Donate to Links
Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box
- Saleh muslim on expulsion of arabs
17 hours 38 min ago
- Lars Lih responds to: ‘Did Kautsky advocate ‘Leninism’’?
2 days 3 hours ago
- The Future of the Left in Scotland
1 week 6 days ago
- Brazil: No to Temer’s government imposed by an corrupt Congress
1 week 6 days ago
2 weeks 1 hour ago
- Of Icons, Myths and Doug Enaa Greene
3 weeks 22 hours ago
- This election is a crisis
3 weeks 2 days ago
- Characterizing Russia
3 weeks 2 days ago
- response to Roger Annis (continued)
3 weeks 3 days ago
- imperialism and Syria
3 weeks 4 days ago
Paul D’Amato: The mangling of Tony Cliff
Boris Kustodiev's 1920 painting "Bolshevik".
[Click HERE to follow the debate on Tony Cliff's Lenin. For more discussion on Lenin, click HERE. For more discussion on revolutionary organisation, click HERE.]
By Paul D’Amato
February 4, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Pham Binh’s criticism of the late British Marxist Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party (“Mangling the Party”), published in the Australian journal Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, is substantially wrong on many points; but its chief defect is that it is a hatchet job.
According to Binh, Building the Party is a “useless” book, so full of “gross factual and political errors” as well as “falsehoods and misrepresentations” that the reader who has had the misfortune of coming into contact with it will have to “unlearn … if they want a reasonably accurate picture of Lenin’s work”. Cliff’s book, Binh claims, contains so many errors, falsehoods and “lies” that its US publisher, Haymarket Books, should “stop selling and profiting” from it.
The intention to malign Cliff is made clear from the very first paragraphs. According to Binh, Cliff’s statements that Lenin “adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation” and “combined theory and practice to perfection” are comparable to the way the Stalin’s Lenin cult treated Lenin—apparently because of the use of the word “perfection”.
One would think that what Binh describes as “the first book-length political biography of Lenin written by a Marxist” (by a staunch anti-Stalinist no less) would deserve a more serious and measured response. One might expect that Binh would offer us at least the outlines of his own version of a “reasonably accurate picture” of Lenin. What he gives us instead is a series of poorly aimed potshots that occasionally hit their mark, but often miss badly.
That’s not to say that Building the Party is free of errors, or is the last word on Lenin. Cliff was not averse to paraphrasing passages of other authors without attribution (for example, the opening passage of Building the Party is lifted practically verbatim from chapter 9 of Trotsky’s The Young Lenin). Binh is correct in pointing out that Lenin did not “practically run” Pravda. Cliff’s treatment of What is to Be Done? is not very strong, and so on. Yet whatever Cliff’s errors, and whatever we may disagree with in his biography of Lenin, none of this adds up to it being worthless book by a deliberate falsifier.
Moreover, there is much that is valuable in Building the Party. It was one of the first political biographies of Lenin that was not written either from a Stalinist or a Cold War perspective. Second, rather than bad paraphrasing and distorting interpretation, Cliff let’s Lenin do a great deal of the talking. Though it comes from a different book (Marcel Liebman’s 1973 book, Leninism Under Lenin), this statement about Lenin sums up, I think, what Cliff admirably conveys about Lenin:
Among all the leading socialists of Europe, he was the only one in whom the qualities of the theoretician were combined to such an extent with those of the practical politician—the only one to have actually created a party.
Admittedly, Cliff’s book is less a full biography of Lenin, than, to quote Cliff’s contemporary and fellow British Socialist Workers Party member Duncan Hallas, “a manual for revolutionaries” that “might well have been called Building the Party – Illustrated from the Life of Lenin”. But that is also what gives the book its vitality.
What is surprising is that in his in zeal to expose Cliff’s alleged errors, Binh commits quite a few of his own. Let’s look at a few examples that illustrate this.
