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Paul Le Blanc’s defence of Tony Cliff’s ‘Building the Party’ – Pham Binh replies
By Pham Binh
January 31, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- When I discovered that Paul Le Blanc had responded to my review of Tony Cliff’s Building the Party I was hoping for the scholarly and thorough approach he used in writing his book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. What I found was quite the opposite.
Le Blanc begins his response by claiming that my book review’s “obvious purpose is to persuade the reader that Tony Cliff’s book is little more than a mass of ‘egregious misrepresentations’ and ‘has so many gross factual and political errors that it is useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts.’ This is a demolition job. It doesn’t offer much that we can use and build on as we face the challenges of today and tomorrow.”
I drew my conclusions about Cliff’s book only after I closely studied what Lenin said and did and compared it to what Cliff claimed Lenin said and did. The more I studied, the more striking the divergences became.
As someone who was a member of the US International Socialist Organization for many years and used Building the Party as a text to (mis)educate people on Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the nature, scale and pervasiveness of Cliff’s distortions continually shocked me as I discovered them.
Le Blanc evades my documentation of Cliff’s distortions and ignores whether the evidence I presented in my book review supports my conclusion. Instead he rejects my conclusion from the outset because he does not share it and makes spurious charges against me and poorly documented assertions about the history of the Bolshevik party.
Le Blanc criticises me for not “offer[ing] much that we can use and build on as we face the challenges of today and tomorrow”. My 6000 word piece was a book review, a comparison between what Cliff said about Lenin’s words and actions and Lenin’s actual words and actions. A book review of Building the Party is not the place to discuss revolutionary strategy for the historic Occupy uprising, a topic I have addressed at length in “Occupy and the tasks of socialists”.
No one on the US socialist left has written a response to that piece despite its international circulation and if Le Blanc is interested in discussing the “challenges of today and tomorrow” I suggest he start there instead of Cliff’s book.
Le Blanc continues:
As it stands now, the comrade makes reference, with that unfortunate self-assurance, to the “secret expulsions and other abuses of power by party officials that plague all ‘Leninist” organisations’”. One can certainly find examples of this in one or another group (even those not self-identifying as “Leninist”), but as someone who has belonged to more than one organisation considering itself to be Leninist, and as a scholar who has studied other such organisations, I must challenge this assertion that “secret expulsions and other abuses of power” plague all such organisations that I have belonged to and studied. It is simply not true.
Sadly, two of the “Leninist” groups Le Blanc belonged to engaged in such practices, the first most dramatically in the 1980s under the reign of Jack Barnes and the second more recently during the past two years (and perhaps earlier as well; most group members know almost nothing of the group’s history).
I speak with self-assurance because I was alerted to these events by some of the individuals involved. In the digital age expulsions even in the most secretive organisations can no longer be done without anyone knowing. All it takes to find about such incidents is a bit of diligence, curiosity, and a Google search.
Le Blanc states: “The problem is (and no serious historian of the period disagrees) that Lenin and Krupskaya and Bolshevik supporters in Russia actually did put together a network of Bolshevik groups in Russia operating separately from the Menshevik faction.”
This is not a problem because I never argued otherwise. What I challenged and what Le Blanc did not address in his reply to me was Cliff’s claim that Lenin organised “a completely new set of centralised committees, quite regardless of Rule 6 of the party statutes, which reserved to the Central Committee the right to organise and recognise committees”.
Does Le Blanc agree that Lenin broke rule six by organising “completely new” committees after the 1903 congress? Yes or no?
What [Binh] fails to note, however, is what is said by others active in the movement at that time (the well-documented account of Bolshevik-turned-Menshevik Solomon Schwarz, Krupskaya’s memoirs, Trotsky’s biography of Stalin) about the actuality of just such a debate. In a scholarly dispute with me on the matter, Lars Lih, while minimising its significance, at least acknowledges the fact that there was such debate but argues that Lenin was wrong about the realities and unfair to those Bolshevik comrades on the other side of the debate, who outvoted him.
