison d’être of your organisation is to come to people outside of the organisation and recruit them…in part because you have the ‘right’ line on oppression. But if there isn’t an analysis of the oppression in your own backyard, why should we potential recruits believe you?

      I suggest again that classical marxism does not have a ready answer on all matters of oppression. You’ll remember that Trotsky invented the concept of ‘relative autonomy’ in order to wrestle the ‘arts’ free of economic or material determinism. Some might argue that this was ‘ahistorical’ or that it let subjectivism in through the back door having kicked it out the front and yet I’ve heard marxists explain why this description had explanatory power. I suspect that the fact it was Trotsky saying this and not a suspect marxisant professor from the Sorbonne made it much more palatable. Who knows, this kind of flexibility might be possible with ‘oppression’ and people might find some explanations that work. Mind you, if no explanation is hazarded, then there’s no progress is there?

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  21. Michael Rosen

    By the way, on the matter of the worth of democratic centralism, on a scale of 1-5, how well do you think it’s done since it was first invented? How well has the theory turned out in practice? How well has the practice proved the theory right?

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  22. Ray B

    On a more conciliatory note, one of the greatest problems with the internet is that it encourages a cut and paste approach to research and debate. The credence that is now given to comments of 140 characters illustrates that tendency. It’s a tendency that influences everyone including myself. Even though I sometimes feel compelled to engage in threads like this on different left blogs I’m regularly reminded during the course of these debates how limited they are in actually facilitating fraternal debate.

    This isn’t helped by an ongoing ideological struggle by the state and the market to influence and control information, especially the internet. I think the atomised engagement of individuals with the internet facilitates this phenomenon. On that basis I believe organising collectively and having these debates in person has become even more important not less. So a blog debate about the relevance of “Leninism” holds a certain irony.

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  23. Ray B

    You seem to be determined to drag this thread about “Leninism” into a shouting match reminiscent of your other haunt, socialist unity. When people disagree with each other that doesn’t mean they are closing down debate. I can’t help it if you feel indignant that I called your comparison fallacious. I call it how I see it. If you want to “tease this out” and win people to your point of view (you definitely have one despite asserting the importance of impartiality) then do a more convincing job.

    I’ve been addressing your analogy between the CP in 1957 and the dispute in the SWP which I think trivialises what was at stake for socialists fighting against Stalinist hegemony of the left during that period and repeats some of the Cold War canards trotted out by liberals who have their own axe to grind. Your attempts to manoeuvre this debate into a condemnation of the SWP only reinforces that conclusion. I don’t believe the narrative of the dispute or the conclusions you have promoted. If you don’t accept the conclusions reached by the majority of SWP members concerning the dispute, the way it was handled and how to prevent mistakes in the future then that’s up to you but please don’t hide behind the comrades who left to disguise grinding your own axe.

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  24. Ray B

    No, my last post shows that I don’t have to conduct this debate by your rules which appear to be do as I say not as I do. If you want to conduct a debate about the kind of organisation we need please don’t pretend you don’t have a stake in this or that you’re not presenting a thought through position. If you can’t cope when someone picks holes in your argument then perhaps you need to stick to debating with those who reaffirm your own narrative?

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    1. Michael Rosen

      Yes, Ray. I imagine your method of arguing and your position on this matter as displayed here have recruited hundreds to your way of thinking and ex-members are flocking back even as we write. It’s the way you’ve addressed the …er….’narrative of the dispute’….that will have impressed them.

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  25. Michael Rosen

    Anonymous bloke hangs around website being irritated that people on the website resigned from his club, gets even even more irritated when someone argues with him, doesn’t answer loads of stuff that he is asked, and ends up being insulting.

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  26. bat020 (@bat020)

    winding back a bit to this, Michael >> “Classical marxism does not have a ready answer on all matters of oppression. You’ll remember that Trotsky invented the concept of ‘relative autonomy’ in order to wrestle the ‘arts’ free of economic or material determinism… Who knows, this kind of flexibility might be possible with ‘oppression’.”

    I’m not 100% sure what you’re getting at here but my inclination has been the kinda the opposite – one lesson I’ve drawn from the past couple of years is that the synthesis of Marxism and anti-oppression politics needs to be a lot *tighter* and a lot more *rigorous*. The problem with the current state of the theory is not that it’s too determinist but that it offers far too much wiggle room. So for instance, one can agree that in general sexism is a very bad thing, but come up with all sorts of excuses and exceptions for why sexism happens not to be the key issue right here right now in our own organisations or campaigns.

    I am optimistic however that a synthesis is nonetheless possible, provided we’re willing to spell out in a bit more detail what the base/superstructure metaphor typically elides. In particular anti-oppression politics has difficulty moving beyond the descriptive or discursive sphere and connecting its analyses to class and economics. Conversely Marxists have difficulty specifying the precise mechanisms by which oppressive structures feed into political economy (so we tend to fall back on generalities like “X-ism is bad because it divides the working class”, which is true enough but doesn’t get you very far). My instinct is that a serious collective effort to think through how social reproduction functions today might be the key to unlocking this puzzle.

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    1. Michael Rosen

      I like what you’re doing here, Bat. What I was trying to get at is on the matter of how we have these two means of understanding how capitalism works – oppression and exploitation – and, yes, we see oppression in terms of its outcomes i.e. that it’s one of the means by which exploitation is made easier (through e.g. divide and rule, but also through diminishing people, rendering them passive, creating self-blame etc). My concern with this is that in reality it pans out as being too watertight. That’s to say, it is quite possible for oppression to be one or two steps away from exploitation. Let’s be specific: (I’ve been reading about Wilde plus pals and the Dreyfus Case…so this is why this example surfaces: Oscar Wilde was clearly ‘oppressed’ by the effects of the prevailing ideology surrounding ‘homosexuality’. He had consensual relationships with men.He was oppressed by prevailing attitudes to this and, as we know, ended up in prison and died prematurely as a result. However, he was a successful and rich person which enabled him to involve himself in the market economy of ‘rent boys’. How should we typify that? Was he both oppressed and oppressor? How does this connect with exploitation – on the macro and micro level? Do we express this as ‘contradiction’? Or as one of many kinds of janus-existences that many (all?) lead under capitalism?

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  27. Ray B

    Apart for the anonymous bit you could be talking about yourself, Michael. I imagine that if you were washed up on a desert island you’d find a way to argue with yourself, lecture the seagulls on how to catch fish, berate your hut for not withstanding a hurricane and demand that the crew of the rescue ship join you on the island.

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