Lenin the agitator
Up until the mid-1890s, the time when the young Lenin moved from populism to Marxism, the Russian socialist movement was organised chiefly around the dissemination of propaganda to a small number of workers by drawing them into educational study circles, around the expectation that a workers’ party in Russia would form eventually, based on the proliferation of these circles throughout Russia. To turn away from this political cul-de-sac the Jewish Bundists Kremer and Yuri Martov wrote On Agitation in 1894. (The Bundists had been having great success organising workers.) It called for social democrats (i.e., socialists) to move from study circles to “agitation among the factory workers on the basis of existing petty needs and demands”. The idea was that the workers’ own experience in economic struggles would eventually guide them toward more radical conclusions.
According to Binh, it is an “egregious misrepresentation” to say that Lenin’s ideas in this period “coincided exactly” with those expressed in On Agitation. Lenin was not one to shy away from polemics. Yet during this period he not only failed to publicly disagree with On Agitation, he joined forces with its co-author, Martov, in 1895 to form the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, and spent some months before his arrest engaging in the very factory agitation that On Agitation recommended. Moreover, before forming this new organisation, as Cliff notes, Lenin participated in a meeting with other social democrats who “accepted the basic thesis” of On Agitation.
A cursory glance at Lenin’s articles in this period show that in this period they did not directly assault the autocracy, but focused on drawing very limited conclusion in line with On Agitation. Lenin’s article, “What are our ministers thinking about?”, which Binh seems to think contradicts Cliff’s narrative, for example, is about how government ministers are afraid of workers acquiring knowledge. “Without knowledge the workers are defenceless”, reads the final sentence, “with knowledge they are a force!”. This was the most political article Lenin wrote in this period. The last sentence of Lenin’s lengthy pamphlet, entitled “An explanation of the law on fines imposed on factory workers”, concludes in the following way: “Once they have understood this, the workers will see that only one means remains for defending themselves, namely, to join forces for the struggle against the factory owners and the unjust practices established by the law.”
For Lenin, implementing the directives of On Agitation did not mean abandoning the political struggle against the autocracy (hence the statement in Lenin’s “draft program” that socialists should focus their attention mainly on the workers’ struggle for their “daily needs” rather than exclusively. Yet by Lenin’s own account, he considered this period of agitation an important stage in the development of Russia’s socialist movement.
As Lenin notes in a letter to Plekhanov (Binh quotes this for other purposes without recognising that it undermines his argument), the emphasis on agitation at that time was “the legitimate and inevitable companion of any step forward in the conditions of our movement”. When the turn to agitation produced a reformist trend, “economism”, that made limiting socialist activities to economic agitation a principle, Lenin turned against it.
Binh writes: “Cliff later states in Building the Party that ‘[n]ot to point out the direct connection between the partial reform and the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism is to cheat the workers, to fall into liberalism.’” Binh then pointedly asks: “Did Lenin fall into liberalism at this early stage of his career?” By using this quote, which appears far later in the book, Binh seems to think he has “caught” Cliff in a contradiction. Cliff’s statement, however, is really only a paraphrase of the same arguments Lenin made over and over again against the economists—that they had fallen into liberalism.
Lenin and party rules
According to Binh, Cliff’s version of Lenin favoured “informal or loose rules”. Cliff’s statement that Lenin had a “distaste for red tape and rule mongering” is meant to prove this. Binh then spends quite a bit of space showing that Lenin cared about rules. But Cliff, of course, makes no such case. Cliff simply shows that Lenin was for simple and streamlined rules, not “informal or loose rules”, as Binh claims. Cliff does make the point that Lenin’s faction was “for a long time very informal”. But this is explained by a quote from Lenin’s article “Letter to a comrade on our organisational tasks”, which is quoted by both Cliff and by Binh (though Binh thinks that by extending the quote he is proving that Cliff is deliberately omitting important information), in which Lenin explains that formal rules should wait until the constitution of a formal party structure and the establishment of detailed reporting of members to the party about their work.
What is true, and is illustrated in Cliff’s biography, is that Lenin was willing on some occasions to overlook the formal rules if he thought political necessity outweighed organisational formality—that is, when he considered the survival of the revolutionary wing of social democracy was at stake. Cliff raises this because this is the exact opposite of the characterisation of all of the anti-Lenin cottage industry that exists in the bourgeois academy: that Lenin was a proto-totalitarian because of his obsession with rules and party membership.
