Leninism: don’t accept pale imitations…

I am a bit late to this party but hey, here’s my tuppence worth on the issues at stake. Owen Jones wrote an interesting article on British politics urgently needs a new force – a movement on the Left to counter capitalism’s crisis. Now I sympathise with Owen’s arguments.

The era of Leninist party-building surely ended a long time ago.
Neither would I argue for yet another party of the left to be built, Leninist or not. Britons are becoming poorer with every passing year; the wealthy elite continues to boom – the increase in the fortunes of the richest 1,000 since 2008 eclipses our annual deficit; and Labour’s leaders are still to offer a genuine alternative to austerity. But parties challenging Labour for the mantle of the left languish, as they have almost always done, in political oblivion. In the by-election in Manchester Central back in November, for example, the catchily titled Trade Union and Socialist Coalition won an embarrassing 220 votes and was even beaten by the Pirate Party. If not now, comrades, then when?

To be perfectly honest, Leninism crashed and burned some time ago. Instead what we have now is a pale imitation of Leninism. But as a defender of this pale imitation of Leninism, Alex Callinicos, disagrees with Owen’s analysis. To quote Mandy Rice Davies, he would, wouldn’t he. Reading Callincos’s rationale is like imagining Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

I am confident that the SWP is politically strong enough to overcome its internal differences. Our theoretical tradition and our democratic structures will allow us to arrive at the necessary political clarity and to learn the lessons of the disciplinary case. But if I am wrong and the SWP did collapse, this would not solve the political problem that it exists to address. The anti-capitalist struggle won’t be advanced by relying on Labourism and the trade union leaders or by uncritical worship of the movements. If the SWP didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.”

Personally, I don’t see how the SWP can survive if the leadership carries on attacking and purging those comrades who have the audacity to be sickened by the kangaroo court antics of its disputes committee. Though the CC of the SWP has now called a special conference for the 10th March, which gives no time really for comrades to prepare. Is this special conference being organised to neutralise the opposition? And how will the opposition organise? I tend to agree that it sounds like the CC’s move is “tactically astute”. Actually, I think it’s very astute. Will 2013 be the annus horribilis for the SWP’s leadership only time will time….maybe after March 10th.

What is happening in the SWP is a good example of what is so wrong with this pale imitation of Leninism. What you need to build is the class struggle left-wing. The problem is when you join a Leninist organisation your loyalty is to that group. And what typifies this is that there’s an Heinz 57 style of competing Leninisms, which one leads up us to the stairway to the revolution!. Revolutionary organisations need to transform to become more open and this loyalty to the party needs to cease. You need currents that open up debates but not to control, if you don’t have open currents or they are banned it all becomes subterranean… You can’t test ideas against each other as they are hidden. Democratic centralism becomes bureaucratic and therefore a closed intellectual system (see the SWP..again).

You need a system that has access to ideas and debates, that essentially leads to growth. Not stymie debate, factions and tendencies. In non-revolutionary periods, politics is about broadening debate and exchanging ideas… there is NO LINE! You need organisations that are open, pluralist, transparent and that respect and encourage debate. Democratic centralism is abstract, what were the dynamics of the orgs that sprang up in the 60s/70s? Trotskyist orgs before that were smaller. You had an upsurge in the class struggle, Stalinism was essentially discredited from mid-1950s onwards, Trotskyism was an alternative, a coherent account.

But the downfall for Trotskyist groups in the UK was/is democratic centralism and this pale imitation of Leninism. If democratic centralism worked then why isn’t there the mass revolutionary party with a couple of hundred thousand revolutionaries, this would be transforming the class struggle? How is the revolutionary left perceived? In a similar way to religious sects. In a pre-revolutionary situation democratic centralism would have a legitimate purpose this was shown when the Bolsheviks were successful in carrying out a coup d’état ….. Lenin was right, “all power to the Soviets” …The Soviets were a functioning democracy. Trotsky organised the Red Army in defending the revolution. Lenin didn’t say, “All power to the Party”… but to the Soviets!

But in this period, there is no mass movement that needs to assert itself rather you have a fragmented Left and bureaucratised TU movement, completely ossified. And the Labour Party…which doesn’t even want to be a left reformist party. What is a Leftie to do? This is why you need debate, and discussion, bottom up process as opposed to top down. If your interpretation to Marxism is fantastic then it should be open up for debate. Not a bureaucratised close intellectual system that stifle debate … a fundamental flaw and weakness that shows with the latest implosion in the SWP (dismissing feminism along with clinging on to workerism).

