Thursday, 4 July 2013

Leninism for the 21st century

charting a new course for the SWP  

“Leninism is, first of all, realism, the highest qualitative and quantitative appreciation of reality, from the standpoint of revolutionary action. Precisely because of this it is irreconcilable with flying from reality behind the screen of hollow agitationalism, with passive loss of time, with haughty justification of yesterday’s mistakes on the pretext of saving the tradition of the party.” Leon Trotsky, A New Course (1923) [1]

Much of the debate happening at the moment in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has focussed on the legacy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, and the importance of the “Leninist” method of organising a revolutionary party. If Lenin could be briefly revived from his Moscow mausoleum, he might be rather puzzled to hear his name used in an argument which originally appeared to have little to do with the history of socialist organisation in Russia, and rather more to do with serious disagreements over the handling of a case of alleged sexual misconduct by a leading member of the SWP.

Yet the faction fight that ensued did put the SWP’s internal democracy - our “version” of democratic centralism - to the test. It also drew out a theoretical debate about the “Leninist” model of party organisation that the SWP aims to adhere to. This argument was most prominently pursued by Alex Callinicos, who wrote in January:

“Marx's political legacy - the necessity of working class organisation to overthrow capital - is less secure [than his economic legacy]. In 1968 the SWP’s predecessor the International Socialists decided to adopt a Leninist model of organisation. In other words, we decided to take our reference point in how we organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin's leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.”[2]

In this article I will try to advance this important discussion by looking at the way our party’s theoretical understanding of  the role of a revolutionary party relates to how we actually organise ourselves currently. I’ll take for granted “the necessity of working class organisation to overthrow capital” and focus on the way the lessons of Lenin’s leadership relate to building a revolutionary party in Britain today, especially in light of the SWP’s present structures, which emerged under specific conditions in the 1970s in the course of a re-reading of Lenin’s role in the Russian Revolution, especially by Tony Cliff. I’ll point to some ways in which the SWP’s current practice diverges sharply from the “continuous creative renewal”[3] that is required by our political tradition, and how, predictably, this deficient practice has begun to spawn strange and crude theoretical justifications, which ultimately hasten the degeneration of the revolutionary tradition they purport to defend. I’ll try to show this process at work in a more recent article by Alex in Socialist Review[4]. This critique is not intended to present a definitive position - precisely because a definitive position on the Marxist theory of the party is logically impossible - but instead to bring together a number of relevant arguments into an illuminating interaction.

The actuality of revolution

The legacy of Lenin remains important to revolutionary Marxists because he was the key figure in what remains the only successful working class revolution to date. The October Revolution was made by the heroism of the Russian working class, but Lenin, and the Bolshevik party of which he was the key architect, played a critical role in enabling the workers’ seizure of power. Central to the SWP’s political tradition is the argument that the Russian Revolution was a genuine socialist revolution. It was not a coup d’état. For a few precious years Russia embodied the hopes of millions who suffered under capitalism, before the lack of further successful workers’ revolutions abroad, especially in industrialised Germany, curtailed the possibilities for building international socialism and allowed Stalin’s bureaucracy to transform the revolution into its opposite.

This means that Lenin’s theory is inseparable from his real activity in building the Bolshevik party and leading the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s thought is infused with the “actuality of revolution”: “That is to say, Lenin was concerned in all of his political thinking and activity with the question of what must be done – actually, in the real world – for the workers to take power. Not rhetorically or theoretically, but in fact, figure out what it would take and then do exactly that.”[5]

But now we encounter our first problem. Marxists naturally wish to extract the key lessons from Lenin’s revolutionary life, yet discussions of “Leninism” are always at risk of transforming a living, historically specific practice into a dry dogma, mechanically imposed on modern situations. This risk is magnified by the Stalinist bowdlerisation of Lenin. In criticising Alex’s defence of the modern SWP’s version of Leninism, Ian Birchall offers the following caution:

“Lenin and October 1917 remains vital for socialists in the 21st century. Whether there is a coherent doctrine called “Leninism” - especially in matters of party organisation - is another question. The term “Leninism” became widespread only after Lenin's death, with Grigory Zinoviev’s Bolshevisation, the attempt to impose a single organisational model on the parties of the Communist International. In one of his early books (which many of us still think was his best), The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, Alex quoted Marx's famous remark, “All I know is that I am no Marxist.” I wonder if Lenin might have said, “I am no Leninist.”[6]

As Ian goes on to point out, whether we ought to regard democratic centralism as the essence of Leninism is similarly fraught with difficulties. Lenin defined democratic centralism as “freedom of discussion, unity in action”; this is useful but broad guide, not a proscription for specific organising structures (like a central committee, full time organisers, factions or none, geographical branches and so on).