At the 1903 party congress at which the party split between Bolshevik (majority) and Mensheviks (minority) factions, there was a debate between Lenin and Martov over what constituted a party member. Lenin did not consider the debate serious enough to split over (as Cliff notes), but Lenin later considered the debate important in what it revealed about the two tendencies: it foreshadowed deeper differences that were to deepen and sharpen over the coming years.
Martov argued that people who were loosely associated with the party but not very active should be considered party members. Lenin wanted only those who played a regularly active role in the party to be members. Martov wanted a broader, looser party. Lenin wanted a party that distinguished, in his words, between “those who chatter and those who do the work”. Martov wanted a party that strove to embrace the whole working class; Lenin wanted a party that consisted only of the class’s most active, militant and class-conscious “vanguard”. (All of this is revealed in the minutes of the debate and what Lenin said about the debate in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.)
Binh downplays the significance of this debate by pointing out that at the April 1906 “Unity” congress, which brought the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks back together, the delegates voted for Lenin’s 1903 congress definition of a party member. What the significance of this is, other than indicating that the 1905 revolution drove the Mensheviks briefly leftward and more closely in alignment with the Bolsheviks, is beyond me. According to Binh, we are to dismiss the significance of anything that happened in the Russian socialist movement if Lenin does not refer to it in his exceedingly brief outline of the Bolsheviks pre-revolutionary years in Left Wing Communism.
The 1912 split
Binh claims that Cliff is wrong to say that the 1912 Prague RSDLP conference finalised the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, heralding the transition from the Bolsheviks from a faction to a party. In doing so, he confuses form with content. Lenin and his supporters in the Bolshevik faction called an all-party conference that invited various factional representatives within Russia’s socialist movement. It was presented, in form, as an official congress of the RSDLP, not as a split conference of the Bolsheviks.
In content, the conference, dominated by Bolsheviks, was called to create a party centre—one that could declare itself “the” party—shorn of the anti-party liquidators and all those who wanted a party that included them (in essence, the vast majority of Mensheviks). The “liquidators” were those who wanted a purely legal organisation and who considered an illegal party apparatus “passé”. Under the autocracy, even liberals could not legally express their opinion in favour of a constitutional monarchy. Hence “liquidation” meant a turn to reformism and away from revolution.
To accomplish the split, a “Bolshevik” conference could have declared itself the “Bolshevik” Party. But it was tactically more advantageous to maneuvre in such a way as to formally expel the liquidators and their defenders (which included Martov and all the other key leading Mensheviks) from what they declared the “official” RSDLP—which is exactly what the Prague conference did. This also made sense because Lenin wanted the official sanction and funds that came with recognition from the International Bureau. Thus the fact that Binh has “discovered” that Lenin refers to Pravdists rather than Bolsheviks really proves nothing.
But why waste ink on this? The outcome of the period 1912-1917 was that two independent political parties entered the arena of struggle in 1917. The irreconcilable differences between these two parties, which led one to support soviet power and the other to oppose it, led to a Bolshevik victory over the opposition of the Mensheviks, and later to the founding of a new international that was based upon soviet power and the need for revolutionary Marxists to organisationally separate themselves from social-democratic reformism. Can a debate over the exact date when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split shed any more light in these critical developments in the history of the socialist movement?
Did Lenin fight with the ‘committeemen’ in 1905?
According to Cliff, in 1905 Lenin had a debate at the party’s third congress with the Bolshevik “committeemen”—the party organisers on the ground—about admitting more workers into the leadership of the party. Binh says the debate did not happen. His proof? Cliff’s case is “lifted wholesale” from a book by a Menshevik (and former Bolshevik), Solomon Schwarz, and that Lenin wrote a “glowing” report about the conference and didn’t mention any argument. The “inescapable” conclusion, says Binh, is that Cliff either didn’t read this report, or he “knowingly repeated a falsehood”.