The debate at the 1905 third congress was over how to recruit workers, not whether to recruit workers. No one argued against recruiting workers to party committees as Cliff claimed.
On the myth that the Bolsheviks formed a separate party from the Mensheviks in 1912, Le Blanc says:
A more knowledgeable historian than Comrade Pham, Isaac Deutscher (hardly a Cliff adherent), in The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (page 198), tells us: “Early in 1912, the schism was brought to its conclusion. At the conference in Prague Lenin proclaimed the Bolshevik faction to be the Party.” Trotsky says the same thing in his biography of Stalin (page 136): “Having thus gone all the way in breaking with the Mensheviks, the Prague Conference opened the era of the independent existence of the Bolshevik Party, with its own Central Committee.” Gregory Zinoviev, who was involved in the 1912 Prague conference, recounts in his History of the Bolshevik Party (page 170) that this was the moment “to break finally with them [the Mensheviks] and build our own independent organization based upon the resurgent workers’ movement”. In a succinct biography of Lenin (page 112), the highly respected Lars Lih affirms that Lenin decided to cut the Gordian Knot of factional strife “by simply deciding that his group was the real party,” elaborating: “After a series of institutional maneuvres, the so-called Prague Conference of January 1912 – consisting of Lenin, Zinoviev, and about fourteen Bolshevik practiki from Russia – elected a new Central Committee and thus a new party.” In Reminiscences of Lenin, Krupskaya explained (pages 230, 231): “The results of the Prague Conference were a clearly defined Party line on questions of work in Russia, and real leadership of practical work. ... A unity was achieved on the C.C. without which it would have been impossible to carry on the work at such a difficult time.”
Not one of these pieces of evidence comes from a primary source. These accounts were written more than a decade after the events of 1912 (in Lars T. Lih’s case almost a century elapsed since).
Le Blanc does not address or explain Lenin’s words (words I quoted in my review) to the International Socialist Bureau written in 1912:
In all, twenty organisations established close ties with the Organising Commission convening this conference; that is to say, practically all the organisations, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, active in Russia at the present time. (My emphasis.)
Le Blanc does not mention the text of a resolution passed by the 1912 Prague conference:
The Conference deems it its duty to stress the enormous importance of the work accomplished by the Russian Organising Commission in rallying all the Party organisations in Russia irrespective of factional affiliation, and in re-establishing our Party as an all-Russian organisation. The activity of the Russian Organising Commission, in which Bolsheviks and pro-Party Mensheviks in Russia worked in harmony, is to be all the more commended since it was carried out under incredibly trying conditions due to police persecution and in face of numerous obstacles and difficulties arising out of the situation within the Party. (My emphasis.)
Worst of all, Le Blanc resorts to quoting Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party in a misleading way to support his claim that the Bolsheviks formed a separate party from the Mensheviks at the 1912 Prague conference. Here is the full, unabridged sentence from Zinoviev:
After the 1908 conference, and more especially after the 1910 plenum, we Leninist Bolsheviks said to ourselves that we would not work together with the liquidator Mensheviks and that we were only awaiting a convenient moment to break finally from them and form our own independent organization based upon the resurgent workers’ movement. (Le Blanc excluded the words I emphasised.)
Le Blanc’s evidence proves that it was the “liquidator Mensheviks” that the Prague 1912 conference broke with, not the Mensheviks as a whole. If he, Cliff, Trotsky and Deutscher are right that the Bolsheviks formed a party separate from the Mensheviks at the 1912 Prague conference then Lenin, Zinoviev and the 1912 Prague conference resolution are wrong.
When our views about history are contradicted by facts we should modify our views to better fit the facts, not change the facts to fit our views. I hope Le Blanc as a professor of history can agree with me on this despite my status as a rank amateur.
[Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, The Indypendent, Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch and thenorthstar.info, a collaborative blog by and for occupiers from across the US. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net.]