What kind of party does the working class need, part 2

15 Nov

In the previous part of this article I pointed to some of the problems of the existing far left, and also some developments in the real world that it has proven unable to properly analyse. Now I will turn to questions of organisation in as concrete a manner as possible, basing myself on historical analysis, recent practical experience, and some conception of what the tasks of a new working class party actually are.

The rationale for the existing state of extreme fragmentation that afflicts the far left is, believe it or not, the model of the Bolshevik Party. In historical terms, it goes like this: the Bolsheviks were the only major party of the Second International which stood up against the tide of betrayal that swept away the International when its component parties supported their respective governments in the First World War. This was because in practice, the Bolshevik Party was organised in a fundamentally different way. It did not include all shades of opinion in the working class movement, and in particular it did not include reformist trends; rather it had split in practice with the political equivalents of the pro-war socialists before war broke out, principally with the Mensheviks [the softer, more conciliatory and reformist-inclined trend in Russian socialism]..

Even though the Bolshevik leaders, most notably Lenin, did not equate or associate the main leaders of the German SPD [Social Democratic Party], the chief party of the International, with the Menshevik faction in Russian Social Democracy, and in fact had considerable illusions in SPD leader and theoretician Kaustky in particular, nevertheless they were fundamentally the same thing politically. This was revealed on the outbreak of World War I when the German party, along with other lesser parties on either side of the various imperialist blocs,  the SPD supported its own government in the war.

Because of the different political nature of the Bolshevik Party, it did the opposite and declared war on the imperialist war and imperialism itself, This major, principled difference meant that the Bolshevik Party was able to, when the opportunity arose as Russia stumbled to defeat and catastrophe, lead a genuine working class revolution and make a start on the task of uprooting capitalism and building socialism.

“Iron Discipline”

Furthermore, it is said, that the Bolshevik Party’s effectiveness sprang from its ‘iron discipline’, which meant that this party was able to act in a unified manner when other parties were paralysed by major public controversies between their left, revolutionary inclined sections and the reformist and increasingly pro-capitalist right-wing currents.

So for the more serious elements of today’s far left, from the Socialist Workers Party down to some of the tiniest fringe groups of Trotskyism, duplicating the ‘discpline’ of Lenin’s party is the key to building a revolutionary party today. This is generally interpreted to mean that on all major issues of controversy with competitors or opponents of the socialist organisation, the party should speak with one voice. If some members of the party disagree with the political positions or ‘line’ put forward by the leadership of the party, their duty is to argue in private, behind the scenes, for the official position of the party to be changed.

Then, in theory at least, after a full discussion of the issues at stake, the revelant party body takes a vote – for routine matters it may the central committee of the party, for major issues it may be a conference. And once the decision or vote is taken, the whole party is expected to unite behind the political line just decided, and to argue publicly for it whether or not they agree with it.

For those who believe in this method of political organisation, this is known as democratic centralism. Freedom of discussion and debate only exists until a decision is taken, and even then generally only behind closed doors. Once a decision is reached by these methods, public criticism is not only frowned upon, but in most cases it becomes a violation of the party rules and leads to expulsion.

Some forms of ‘democratic centralism’ take this conception even further, and place severe restrictions on the right of members to continue to argue against a decision even in private once a decision is taken. Apparently it is the duty of members to refrain from such criticism for a whole period afterwards, often to fit in with the schedule of an organisation that holds an annual conference.

In the SWP, for instance, members are only allowed to organise themselves into factional groupings to argue for different positions to the status quo in the three months before conference. After conference is over, such factional groupings must be dissolved. Failure to do this results in the expulsion of those continuing to defend their views as a collective.

Pointless Splits

The recent split of Counterfire from the SWP was the result of this kind of situation, as political tensions and disagreements overflowed the very rigid and bureaucratic norms of the SWP, resulting in the formation of two seperate revolutionary socialist organisations. But if you examine the real differences between them, they are not fundamental but rather differences of emphasis and tactics in the main.

There is no rational need for two seperate organisations here. The Counterfire-SWP split is just one of many such splits among revolutionary currents derived from the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition, that has for decades now been a laughing stock in wider society and political life because of the proliferation of splinter groups who differ in the main over questions of secondary importance.

Jibes about the ’57 varieties of Trotskyism’ abound. There are a number of well-known scenes from Monty Python’s famous comedy film The Life of Brian in which wars between rival left-wing sects are re-cast as rival groups of religious ‘liberation fighters’ in the time of Jesus, cursing and beating each other up over disagreements that are incomprehensible to outsiders.