The only problem is that Mr Schwarz is right—it did happen. Schwartz quotes the records of the congress (published by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1959, no less) extensively, and they show that there was indeed such a debate, a back and forth that included booing and hissing on the part of Lenin’s opponents. At one point, a speaker in favour of bringing more workers onto the local party committees complains that workers are being excluded because the standard for admitting them is higher than that for admitting revolutionary students. According to the stenographer’s record, at this point Lenin shouted “True!” and the majority shouted “Not true!”. But since Schwartz has a certain inexplicable “taint” in this discussion (apparently being a Menshevik disqualifies you from ever telling the truth), let’s simply quote Lenin’s Collected Works. Here are a few excerpts from Lenin’s “Speech on the Question of the Relations Between Workers and Intellectuals within the Social-Democratic Organizations”.
In my writings for the press I have long urged that as many workers as possible should be placed on the committees. The period since the Second Congress has been marked by inadequate attention to this duty—such is the impression I have received from talks with comrades engaged in practical Party work. … It will be the task of the future center to reorganize a considerable number of our committees; the inertness of the committee-men has to be overcome. (Applause and booing.)(http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/3rdcong/18.htm)
I could hardly keep my seat when it was said here that there are no workers fit to sit on the committees. The question is being dragged out; obviously there is something the matter with the Party. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/3rdcong/20.htm)
Why is any of this important at all? Because all of the bourgeois academic “Leninologists” agree that Lenin favoured an “elitist” party led by intellectuals on account of his alleged belief that workers were incapable of reaching socialist consciousness. This debate completely cuts against that evaluation. The debate also shows us something that was a hallmark of Lenin’s Marxism—his willingness to push for changes in tactics and organisational forms when changing conditions demanded it—but always with the goal firmly in mind: to build a party of workers capable of leading the fight against autocracy.
On stick bending
This leads us to the question of “bending the stick”.
“This readiness to bend the stick too far in one direction and then to go into reverse and bend it too far in the opposite direction was a characteristic that he retained throughout his life… At every stage of the struggle, Lenin would look for what he regarded as the key link in the chain of development. He would then repeatedly emphasize the importance of this link, to which all others must be subordinated”, writes Cliff of Lenin.
Binh interprets Cliff’s stick-bending metaphor as meaning “deliberately and one-sidedly overemphasising something one day and then the opposite thing the next day in different circumstances”. Bending the stick, says Binh, means “one-sided overemphasis and distortion”.
Though I think a legitimate point can be made that this is not the best metaphor (bending the stick “too far” in one direction) to describe Lenin’s method, this is a flippant characterisation of what Cliff is presenting (as if he is saying that Lenin flip-flopped from one day to the next). Moreover, Cliff’s characterisation is not at variance with Lenin’s own explanations of his behaviour.
Cliff quotes Lenin thus:
The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.
After which Cliff states:
He often returned to this metaphor and in practice always obeyed
the rule that it illustrated; during the most critical periods he was able to
set aside all the secondary factors and grasp the most central one. He brushed
aside anything that could directly or indirectly divert him from the main
Lenin said of What is to be Done?, “We all now know that the ‘economists’ have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction—and that is what I have done.” Another version of this translates Lenin as saying, “We all know that the economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction.” On another occasion, after the outbreak of the 1905 revolution, when Lenin was attempting to push the Bolsheviks toward more energetic practical work, he wrote: “We have ‘theorized’ for so long (sometimes—why not admit it?—to no use) in the unhealthy atmosphere of political exile, that it will really not be amiss if we now ‘bend the bow’ slightly, just a little, ‘the other way’ and put practice a little more in the forefront.”
It was Lenin’s appreciation for the totality of development not “stick bending”, that led him to write polemics against economists, Mensheviks, followers of Bogdanov, liquidators, “left” communists, and Karl Kautsky, all of whom did not make the transition from one stage of the “heroic scenario” to the next by adapting themselves to the new “tasks”.