To understand the “version” of democratic centralism currently practised in the SWP, and the structures associated with it, we have to trace the outlines of a specific understanding of Lenin’s legacy that was synthesised around the time the SWP was born as an organisation.

Cliff’s reading of Lenin

 The International Socialists transformed into the SWP in the 1970s; the change of name signified that, having grown rapidly in the early ‘70s, the party was ready to switch from a somewhat loose internal culture to a form of democratic centralism. Although I cannot discuss it at length here, that shift  - and specific measures like a ban on permanent factions and a three month discussion period - was brought in to counter various “mischief makers” within the party, who took advantage of the IS’s open appeal for left realignment in the wake of 1968. In 1979 Chris Harman argued that, while introduced to solve real problems, some of these practices had created their own difficulties, such as a cosseted and crisis-prone Central Committee.[7]
Theoretically, the shift to democratic centralism was shaped substantially by Tony Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin. In 1973 Cliff wrote:

“Lenin knew that organisation had to be subordinated to politics. His genius in the field of revolutionary practice – in strategy and tactics – was the real pillar that established his hegemony in the party. Scientific understanding of the general movement of history, fortified by great sensitivity to the moods and aspirations of the workers, gave Lenin extreme confidence that the path he chose was right. Under such circumstances, of course. organisational rules and regulations appeared to him as of secondary importance to practice. Without the correctness of his conclusions, the ‘indiscipline’ of Lenin would have been no more than simple arbitrariness and caprice. Walking the narrow line between dogmatism and empiricism, Lenin developed the practical essence of Marxism – including the question of organisation – to the highest concreteness ever achieved.”[8]

As this passage demonstrates, Cliff’s Leninism is one that strenuously avoids the dogmatic pitfalls described above. Questions of organisation (such as particular party committees etc) are subordinated to politics, and as a consequence party rules are of secondary importance to practice. Lenin’s “sensitivity to the moods and aspirations of the workers” allowed him to win them to his positions, while the ultimate correctness of his conclusions increased his prestige among workers, creating a constructive reciprocity. Democratic centralism, as we can seen, has much less to do with specific rules and committees, and far more to do with leadership built on trust, reciprocal dialogue and accountability between leaders and led, all tempered and tested in practice. Cliff’s goal was, of course, to walk this dialectical tightrope in the SWP. Referring to the above extract, Jim Wolfreys has written:

“There is of course an important truth here - politics is not just a science, but an art. Yet it is a truth that is not universally transferable. For many decades the party [the SWP] bore the imprint of Cliff’s personality and his charisma, tempered by his disdain for vainglory and a party culture that had no time for grandstanding. Then came the John Rees years...years when the CC became more compartmentalised and less accountable as individuals became preoccupied with their particular united front responsibilities and branch organisation fragmented.”[9]

Cliff sees Lenin veering close to “simple arbitrariness and caprice”, but avoiding it through a brilliant grasp of strategy and an ability to relate to and mobilise the most advanced sections of the Bolshevik party at any particular moment, often against conservative elements of his own party.

At various critical junctures Lenin had to fight hard against his own party and Central Committee to force it to lead the working class forward. The Petrograd Bolsheviks supported his April Theses (arguing, against Lenin’s and the Bolsheviks’ previous position, that a socialist revolution was possible in Russian without a lengthy intermediary bourgeois revolution) against most of the leadership of the party, while in the run up to October he made ever more urgent appeals to the advanced workers for an insurrection and a Bolshevik government (because of their majority in the Soviets), against fellow Bolshevik leaders Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. John Molyneux, writing in 1978 in harmony with Cliff’s analysis, concludes: “The greatness of Lenin in the Russian Revolution was that he - the party man par excellence - in the last analysis transcended his party. He was able, so to speak, to reach over the head of the party to the mass of the Russian workers and soldiers, not so much to address them as to respond to them, and so was able to force the party to respond to them as well.”[10]