I would still define myself as a Trotskyist and would encourage comrades to read anything, absorb ideas, debate and so on. That’s a way for ideas to grow, along with development and to change ideas, make people think and so on. But when it’s all line based, ideas don’t grow organisation becomes ossified and inflexible…

I think what Owen is arguing sounds reasonable regarding to establishing a grass-roots network, Such a network would push real alternatives to the failure of austerity that would have to be listened to; and create political space for policies that otherwise does not exist. Faced with a more courageous, coherent challenge to the Tory project, the Labour leadership would face pressure that would not – for a change – come from the right.

Callinicos criticises Owen’s labourism but what alternative does he provide….? Nothing more than….join the SWP. Where I disagree with Owen is when he says, the SWP has long punched above its weight. It wasn’t just the SWP who built the anti-war movement, nor was it just the SWP/UAF who built the demo against the EDL in Walthamstow and so on and so on. Also, from my own personal perspective languishing in the SWP controlled Socialist Alliance was a bitter experience and a real eye-opener for me. It was so bad I rejoined the Labour Party. Socialist Alliance is a good example of what happens when you have democratic centralist groups battling for control, the independence disappears. It’s party lines.

At least Owen tries to offer an alternative and expresses a collective deep frustration with the Left, echoed by many of us. Callinicos offers a proclamation of virtue which is hollow and meaningless. There’s no alternative offered from Callinicos other than join the revolutionary party and by the way… behave yourself! His arguments are arrogant and conceited combined with this rather bizzare view that the SWP is perfect and that we all should join it, build the party and follow the line.  If the revolutionary Left is to learn anything then comrades have to take a more flexible and open approach. Leaderships do not have a great monopoly on truth. If this doesn’t happen then the revolutionary left will whither and die if it carries on with these practices. Because what do these practices look like from the outside … certainly with this latest implosion in the SWP… repulsive.

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3 thoughts on “Leninism: don’t accept pale imitations…

  1. So you think we should ditch the centralised sects and replace it with ‘bottom up’ organisations, who debate freely and openly about things.

    2 questions:

    1. Who does all the organising for this, i.e. books the rooms/halls, frames the debates, writes the agenda etc etc etc etc etc etc etc.

    2. Once these debates are over and a way forward is agreed, what then? Do those that lose the debates magnanimously accept defeat and get behind the programme? I don’t think so.

    The problem goes way deeper than the organisation and culture of the left I am afraid. The sooner the left wakes up to that fact the better.

  2. An interesting set of comments. There’s a balance to be struck between having only debate and ‘no line’, and having an undemocratic central line imposed on an organisation. Having ‘no line’ in the formal sense can be just as undemocratic, as illustrated in the well known work in relation to the women’s liberation movement by Jo Freeman on ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. In practice organisations operating in capitalist society need to get things done, whether it’s a community group opposing cuts, a trade union facing intransigent bosses or members of a revolutionary organisation wanting to undertake common activity.

    In that sense, Democratic Centralism/’Leninism’ is no different from the idea of ‘All for One and One for All’ in Dumas’ famous work.

    However, the bawdlerised version of Leninism practiced by most British revolutionary groups stands in stark contrast to the programmatic positions of Lenin’s time and how they can be developed today. There is a clear relationship between fighting for democracy within parties and in wider society. This was well summarised by the Fourth International’s programmatic resolution on Socialist Democracy, originally presented in 1979 and finally confirmed in 1985.


    Some of the commentators on the present state have a very Anglocentric view of what the revolutionary left constitutes and across the world there are many other organisations grappling more effectively with some of these issues, including sections and sympathisers of the FI.

    The departure from the Fourth International back in the 1980s of those with contrary practices, eg the US SWP and the Ross/Grogan groups in Britain, indicate that a commitment to democracy needs to be continuous. That debate is being carried forward in Britain by the comrades of Socialist Resistance, and it is encouraging that these debates have found a wider echo in the aftermath of the crisis of the SWP, for example in the critiques of current and former SWP members like Tom Walker, and in the writings of the leading members of the Anti Capitalist Initiative. It is also very important that the linkage of democracy and feminism is being explicitly made. Out of some of the depressing baggage of the SWP’s demise, it is to be hoped that a new, more critical, and. above all else, more democratic revolutionary regroupment might be possible.

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