This tendency to fragmentation is duplicated all over the world. Wherever there are Trotskyists, there are numerous competing splinter groups/sects, a map of whose relations with each other, both within and across national boundaries shows a ridiculous degree of complexity. And of course, if you ask the leaders or rank-and file militants of virtually any of these groupings how their particular grouping justifies its separate existence vis-a-vis the others, you will encounter at times belligerence, at other times bewilderment as to how it could be otherwise.

Marxist ideas have rarely been more relevant than today. Capitalism is now in its deepest economic crisis since the 1930s. Yet the left has never been weaker, more fragmented or less capable of even interpreting the world in a way consonant with reality, let alone changing it (to paraphrase one of Marx’s most famous and relevant statements). How is this contradiction to be explained?

Toytown Bolshevism – a travesty of Marxism

If it is not the ideas and method of Marxism that are at fault, it can only be that the far left is crippled by a widely held, defective conception of how to organise. To put it simply, in advanced capitalist societies with developed political culture and complex, diverse and sophisticated forms of civil society, the organisational model that overthrew the very backward, feudal/semi-capitalist Russian state in 1917 is simply not up to the job. Attempts to duplicate this by the far left leads to this ridiculous fragmentation and the phenomenon of ‘Toytown Bolshevism’, an object of justifiable mockery by the working class and a gift to opponents of Marxism of virtually every stripe.

We need something better, that can allow political differences to be discussed in a rational manner without generating numerous pointless splits. We need to generate a different dynamic of political debate and discussion of often complex issues, one that prizes both the freedom to criticise and generate improved understanding of the real world through debate, and also the unity of revolutionary forces.

We need to generate a party ethos where such unity is prized, and in fact the expression of that unity is precisely the freedom to fearlessly criticise and improve our ideas without the fear that such debate will lead to splits. It should be said that this conception will not end all splits. Only the pointless ones. Some splits will continue to happen and will be justified. Though in such cases the reasons will be public and pretty straightforward and obvious.

Freedom of Revolutionary Criticism

So what does this mean? It means that a revolutionary party has no right to expect public unanimity from its members on disputed questions of ideas and their implementation. On the contrary, freedom to criticise the party majority, including in public, should be written into the party constitution as the right of every member or group of members.

The only restriction on this – and this is part of the ethos of revolutionary unity I mentioned earlier, is that such criticism should not take place in a manner designed to undermine actual practical decisions of the party, for instance when party members are leading a strike or organising demonstrations, or some other concrete action even to the point in a revolutionary situation of organising an uprising.

This restriction then would be simply one of timing. And in fact there could be no absolute hard-and-fast rule even then. If an action is contentious among the party membership and it becomes obvious even as it is happening that it is seriously unwise, party members’ constitutional right to criticise would still apply. A political evaluation of the benefit or harm from such criticism will much of the time only be possible in hindsight, in which case the party bodies, preferably a proper conference, will be able to decide whether particular criticism was helpful or harmful to the interests of the party.

So the right of public factional disagreement should be the norm. Those who defend a particular set of political views, as against others that also share the general revolutionary aims of the party, should have the absolute right to express those views in public. That means the right to write about them in party publications, the right to publish them in public factional publications of their own, even the right to publish them in non-party publications if the opportunity were to arise. This is one side of a very important approach to party unity: unity through the right of free, revolutionary criticism.

Freedom of Association … and Freedom of Dissociation

There is another side to this however. If freedom of criticism is vital to revolutionary socialists, so is freedom of association. Meaning the freedom of groups of people who share common goals, as broadly defined as is practical, to associate with each other against others who have different goals. And freedom of association is meaningless without also the freedom to dissociate. The freedom not to be associated with a particular reactionary standpoint.

That freedom is just as fundamental and important as the right to free criticism in a revolutionary movement. The tension between these two rights, rather than the bureaucratic forbidding of public political controversy, will play an important role in driving forward political struggles in revolutionary parties in the future. It also puts a limit on the right of free criticism, but a limit that cannot be discerned in advance from a rule book. Such an ethos transforms the political life of a party build along these lines from something predictable as derived from a book of rules, into a political art.

To put it plainly – those holding different points of view have the right to publicly criticise each other. But the party membership itself has the right to vote, at an authoritative gathering such as a conference, to exclude a political current whose publicly outspoken views are consistently right outside the framework of the party’s commitment to defending the working class and the oppressed. Such people would not be being excluded for exercising the right to criticism, but for the content of their advocacy that crossed class lines in some decisive sense.