Though Cliff lived in a place and period that could hardly have been more different to Russia in the early twentieth century, it isn’t too much of a leap of imagination see him playing the similar role in relation to the SWP as Lenin did for his party - with the SWP baring “the imprint of Cliff’s personality and his charisma” as Jim puts it. It should be clear that such a leadership style as Cliff developed had potential perils; As Ian Birchall put it to me, “Cliff had the vices of his virtues”[11]. Applied crudely his style of leadership could quite easily amount to little more than caprice, and undoubtedly Cliff himself made many such mistakes. But the succession of crises in the SWP since Cliff’s death, often centred around celebrated party leaders, is perhaps the negative measure of Cliff’s success at transcending his own party when he led it.

Let us move on by looking at the class roots of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, and then the SWP as it formulated its own form of democratic centralism.

What factors underpinned the Bolsheviks’ democratic culture?

John Molyneux identifies what he sees as three factors that marked out the Bolsheviks from their rivals (who in practice proved incapable of leading revolution).

Firstly, the Bolsheviks were an illegal party, operating under a dictatorship that afforded little in the way of bourgeois democratic freedoms. Consequently, the Bolsheviks were incapable of developing a layer of conservative functionaries, trade union officials, MPs and so on. John writes: “The fact that the Bolsheviks leadership and its local cadre were closer to the prison cell or Siberian exile than they were to ministerial posts of trade union-officialdom, and that the party itself has no more than a threadbare administrative apparatus, made the party relatively (though not absolutely) immune to bureaucratic routinism.” [12]

Secondly, the Bolsheviks’ membership became substantially proletarian, especially as, during the reactionary period after 1905, relatively more intellectuals left the party while a greater proportion of workers organised in factory cells stuck with the party. The Bolsheviks could really claim to be a workers’ party, and it bears repeating that a group does not become a workers’ party by virtue of possessing a membership well school in socialist politics, but by its real roots in the working class. The proletarian character of the Bolsheviks, and their illegality, caused them to organise themselves primarily around factory cells rather than geographical areas shadowing electoral districts, as was usual for other parties of the Second International.[13]

Thirdly, “the youth of the party was another major factor in freeing it from conservative routinism.”[14] John reports that, “In 1907 approximately 22 per cent of the party members were less than 20 years old, 37 per cent were between 20 and 24, and 16 per cent were between 25 and 29.”[15] Young Bolsheviks could often quickly advance to positions of political responsibility within the party, which meant that, according to Trotsky, “At the decisive moment the youth carried with them the more mature stratum and even the old folks.”[16]

To John’s list, I’d add that these conditions created a further important factor: the dynamism and relative “indiscipline” of the party’s periphery (i.e. local branches) in relation to its centre. One of the reasons this was important was that there are times when local branches can find themselves ahead of their party’s centre in relating to changed conditions (a point Cliff makes which I’ll return to later).

So, Lenin’s dialectical approach to party building - a precise attention to the minutia of organisation coupled with a disdain for bureaucratic red tape - was enabled by the gradual proletarianisation of the Bolsheviks after their split with the Mensheviks, party the youth of the party which provided are reservoir of support to deploy at crucial moments against the conservative layers, and the illegality of the Bolsheviks’ which provided a bulwark against opportunism. These conditions fed a dynamic democratic culture that developed (very unevenly of course) in the run up to October 1917, with members responding actively to Lenin’s leadership. This explains Cliff’s proscription that “democratic centralism inside the party is necessary to develop the initiative and independence of party members.”(my emphasis)[17]

As we’ve seen, the SWP “take[s] our reference point in how we organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin's leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.”[18]. Thus, a key question for SWP members today who wish to interrogate our democratic centralism is, what kind of foundation does our democratic culture rest upon?

The endless downturn

I should say that, having just asked a very big question, I only have space to offer a fairly short answer, but I will at least try to draw attention to what I think are some key problems that form the background to the condition of the SWP today.

The reading of Leninism put forward by Cliff and Molyneux in the ‘70s, and the organisational structures that had been formed in the emergent SWP, were rapidly put to the test.

