By Ian Birchall
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What does it mean to be a Leninist?

This article is over 10 years, 6 months old
In February's issue of Socialist Review Alex Callinicos addressed the claim that Leninism is finished. Here, Ian Birchall responds to Alex arguing that he asks the question, but does not fully answer it
Issue 381

There is much in Alex Callinicos’s article “Is Leninism finished?” (SR, February 2013) that Socialist Review readers will agree with: the inability of reformism to offer any way out of the horrors of capitalism, the need for working class revolution led by a revolutionary party, the defence of the Bolshevik Revolution and in particular of Lenin. Alex has restated themes developed by the SWP, notably in the work of Tony Cliff.

But Alex’s argument is incomplete and even misleading. He tells us the SWP takes as its model “the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution”. But as Cliff’s biography of Lenin shows in detail, the form of organisation adopted by the Bolsheviks varied enormously according to objective circumstances. There is no such thing as the “Leninist party”, outlined in What Is To Be Done? or any other instruction manual. That the Bolsheviks were always a minority until a revolutionary situation arose, that they based themselves on the most militant sections, that they combated reformism – all these things are fundamental, but leave many questions unanswered.

Bolshevism was, as Alex points out, extremely flexible. But it is unlikely that any of the models of party organisation adopted by the Bolsheviks would fit the very different needs of the world today. So other than broad generalities, what does it mean to be a “Leninist” in 2013? Alex raises the question but doesn’t answer it. He affirms the need for “continuous creative renewal” but doesn’t say where it is coming from.

In his final speech to the Communist International in 1922 Lenin insisted: “The resolution [on organisation] is too Russian; it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners… They must assimilate part of the Russian experience. Just how that will be done, I do not know.” He urged delegates to “study… in order that they may really understand the organisation, structure, method and content of revolutionary work”. What conclusions can we draw from this? That a “Leninist” is someone who thinks for herself? I (and Lenin) would have no objection to that. But it’s a starting point and not a conclusion.

Emerging from the Cold War
In the years after the Russian Revolution, it was plausible enough to argue “Do as the Bolsheviks did in Russia, and you’ll get the same results.” The failure of the German Revolution can partly be explained by the fact that there was no revolutionary party comparable to the Bolsheviks. But by 1945 it was clear that imitating the Bolsheviks in the hope of a rerun of 1917 was no longer viable. It was a difficult truth for Lenin’s heirs to swallow, and our tendency emerged from the consequent turmoil in the Trotskyist movement.

The Cold War caused a further complication. For the Western side Lenin was evil incarnate and led to Stalin. For the Stalinists Lenin became a quasi-religious authority figure. The tiny revolutionary minority was on the defensive, and often oversimplified. It argued that everything was wonderful under Lenin, then suddenly turned into its opposite with the advent of Stalin.

Cliff’s Lenin biography was a magnificent polemic against such defensiveness. Cliff made devastating criticisms of the situation in Russia and in the Communist International in the period after 1917. More recently the work of Lars T Lih (though open to criticism) has enhanced our understanding of Lenin, and Pierre Broué’s History of the Communist International (hopefully soon to be available in English) reveals the complexities and contradictions of the Comintern from its earliest days. There is much here to study and rethink. It leaves more problematic than ever whether there is any such thing as “Leninism”.

History is of enormous importance to revolutionaries. The French revolutionaries of 1789 thought they were re-enacting the Roman Republic; the Bolsheviks referred back to the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. If we believe the working class can transform society, then this belief is based, not on some process of logical deduction (as the Hungarian Marxist György Lukács sometimes implies), but on the past historical achievements of the working class. What workers have done before, they can do again – and better. The 1848 revolutions, the Paris Commune, Russia 1905, Spain 1936, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Portugal 1974-75, and many other episodes, form a tradition which we must study and keep alive. Above all, is Russia 1917 and its aftermath – as Alex states “the first and still the only successful working class revolution”.

Was Lenin a Leninist?
Within that revolutionary period the figure of Lenin is crucial, as organiser but also as a developer of Marxist theory, especially in his most important work, written amid the revolutionary crisis, State and Revolution (oddly Alex makes no mention of Lenin’s theory of the state, concentrating entirely on party organisation). Here Lenin insists that the state is – in Lukács’s words – “a weapon of class struggle”. Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, the foundation of our tendency, is important not just as an explanation of Stalinism but because it shows that socialism cannot be equated with state ownership. It flows directly from State and Revolution.

Along with Lenin’s writings we should study the testimonies of those who knew him and worked with him, such as Alfred Rosmer’s Lenin’s Moscow, Victor Serge’s Memoirs and the remarkable Reminiscences of Lenin by Clara Zetkin1. These reveal Lenin as a complex person, a “great teacher”, but also one who knew how to learn from the working class. He knew when to be “hard”, but also when to conciliate, when a split was necessary but also how to pull together (since splitting is so much easier, Lenin’s self-appointed successors have generally concentrated on this).

Defending 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.”

In his discussion of party organisation Alex stresses “democratic centralism”. His arguments are compelling. He is right to reject “unworkable…methods of decision-making based on consensus”. On the other hand we also reject the Labour Party model, in which critics such as Owen Jones have wide freedom to propose alternative policies, but, given the actual power structure, have zero chance of actually affecting what the party does.