Beyond ‘Democratic Centralism’

So what about ‘democratic centralism’? Is this not the doctrine and organisational method of revolutionary socialists, and the indispensable method that led the working class to power in Russia, the weapon finally discovered that can mobilise the working class into a centralised force that can take on and defeat the centralised capitalist state, which the capitalists ultimately depend upon to hold on to their power? Is this a form of this?

No, it is not democratic centralism, at least not in the sense that it is understood by the Leninist-Trotskyist left. It is a unity of two principles: a communist programme, and its creative application in both understanding the world and taking collective action to change it. In Russia, because of the very considerable backwardness of the country compared to the more advanced capitalist countries in the West, and because the revolutionary tasks on the agenda were those of a bourgeois revolution against a pre-capitalist autocracy, I would argue that the Bolshevik Party had an element of primitive authoritarianism about it which is not useful for the task of overthrowing capitalism in much more developed and culturally complex societies.

As Perry Anderson pointed out in the latter part of his superb study of the twilight European feudalism:

…it is necessary to have the courage to draw the consequences. The Russian revolution was not made against a capitalist state at all. The Tsarism which fell in 1917 was a feudal apparatus; the Provisional Government never had time to replace it with a new and stable bourgeois apparatus. The Bolsheviks made a socialist revolution, but from beginning to end they never confronted the central enemy of the workers movement in the West. Gramsci’s intuition was correct: the modern capitalist State of Western Europe remained – after the October Revolution – a new political object for Marxist theory and revolutionary practice. (Lineages of the Absolutist State, Verso 1974, p359)

There are two things that are necessary for a revolution to be victorious – one being a crisis where the ruling class is unable to stabilise its rule, and the other a determined mass movement armed with both clarity about what it wants and the organisational means to bring it about. which means mass organisations with enough social and physical power at their disposal to overturn the existing state.

But actually, while the actual struggle to overturn the state will indeed require centralised and highly coordinated action, it also requires a political instrument that can unite all the varied revolutionary-minded elements that are radicalised in the ongoing struggles against capitalism, and harness their talents for a greater good. To create such an instrument is not an easy task. But it is made more difficult, in fact impossible, by futile attempts to recreate the ethos of an organisation that was very successful in a large, backward country on the fringes of capitalist development, very much contrary to the original projections and orthodoxy as to how socialism was supposed to come about.

The Bolshevik Party’s practice and eventually the doctrine of democratic centralist organisation that became the orthodoxy of the early Comintern and the Fourth International  were more or less cobbled together ad-hoc in far from ideal conditions for generalisation to other, every different situations.

One reason why the revolutionary left is in such a disastrous, enfeebled state is theoretical and programmatic laziness, and the belief that one day if we only follow the prescriptions that Lenin but forward in a completely different situation, and for a different purpose, we will eventually get the same outcome. This is actually a kind of vicarious get-rich-quick scheme, albeit a very ineffective one.

Remember Lenin did not actually believe that a fully-fledged workers revolution was even possible in Russia at the time he wrote What is to be Done, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back and other similar works on how to build a revolutionary organisation in those conditions. This can easily be ascertained by reading Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, which advocated not a fully-fledged working class regime, but a class coalition with a section of the radicalised petty-bourgeoisie.

An organisation built for these purposes in such very different conditions, even though it succeeded in its objectives as well as going further to a short-lived socialist dictatorship in Russia (I am not going to get into Stalinism here because that is a completely different subject), cannot be simply used as a model for struggles in today’s world. That does not mean we should simply reject every aspect of that experience.

But the religious following of this model as a substitute for innovation and programmatic development through our own creativity and efforts is a dead end. Toytown Bolsheviks will never lead the revolution, not a hope in hell, that’s for sure.

This article is only a brief sketch and outline of some of the issues that need to be addressed in building a revolutionary socialist party today. It does however provide a framework that can be expanded upon. In due course…


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2 responses to “What kind of party does the working class need, part 2

  1. Binh

    November 22, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    This is a good start but the reality is that 99% of “Leninist” groups have zero in common with the Bolsheviks’ methods, practices, or structure. They didn’t even fully split with the Mensheviks until 1917, and even that was not “final” (Trotsky’s group famously joined their ranks). There is a lot of history we need to unpack and re-examine. I hope to do this in a future book review of Cliff’s awful and wrong Volume One of Lenin.

  2. redscribe

    November 25, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Will be very interested to read this. Please see my other comment on the first part of this article for more points in response.


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