By the late ‘70s there were signs that the confidence of workers was starting decline after the tremendous successes early in the decade, but this was by no means obvious or uncontroversial. Influential figures like Eric Hobsbawm[19] and Andre Gorz[20] identified this change in mood, and used it to argue that the ability of workers to challenge the system was fundamentally in question. Cliff, mindful of the disorientation that unexpected defeat could bring, set about preparing the party for a “downturn” in struggle.[21]

In 1979 Cliff wrote an article in the ISJ, laying the basis for his “downturn” argument.[22] One of the notable things about the article, is the sheer volume of quotes from workers. This is clearly Cliff practising what he preached about Lenin’s sensitivity to the mood and confidence of workers. That sensitivity was made possible by the SWP’s roots in the working class at that time.

Cliff’s aim of course was not to proclaim that workers had lost their power, but to win SWP members to a lead an orderly retreat, still fighting every battle tooth and nail, in order to maintain as much organisation as possible for when the “upturn” arrived.

The difficult argument that Cliff waged seemed to have been one of his most important initiatives. While most of the organised left in Britain withered, split apart or was seriously damaged in the 1980s never to recover, the SWP appears to have remained largely intact. Yet what may have begun as a “downturn” became an extended, exceptional period of flatlining workers’ struggle, lasting to the present day. A discussion document written recently by SWP members records the bleak conditions of a long term decline of union membership and numbers of shop stewards as capitalism has restructured while working class organisation has decayed: “In the 1980s, the bosses needed to break the unions in major set-piece battles to impose economic restructuring. Today, the bosses are imposing restructuring without the need to take us on. Real wages have been falling fast, pensions cut, jobs lost and the social wage slashed - all without serious resistance.”[23] Cliff’s Leninism was never a castle in the sky; it was built on the SWP’s militant proletarian base, and was put under strain as that base decayed.

Cold War theory

What could be done to preserve a healthy party culture in these conditions? One protection was ideological clarity. The SWP could draw on a unique theoretical heritage developed throughout the cold war, based around three key theories: state capitalism, the permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution. These primarily sought to explain, respectively, the nature of the Soviet Union and its satellites, the long post-war boom and the numerous national liberation struggles against European colonialism.

Yet the ruling class offensive begun in the ‘80s - what has become known as neoliberalism - also shifted the theoretical goalposts. The significance of the theory of state capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of the British Communist Party has clearly changed (for example, Chris Harman started to write about “trans-state capitalism” in the ‘90s[24]). It remains important as a repost to the myth that Lenin and Stalin were alike and that socialism is about nationalisation, but clearly it is not quite the decisive argument with which to win new recruits that it once was. A worse fate has befallen the theory of the permanent arms economy as widespread privatisation took hold and the arms races of the cold war receded. The theory of permanent revolution, deflected or otherwise, has, however, been given a new lease of life by the Arab revolutions, and its relevance today its being constructively debated by comrades.

This last example underlines an important point. Theory is prompted by practical experience. Almost all of Lenin’s theory, on the party, imperialism, the state and dialectics, were written as a polemical to tackle immediate strategic problems. Similarly, the three pillars of IS theory armed comrades to deal with specific arguments, consequently solidifying the party’s membership.

So, has the SWP’s theory managed to rise to the challenges of the neoliberal, post-Soviet world - a world in which the very word “socialism” has lost much of its popular appeal? This is a very difficult question to answer, much less prove. I have no interest in dismissing the hard work of comrades who have tried in recent years to genuinely develop our theory in the light of a changed world system (I’m one of them!).

I can perhaps say without too much controversy that we do not have so clear a theoretical armoury as we did during the cold war, in part because we do not have the luxury to intervene among a much larger left (which used to include a large Communist Party and Labour left, for example) and workers’ movement. As the left in general has suffered defeats, we’ve found ourselves increasingly forced to defend basic Marxist arguments. Dave Renton argues that this has led to a tendency to neglect changed realities: “Our ideas have tended to emphasise the continuities between periods, and in response to many partial arguments (flexible working, theories of the multitude or the New Poors, the Precariat as the new revolutionary class, etc), too many comrades have claimed that capitalism continues unchanged, exactly the same system as it was before.”[25]  

So, in the light of all this, how is the SWP’s democratic centralism holding up today? To answer this, I turn now to Alex Callinicos’s most recent article, entitled What Sort of Party Do We Need?, and to the recent faction fight which is the essential context for Alex’s arguments.