Profound as this point is, it is identical to what Cliff argues in several places. For example:
At the same time a clear scientific understanding of the general contours of historical development of the class struggle is essential for a revolutionary leader. He will not be able to keep his bearings and his confidence through the twists and turns of the struggle unless he has a general knowledge of economics and politics. Therefore Lenin repeated many times that strategy and tactics must be based “on an exact appraisal of the objective situation”, while at the same time being “shaped after analyzing class relations in their entirety”. (http://www.marxists.org/
Lenin describes his own approach, I think, well in a 1907 piece that looks retrospectively back on the Iskra period, when Lenin argued hard to create an organisation of professional revolutionaries:
To maintain today that Iskra exaggerated (in 1901 and 1902) the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries, is like reproaching the Japanese, after the Russo-Japanese War, for having exaggerated the strength of Russia’s armed forces, for having prior to the war exaggerated the need to prepare for fighting these forces… Unfortunately, many of those who judge our Party are outsiders, who do not know the subject, who do not realize that today the idea of an organization of professional revolutionaries has already scored a complete victory. That victory would have been impossible if this idea had not been pushed to the forefront at the time, if we had not “exaggerated” so as to drive it home to people who were trying to prevent it from being realised. (http://www.marxists.org/
Yet no one can read Lenin without seeing that every major turning point found him looking (and studying) “for what he regarded as the key link in the chain of development” and then “ repeatedly “emphasising its importance”. Hal Draper called this feature of Lenin’s “characteristic of Lenin the man, and not merely Lenin the Marxist”. In 1915, Lenin fondly quoted a French philosopher who wrote, “Strong ideas are those that give impetus and create scandals, that provoke indignation, anger, irritation among one kind of people, enthusiasm among others.”
Draper rightly points to the perils involved in Lenin’s method:
Whatever benefits there are in this method, his contemporaries got; the same cannot be said for the generation or two that tried to learn from his writings Without understanding that, in reading Lenin, it is as important to know what he is polemically concerned about at the moment as it is to understand what he is saying. If there ever was a case where “authority by quotation” is misleading, it is the business of matching texts from Lenin. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1953/defeat/chap3.htm)
Certainly Cliff does not always use the term correctly to describe Lenin’s behaviour. For example, he argues at one point that Lenin’s turn from study circles to agitation is an early example of stick bending, whereas Lenin did not convince others of the need for agitation—others convinced him. But Binh presents us a caricature of Cliff that makes Binh’s own assessment, which in reality mirrors much of what Cliff presents, appear more insightful than it actually is.
Why a review of a book written more than three decades ago; one, moreover, that most people haven’t even read? If we are to judge by the article’s dedication -- “to anyone and everyone who has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party’” -- Binh must be exorcising some pretty haunting political demons. Given the weakness of Binh’s case, what possibly could be his motivation for writing this? To quote one contributor to Marxmail on the Binh’s article—why this “exercise in misguided and unproductive pedantry?”
To get at what he is saying, it is necessary to refer to another of Pham’s writings, “Bolshevism in context”, a reply he wrote to a speech by Paul Le Blanc:
“Leninists” project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible.
This is precisely one of the things Cliff avoids in his treatment of Lenin. In his review of Cliff’s book, Duncan Hallas adds a “word of caution”, after which he quotes Lenin’s famous statement about the organisational structure of the communist parties promulgated by the Comintern in 1921. Lenin agreed with it, but considered it to be “too Russian”, explaining: “I am sure that no foreigner can read it.” Not, said Lenin, because it is written in Russian, but because “we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners”. Hallas continues:
It is the spirit, not the letter, of the Bolshevik experience that is valuable. The differences between the Russia of 1910 and Britain – or Germany or the USA or wherever – in the 1970s are enormous.
It is simplemindedness to believe that the answer to today’s problems can be found by an “appropriate” (actually, often highly inappropriate) reference to Lenin’s life and works without consideration of the circumstances of the time.
One of the great strengths of Cliff’s book is that it sets Lenin’s changing and developing ideas in the context of the struggle, of the living movement and the concrete yet ever-changing conditions in which it fought to exist and to grow.
What Binh says next in this article shows that it is he who wishes to “project” his “conceptions of organization back in time”:
The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn't make any sense to them).
The point is that the “revolutionary Marxist program” did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP's history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Mensheviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.
This is a quite charitable presentation of the Mensheviks’ views, whose “practical orientation” in the “actual class struggle” was determined by a fundamentally different conception of the role of the working class in the struggle against tsarism. To say that both were for the overthrow of autocracy tells us practically nothing, since the populists, the Socialist Revolutionaries, were for the same thing.