But “democratic centralism” has meant many things, and much has been done in its name. Whether it is the essence of “Leninism” is very dubious. As Lars T Lih has recently pointed out, it was the Mensheviks who took up the idea before Lenin.2

Alex stresses two features of “our version” of democratic centralism. Firstly “decisions must be debated fully, but once they have been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members”. This seems to me to be true, but only a part of the truth. Of course votes are necessary, but they are only a means to an end. For revolutionaries the crucial point is not winning the vote, but winning the argument. As Cliff put it in his pamphlet on Factory Branches, “Obviously we would prefer to be in a minority getting, say, 100 votes among 500 workers at a meeting, to an IS majority of seven among ten workers coming to a meeting.” True in the trade union movement and just as true inside the party.

Trade unionists know the familiar scenario. You move support for a demonstration in your branch and the resolution is carried more or less unanimously. But when you get to the demo you are the only one there and you have to hunt frantically for someone to hold the other pole of your banner. You won the vote but not the argument.

Likewise in the party there is disagreement as to whether to back candidate X or candidate Y in a trade union election. Comrades disagree. There is discussion followed by a vote. It is agreed to back X. Those who supported Y are disciplined comrades. They express no dissent, vote the right way in meetings and hand out leaflets. But if they still believe Y is the best choice they will not campaign vigorously and convincingly among their workmates and fellow trade unionists. They can only do that when convinced politically, not because they have been outvoted.

Revolutionary conviction
Revolutionary politics is about conviction. Comrades do not sell papers in the rain at 6am because a majority voted that they should. They do it because they have been convinced of the rightness of the arguments in the paper, because they are proud of their organisation and the paper it produces.

The higher the stakes, the truer this is. A trade union election is a short-term tactical matter. But revolutionary organisations face much more serious choices. In April 1917 Lenin returned to Russia and, against the majority view in his party, argued that it was possible to move directly to soviet power. Those Bolsheviks who supported him in the ensuing arguments were in many cases voting for their own deaths. Insurrections cannot be carried out by majority vote, but only with the determined conviction of the vast majority of the membership.

What might this mean in practice? A leadership that wants to win the vote will try to ensure that as many conference places as possible go to pro-leadership delegates, that the opposition’s right to argue its case is limited, so that uncommitted comrades are not confused. A leadership that wants to win the argument will allow the opposition ample time and space to put its position, and will ensure that conference delegations are balanced and that the most articulate representatives of the opposition are present. This is not from any liberal principle of “fairness”. It is because you can’t win the argument if you don’t have it. The leadership will do so because it is confident in the superiority of its positions and its ability to convince the minority.

The downturn debate
A good example of this is the extended debate which took place in the SWP in 1979-82 about the “downturn”, winding up rank and file groups and the closure of Women’s Voice (for a full account see my biography of Tony Cliff, chapter 10). The debate continued over an extended period; there was no attempt to close it by a single vote (though of course particular policy decisions were taken); good comrades were lost, but relatively few. This was because the leadership had the self-confidence and the patience to go on till they won the argument.

Which brings us to Alex’s second feature of democratic centralism: “A strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction to our party’s work.” Again an obvious truth – nobody is going to start a faction demanding “weaker leadership”. But it leaves a lot of questions open. What is strong leadership? Clearly it is not leadership that has to rely heavily on formal discipline. Older comrades may remember Gerry Healy, leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party. He is reputed to have said on the occasion of expulsions and resignations that were common in his organisation: “With every defection the party grows stronger.” The logic offers a grim warning for us all.

The source of Lenin’s authority was clear. In 1917 thousands of Bolshevik members and sympathisers turned to Lenin because they knew his record. He had held the party together during the bad times. More important, he had seized the opportunities offered by the rise of the soviets in 1905, and at the time of the daily Pravda in 1912. That record, combined with the strength of his arguments, enabled Lenin to win over, first the party, then the working class, in 1917.

The SWP has nothing comparable to its credit. Nonetheless Alex is quite right to defend our record, to point to our ability to “punch above our weight”. Those of us who have been in the SWP for a long time (in my case 50 years) have a lot to feel proud of. We played a key role in launching the Anti Nazi League (which helped prevent the British far-right from taking off in the way it did elsewhere in Europe) and the Stop The War Campaign (which didn’t stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but probably did help deter invasions of Syria and Iran). Moreover, there were many hundreds of smaller campaigns and struggles.

The SWP leadership was strong in another way. It had the self-confidence to change its mind. At the beginning of both the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the campaign against the poll tax we took positions which, though they had a formal justification, were somewhat sectarian. In both cases the leadership was able to change its mind and we played a very positive role in both struggles.

Accumulated experience
But leadership is not inherited. Death has robbed us of the leadership core which served the party so well from 1968 to the beginning of the new century. Nor can leadership rely on election alone. If there is more accumulated experience in the membership than in the leadership, then the leadership has to learn from the membership and draw in that experience. As Alex rightly says, leadership must be accountable. If it has made mistakes, if it has presided over a weakening of the party, then it must be “strong” enough to admit that openly and honestly and to take responsibility. These are preconditions for the “continuous creative renewal” Alex and I both desire.

So let us defend Lenin and October 1917, but also let us face the realities of our current difficult situation, without bluff or triumphalism. As Cliff used to put it, “If you sit on Marx’s shoulders you see far, but if you sit on Marx’s shoulders and close your eyes, you don’t see very far at all.”

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