The state

Alex makes a number of important general points about why revolutionary socialists organise the way they do. Much of what he says will be uncontroversial to those who basically share revolutionary Marxist politics.

Alex accurately describes a context today in which, treading on the terrain of a painfully weak far-left across Europe, broad forces like Syriza in Greece and the Front de Gauche in France have inspired activists desperate for a serious fightback against the ruling class. It would be wonderful if a powerful and radical force like Syriza existed in Britain. I think Alex is right, however, to raise the question of the need to ultimately break the centralised power of the capitalist state.

But this is at a very high level of abstraction. Syriza could conceivably be forced to confront the state in the near future - but the SWP is a very, very long way away from being even remotely capable of leading a confrontation with the state, in part because the British working class has been on the defensive for more than 30 years. I agree with Alex about the need to painstakingly build revolutionary organisation in non-revolutionary times, but this can only be done on the basis of a brutally honest assessment of the real situation we face.

Confronting the facts

Alex writes:
“Cliff was a great believer in what he called “creating facts”. In other words, the leadership should be prepared to take new initiatives and then, if they were successful, go back to the organisation and argue for the experience to be generalised. This is, for example, how the debate over whether or not to set up factory branches was resolved in 1972-3. This requires 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.”[26]

A critical reader of this passage will first of all pause at the formulation “creating facts”, and note that this kind of approach can clearly manifest in very negative, as well as positive, ways. Alex cites the “bad” example of Cliff defying the party conference to sack Chris Harman as editor of Socialist Worker.

Alex acknowledges that both his and Ian’s articles are shaped by the recent arguments in the SWP. So, in this context, what facts have recently been created by the specific form of interventionist leadership that Alex defends here? Well firstly the handling of rape allegations against a leading member led to large votes against the leadership at our January conference. Subsequently, 350 or so people have left the SWP so far since our special conference, while roughly 90 percent of our students members - including much of the youth of the party, so necessary for a renewal of our ranks - have departed, disgusted and demoralised. We are now forced to operate in an increasingly hostile environment on the left and in the trade unions; the cutting edge of that hostility is not over questions of reform or revolution or even the trade union bureaucracy, but because of our mishandling of rape allegations.
Further facts have been created. On the one hand, a vocal layer of industrial cadre (concentrated in the NUT and PCS fractions) have hardened to a position of regularly calling for critical comrades to leave, or be ejected from, the party (this was said a number of times, and applauded, at our special conference in March). On the other hand, a group of oppositional comrades has sprung up, determined to fight to create an organisation fit to pursue revolutionary politics in Britain today. In broad outline, these are the facts that Alex’s form of leadership has recently created.

I agree that it is not the role of a leadership to passively reflect the sum of opinion of those it leads, and I agree that revolutionary leadership involves seeking to generalise from experiences, “if they were successful”. The recent damage to the SWP recounted above did not happen all at once, but through a series of events in which the CC regularly intervened. Leading does not mean always being right, and it does not meaning sticking to a pre-prepared perspective no matter what. If, as Alex contends, the faction fight was really about core issues to do with the kind of party we need, the success or otherwise of the response to this cannot be measured abstractly (it’s not enough to just be sure that your argument is correct) but must be judged by the extent to which your perspective on these issues increases the capacity of the party to fight and in the process wins increasing numbers to that point of view. If what has occurred in the SWP recently can be measured as some kind of success, it’s difficult to imagine what failure would look like.

Political judgment

Alex writes: “Precisely when, as TS Eliot put it, “to force the moment to its crisis” is a matter of political judgement. But not to push for a decision is to condemn an organisation to paralysis and eventual disintegration.” I agree with this, but am left wondering whether Alex considers the last few months to have confirmed his and the CC’s political judgement - the key ingredient in this formulation. Was the present condition of the SWP his desired outcome? Does he think recent events have left the leadership with greater “confidence and authority” among the membership of the SWP, and among those with whom we work? Forcing the moment to its crisis at the wrong time, over the wrong issue, with a wrong-headed political argument can just as well result in “paralysis and eventual disintegration” for an organisation.