The Mensheviks wished to subordinate the interests of the working class to those of the bourgeois liberals. The Bolsheviks considered the bourgeoisie counterrevolutionary—that is, a class that would in the face of upheaval turn against the revolution. The leading role in the struggle should therefore fall to the working class, in alliance with the peasantry. The Mensheviks worried that the spectre of workers’ power would “frighten” the bourgeoisie away from the revolution; the Bolsheviks wanted to build an independent working-class party so that the bourgeoisie could not hold the working class in lead strings.
Binh wishes to call these irreconcilable differences strategic rather than programmatic. Yet each had a diametrically opposed conception of the nature of the coming revolution. In one scenario the exploiters of the working class lead the revolution; in the other the workers lead the revolution against their exploiters. A cursory glance at the history of the conflict between these two factions shows that the Mensheviks’ line was “an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class” well before 1917. When a strategic difference becomes one of entirely different class orientations, then I think we can safely say that the strategic differences are also principled, programmatic differences—the kind that Lenin considered “split” questions.
Binh appears to be taking Trotsky’s pre-1917 “conciliationist” line (which Trotsky later repudiated) that the differences were not substantial enough (since both saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois”) for a split. After the Prague congress Trotsky attempted to organise the “August Bloc”, an effort to unite all the different factions of the movement. It began to collapse immediately after its first gathering. “The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy”, Trotsky later wrote of his policy of unity at any cost, “was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purposes of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party”.
Binh apparently rejects these conclusions. Perhaps his model is the August Bloc. This isn’t a guess. He says in his article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists”:
Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.
Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters.
First of all, is absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects without practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the “true vanguard”, to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing—organisations that had become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class. Secondly, a “united” socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project. It is one thing for leftists of different politics to “work together”—this has and will continue to happen. It is another thing to think that simply lumping forces together with diametrically different politics and methods of work will create any kind of functional, practical unity. Certainly that is one lesson of the Bolshevik experience worth preserving. That is not to say that broad socialist party independent and in opposition to the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a great advance if such a thing were possible in the United States today—what Binh proposes, however, would not produce such a result.
Viewed from a pre-1914 prism, the disagreements and organisational maneuvreing in the Russian socialist movement perhaps appear, as it does in Binh’s piece, as a tempest in a teapot: the differences were not “programmatic”, the disagreements are “exaggerated”, and so on. But the collapse of the Second International in 1914 and its capitulation to wartime chauvinism surely puts all of these disputes, as the did for Lenin, in a completely new light. From here, he suddenly realises that what he has been doing in Russian—attempting to draw organisational lines of demarcation between revolutionaries and reformists—is an international task. In 1918, as Europe begins to enter its own revolutionary ferment after the October Revolution, Lenin laments, “Europe’s greatest misfortune and danger is that it has no revolutionary party.” The founding of the Communist International was aimed at solving that problem.
Today we are very far from such considerations. There are no mass workers’ parties of any political stripe. Despite the growing crisis of capitalism and the re-emergence of struggle and revolutionary ferment, working-class organisations and the left remain weak internationally. There are no genuine revolutionary parties; indeed, there are no examples yet of successful new “broad-based” left parties. As revolutionaries, our task is not to turn our back on the project of building a revolutionary party, that is, a party of revolutionary workers, but to determine in what ways we can play a role in creating the conditions in the future where one can begin to take shape.
There are only two possible conclusions as to what is Binh’s purpose: either he is merely providing a “service” by pointing out how useless and damaging Building the Party is, and therefore saving countless activists from its deliberate falsehoods. Or Binh wrote this to make a particular case, about Lenin and “Leninism”, that there is no “Leninist conception of the party”, defined as one that organises only revolutionary workers, the vanguard of the class, and creates organisational lines of demarcation between itself and reformists. This framework would explain many of Binh’s points, for example, that there was no split in 1912, or his downplaying of Lenin and Martov’s difference over party membership. If this is indeed his, albeit weak, case, he should have gone about it in a less backhanded manner.
[Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review (www.isreview.org) and the author of The Meaning of Marxism (Haymarket Books).]