Alex’s description of leadership affords a great deal of autonomy and weight to a leadership to campaign for its perspective. To do this it must have “confidence and authority”, which of course is not bestowed, but won through argument and successful practice. In his January article, Alex condemned in strong terms both dissenting comrades in the SWP and other leftists outside, like Labour left-winger Owen Jones, presenting an apocalyptic picture of an “attack from within and without.”[27] This was an extremely poor substitute for, to refer to Cliff again, a “great sensitivity to the moods and aspirations of the workers” which provides the necessary bulwark against  “simple arbitrariness and caprice”.

The choice between a “strong” leadership that drives through a perspective regardless, and one that passively reflects the sum of opinion of those it leads, is false and undialectical. In producing a defence of his conception of leadership that doesn’t begin to engage with the manifest failings that that approach has recently produced, Alex makes a hollow phrase of political accountability and stretches the gap between theory and practice to breaking point. 

In reality the CC has been left battered, bewildered and lacking the authority it needs to lead effectively. The Eliot quote, taken from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, is perhaps more apt than Alex realises:

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.[28]

Alex is correct to stress that arguments are never finally settled in the realm of pure theory. Judged even against his own argument for revolutionary leadership, Alex has manifestly failed the test of practice.

In both his January article and his more recent one, Alex foregrounds the problem of fragmented working class consciousness, arguing that it is a central issue that revolutionaries face, especially when thinking about the form of leadership they need. He’s right. But Lenin confronted the problem of fragmented working class consciousness rather differently to Alex, in a formulation that shows how the superior politics of revolutionaries can overcome reformist consciousness:

“...the Social-Democrat[i.e. Marxist]’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”(original emphasis) [29]

Notice that Lenin is not arguing for an opposition to oppression based on abstract ideals. Rather, this is the starting point for his solution to the problem of fragmented class consciousness. This is the heart and guts of Leninism: raising each and every cry of anguish against oppression, no matter which social sphere it comes from, to a shout of rebellion against the capitalist system as a whole. No matter which way a stick is bent, no matter which is the key link in the chain, Leninists must begin, continue and finish as tribunes of the oppressed, precisely because we wish to pin the blame for oppression where it ultimately belongs, on the capitalist system as a whole.

We can only guess at why Alex, now on his second lengthy “defence” of Leninism, neglects to mention this central component of Lenin’s thought, especially as it addresses precisely the problem of fragmented consciousness that he so assiduously raises.

Unfinished Leninism

One of the most articulate critics of Alex’s January article was Paul Le Blanc, a member of the American International Socialist Organisation (ISO). The nub of Le Blanc’s criticism is that Alex tends to present Leninism (or more precisely, the specific practices that the SWP presently associates with that term) as a complete and closed system, when in truth Leninism most always be regarded as “unfinished”[30] In his new article, Alex quotes at length from Lukacs’s study of Lenin’s thought, but he might perhaps have paid closer attention to Lukacs’s view on the “unfinished” nature of Leninist organisation:

“The party called upon to lead the proletarian revolution is not born ready-made into its leading role: it, too, is not but is becoming. And the process of fruitful interaction between party and class repeats itself - albeit differently - in the relationship between the party and its members. For as Marx said in his these on Feuerbach: ‘The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.’”[31] (original emphasis)

Lukacs’s (and Marx’s) point is indispensible. A revolutionary party is a living historical creature that exists in a constant state of recreation. The ashes and the phoenix continually exchange places. The wise sages of the party must teach the newcomers and in the process learn and correct their own deficiencies. The party’s leadership must be constantly renewed, not with a choreographed shuffling of personnel, but by the production of new leaders freshly christened with the latest experiences of the working class, and able, through the party’s memory and heritage, to place that experience within a historical perspective.

So, how has this process progressed in the SWP in recent years? 

The leadership we’ve produced, and failed to produce

The current leadership of the SWP is both the most tangible expression of Alex’s theoretical formulations of democratic centralism and the only meaningful test of them. The most significant characteristic of this leadership at the moment, expressed in a concentrated form in the CC, is weakness.

This weakness has not just materialised in the last few months, though it has certainly been compounded. The party was weakened by the death of Cliff (and later Chris Harman) and our ability to rebuild our leadership was significantly hampered by the crisis around Respect centred around leaders of the party who were sucked too far and too unaccountably into the movement. More recently, the CC has tried to bring into its ranks new, often relatively young comrades, but this process is an empty one if those comrades have not cut their political teeth in sharp debates with and against the incumbent leadership, and especially if those CC members who do openly wage contrary arguments find themselves rapidly isolated and excluded. 

Alex draws attention to the “broader leadership” of the SWP, and he is right to do so. Nobody who is serious about building revolutionary organisation wants a party with an ineffectual leadership. So, it is the responsibility of the whole party to address this problem, firstly by coming to terms with the root problems that produced this leadership in the first place (what I am beginning to do here).

Up until our conference in January, with the one exception of John Molyneux’s unsuccessful attempt to be added to the CC a few years ago, there hadn’t been a contested CC election in the SWP for 38 years. An important question that all comrades should honestly as themselves is, have you, reflecting on your specific experiences, raised disagreements or probing questions of the party’s positions within our democratic structures in the past 6 months, the past year, the past 5 years? It’s no justification to say that you think the CC has always been roughly right (which, given the various splits, is hard to imagine anyway); an elected leadership cannot lead adequately without constant and varied feedback from members. An uncritical cadre is no cadre at all.

As we’ve seen, for Cliff, “democratic centralism inside the party is necessary to develop the initiative and independence of party members.”[32] The first significance of discipline in a revolutionary party is not for comrades to bow down before an elected leadership, but for them to relate their specific experiences in the working class to the total theory of the party and to the experiences of other members. Again, we must be pay attention to both sides of this equation; comrades must relate their experiences to the rest of the party, and in so doing see those experiences in a larger context. Without comrades walking into every party meeting ready to pursue an agenda that reflects their specific experience in the working class, as well as submitting that experience to a broader test, the dialectical heart of democratic centralism is left dangerously incomplete.

It was sad and disturbing, during the faction fight, to watch these weaknesses of our “broader leadership” congeal in the form of a very vocal group of comrades who loudly proclaimed for democratic centralism while practically destroying its content. When the CC unleashed their most vociferous supporters, armed to the teeth with procedural pedantry, who could fail to be reminded of the sorcerer who has lost control of the spells he has conjured.

But if the CC had lost control, the sorcerer’s apprentice was still not ready to reclaim the spellbook. Rather, the faction, founded on a very narrow political basis, found itself drawn into defending itself within the framework set by our most unyielding opponents. Faction members often defended our actions on the basis of a tenuous interpretation of the party’s constitution document. No: faced with an extreme situation we decisively broke the rules and did so fully in the spirit of our political tradition. We agreed with Cliff that  “At an extreme, breaking party discipline may well be the duty of loyal members.”[33] We were, and remain, the real loyalists.

And it is in the opposition in the party, which is simultaneously growing and diminishing, that hope remains. This article, with its heavy reliance on quoting party writings from the ‘70s, but with a smattering of references to fresh arguments being developed by members today (and trying to modestly contribute to that process itself), is a concrete expression of a party that is weak but is becoming something more fitted to its purpose. This process is extremely fragile, and could be quickly snuffed out or derailed.

On this point I agree with Alex’s proposition in an abstract sense that organised forces in the party must sometimes move “faster than the bulk of members” to generalise from experience and drive through a rapid shift in orientation. However, I think the preceding analysis indicates that it must now fall to the oppositional comrades to drive this process through, drawing in increasing layers of comrades to our perspective who misunderstood the key issues during the last faction fight or practically abstained, reconnecting with those talented comrades who, in resigning their memberships recently, have left us so bereft.

Our leadership did indeed force the moment to its crisis, the most debilitating crisis in our party’s history, and now we must not flinch from forcing that crisis to its resolution.

A new course

I won’t presume to outline here the specific changes we need to make to our structures.  Although this must be done in the near future, we must not repeat the mistake of elevating procedural questions above the primacy of politics. However, to conclude, what is the broad outline of the new course we need?

The first and greatest disservice a revolutionary can do to her party is to fail to criticise it. When Marx exuberantly proclaimed in favour of “a ruthless criticism of all that exists”[34], he most certainly did not intend to exclude socialist organisation, and if the SWP is to continue to exist it must embrace a ruthless and cleansing self-criticism. When Marx sat down to subject Adam Smith and David Ricardo to a deep criticism, he did so because he thought there was much valuable material beneath their mess of mistakes.

We cannot duck questions of organisation, but must continue to develop a correct political perspective and then punch through the old structures at the moment we can prove they are a block on our political development, in the process restoring the primacy of politics to its rightful throne. Ultimately, we need a democratic structure befitting of a tiny organisation operating in a parliamentary democracy in the 21st century. For liberals, democracy is an abstract ideal; by contrast, our pursuit of party democracy is instrumental (to improve our fighting capacity) and must be rigorously concrete. A simple example would be the necessity to think of childcare as a political issue for branches to face, for otherwise we risk excluding women, hollowing out our claims to tear at the roots of oppression and greatly impoverishing our democratic life in the process.

Charting this new course is a process that must not be avoided, “fudged” or sewn up behind closed doors in a way that hides from the majority of party members and sympathisers the mistakes that have been made, and the lessons that must be drawn from those mistakes. The conclusion of Harman’s argument that I alluded to earlier is unsettlingly fitting to our present situation, and therefore stands as a condemnation of our long-term inertia:

“At present a whole section of the leading cadre in the party are rather cynical about the present leadership. They do not regard them as necessarily the politically best people in the party, but neither do they see how to replace them. Unless the situation is rapidly rectified, by developing new structures that create a wider national leadership, the cynicism can rapidly breed moods like that we have seen among some of our women comrades, in which the very notion of the democratic centralist party is questioned. That has been the road travelled by many a European revolutionary organisation. It is not one any of us would like to see the SWP travel.”[35]

As it happens, what’s been most notable about this whole wretched period has been the extent that opposition comrades have not broken from the notion of building a genuine democratic centralist party, and certainly not from revolutionary Marxism. I think most of us have thought of our cause, as Cliff did in his living room all those years ago, as a return to classical Marxism through confronting changed circumstances[36]. It’s a tragic truth that many of us younger members, women and men, arrived in the SWP as rebels against rape and raunch culture, and thus the very issues that have caused our party such pain ought to have been the breath of fresh air that lifted us out of our inertia, as true Leninists, as tribunes of the oppressed. 

Our shared goal remains: a party fit to educate a new generation in the rich traditions of revolutionary socialism, and fit to be educated by them.

Jack Farmer

[3] Callinicos, Is Leninism Finished?
[4] Alex Callinicos, What Sort of Party Do We Need? (
[6] Ian Birchall, What does it mean to be a Leninist? (
[7] Chris Harman, The Sort of Leadership We Need, 1979 (
[8] Tony Cliff, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 1973 (
[9] Jim Wolfreys, Between a rock and a hard place?, 2013 (an unpublished document)
[10] John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, 1978, p.84.
[11] In a personal email, 4th July 2013
[12] Molyneux, 1978, p.66
[13] Molyneux, 1978, p.67
[14] Molyneux, 1978, p.68
[15] ibid
[16] Quoted in Molyneux, 1978, p.68
[17] Cliff, 1973
[19] Eric Hobsbawm, The Forward March of Labour Halted
[20] Andre Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class
[21] For a detailed discussion of this period, see the relevant chapter in Ian Birchall’s biography of Cliff, Tony  Cliff: A Marxist For His Time, Bookmarks, 2012
[22] Tony Cliff,
[24] Chris Harman, The state and capitalism today, 1991 (
[26] Callinicos, What Sort of Party Do We Need? (
[27] Callinicos, Is Leninism Finished?, 2013
[29] Vladimir Illyich Lenin, What is to be Done? (
[31] Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, Verso, 2009, p.37
[32] Cliff, 1973
[33] Cliff, 1973
[35] Chris Harman, The Sort of Leadership We Need, 1979 (
[36] “The few comrades who started the International Socialist tendency were not prepared to use Marxism as a substitute for reality, but on the contrary wished it to be a weapon helping to master this reality. In the years 1946-48 we had to wrestle with very difficult questions. We had to be clear that we were continuing a tradition - that we were followers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky - but we had to face new situations. It was both a continuation and a new beginning. Intellectual toughness does not mean dogmatism; grasping a changed reality does not mean vagueness. Our criticism of orthodox Trotskyism was conceived as a return to classical Marxism.” Tony Cliff, Trotskyism After Trotsky, 1999, p.23 

1 comment:

  1. I think you'd need to show specific things that revolutionaries needed to be doing for and with the combative sections of our class which the party didn't manage to do, for your argument to carry weight. It comes over rather abstract if poetic.